The mass killing of six innocent worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., is a loud wakeup call to government leaders to rethink and reorganize a domestic antiterrorism unit that was discredited, defunded, and largely disbanded after it wound up in a political firestorm in 2009.
Beefing up the unit—and taking seriously its detailed and urgent warning about a rising threat of domestic terrorism—should be a matter that political figures of every persuasion can agree on. Even in a capital wracked by partisan fighting, this should be low-hanging fruit.
It might even save lives.
The man who police say walked into the Sikh temple of Wisconsin firing automatic weapons at his unarmed victims was a disaffected military veteran covered in Nazi and hate-related tattoos. Wade Michael Page had made no secret of his extremist affiliations, playing in “white power” bands that published violent lyrics and performed at gatherings of racist skinheads.
Even before any of these details were known, as the first gruesome reports of Page’s rampage hit the news channels, Daryl Johnson, the former senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, turned to his wife and said: “This is likely a hate crime perpetrated by a white supremacist who may have had military experience.”
Johnson wasn’t just guessing. In 2009 he was the principal author of a DHS warning to local law enforcement agencies called “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The salient finding of the report was that extremist groups were growing in size and actively recruiting new members, driven by four factors: Obama’s election as the first black president, economic strains caused by the recession, disaffection among some veterans, and fear of new gun-control measures.
Radicals might try to recruit and radicalize people with military training, the report warned, noting that “the willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.”
The report triggered a political firestorm. “The piece of crap report issued on April 7 is a sweeping indictment of conservatives,” thundered right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin. Rep. Peter King, a past and current chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in Congress, demanded an investigation. Another congressman, Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida, pronounced himself “very offended and really disturbed that they would even say our military veterans, our returning war heroes would be capable of committing any terrorist acts.”
Johnson, a self-described lifelong conservative Republican, gun owner, and pro-life Mormon, stood by his findings. It’s not as if the evidence was lacking.
In 2006 a Pentagon investigator claimed, in a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that 320 white-power extremists were found to be serving in the military, of which only two were kicked out of service.
In 2008 a 56-year-old named James Adkisson stormed into a Tennessee church and began shooting, killing two and wounding seven. “This was a hate crime,” Adkisson said in a note found by the authorities. “Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate and House”—including Barack Obama, then a senator.
The evidence was everywhere that the DHS report was worth considering. And that evidence has only grown since then.
In January 2009, on the evening of Obama’s inauguration, a white supremacist named Keith Luke went on a rampage in Massachusetts, killing two black people and raping a third. Authorities said Luke’s plan was to conclude the night with an attack on a synagogue.
In April 2009 a 22-year-old named Richard Poplawski, who had been dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps, shot and killed three police officers during a four-hour siege at his home. Friends said he was afraid the Obama administration would take his guns away.
That same month, Florida National Guardsman Joshua Cartwright killed two police officers before being shot to death by police. He turned out to have militia-movement ties and, according to his wife, was “severely disturbed” by Obama’s election.
And in June of that same bloody year, James Von Brunn, a Navy veteran and dedicated Nazi who already had served prison time for attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board, walked into the Holocaust Museum and began firing, killing a security guard.
The evidence was everywhere that the DHS report was worth considering. And that evidence has only grown since then. But that didn’t stop conservatives from demanding—and getting—an apology from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Johnson’s domestic non-Islamic terrorism unit lost funding, he says, and “my team was dissolved. All training courses and briefings presentations were stopped. DHS leaders made it increasingly difficult to release another report on this topic.”
Where does that leave us?
“Since Obama took office, there have been nearly 20 extremist right-wing attacks and plots, including the killing of almost a dozen police officers in six separate attacks,” Johnson said in an interview last year. Among them was an attempt in 2011—foiled at the last minute—to plant a homemade backpack bomb at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in Spokane, Wash. The suspect in that case, Kevin Harpham, is an Army veteran trained in artillery.
And that’s the sorry place we were when one more madman—yet another disaffected vet, who literally recorded his threats and painted them all over his body—went on a deadly rampage.
Here’s hoping it’s not too late for DHS and members of Congress—including Republicans critical of the Obama administration—to take a deep breath, dust off that old report and think hard about whether America can afford to continue ignoring a clear and present danger in our midst.