Recent murders associated with right-wing extremists have put the words “domestic terrorist” back into the American consciousness. In the last month, an anti-abortion activist gunned down Dr. George Tiller in Kansas, a white supremacist shot and killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and a pair of anti-immigrant activists were arrested for the murder of Raul Flores and his daughter Brisenia in Arizona.
The murders have come on the heels of a widely criticized report by the Department of Homeland Security, which described potential violence from people with extreme anti-abortion, anti-immigrant and white supremacist ideologies. Was the report accurate? And is the labeling of entire political groups and ideologies—such as the DHS report and the profiling of RNC protesters—an effective counterterrorism activity?
“There have been a lot of mistakes and problems with the way the so-called war on terror has been run domestically since 911,” former FBI agent Coleen Rowley said in an interview with the Minnesota Independent.
Rowley said the DHS report on right-wing extremism was wrong, but not for the objections that Republicans have raised.
“The reports contain almost no specificity but instead, make generalizations and stereotyped comments about large political or interest groups,” she said. “It’s true that individual loners or duos may be inspired by the extremist ideology stemming from any group, to include the ‘pro-life’ groups, but you need specific facts identifying the individual instead of stereotyped characterizations about the group.”
In a press briefing Thursday, Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano said the recent murders didn’t vindicate the report and said it was problematic.
“I don’t look at those murders as anything other than terrible crimes and tragedies,” Napolitano said, according to Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman. “I do think, as I’ve said before, that the so-called right-wing extremist report was not a well-produced product,” she said. “It could and should have been done better. We’ve already taken steps within the department to improve that situation.”
Rowley said the overly broad efforts such as the extremist report exacerbate the difficulties in identifying those loners or small cells of extremists.
“When looking for a needle in the haystack, massive ‘intelligence’ collection about the members of the groups only adds hay to the haystack and also chills exercise of First Amendment rights,” she said. “Members of the larger, mainstream group, if not alienated by being smeared, will be in the best position to identify the ‘true terrorist.’”
Indeed that was the case with the recent shootings In Arizona committed by members of an off-shoot of the anti-illegal immigration movement, the Minutemen. Shawna Fordes has been arrested in the murders and anti-illegal immigration groups say that they had forwarded information about Fordes to law enforcement after kicking her out of the Minuteman organization.
Rowley said that alienating these groups could prevent them from going to law enforcement when a troublemaker is identified.
Minnesota saw its share of generalized profiling at the Republican National Convention in September 2008.
“The worst recent example of this overbroad targeting, as well as surveillance and infiltration, would be that directed against the RNC Welcoming Committee and other peace/social justice protesters,” she said.
Eight members of the Welcoming Committee were charged with “furtherance of terrorism” under the Minnesota Patriot Act because of damage to property of over $1,000. Rowley said that this new definition of terrorism is wrong.
“‘Acts dangerous to human life’ is supposed to be the definition of domestic terrorism not just ‘property damage,’” she said. “The use of the looser definition in the ‘Minnesota Patriot Act’ which includes mere ‘property damage’ of $1,000 or more contributed to the misdirection of resources by law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the lead-up to the RNC.”
Attorney Jordan Kushner, who represented members of the RNC8, said charges were politically motivated. The terrorism charges were dropped, but not before having a chilling effect at the RNC protests.
“The fact that they were filed in the first place and pursued for a period of about eight months does show how much ‘terrorism’ is a political label,” he said.
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