President Biden was sworn into office Wednesday under the shadow of the Jan. 6 insurrection with a pledge to take down the kind of extremists who took over the Capitol. To help lead that effort, he has tapped a distinguished veteran of the War on Terror—an appointment that raises the question of whether the new administration will draw from a disastrous conflict with jihadists to confront a much different threat from far-right terrorists.
Russ Travers spent four decades in the intelligence and security apparatus, rising to become acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Former President Donald Trump ousted Travers from that position in March as part of a purge of the intelligence agencies. Travers’ allies say he was ousted for trying to reposition the NCTC, a key creation of the post-9/11 security state, to analyzing domestic terror. They describe him as an energetic and often contrarian figure who has put in the time in recent years to understand a resurgent threat that the post-9/11 counterterrorism apparatus neglected.
Last week, Biden announced that Travers will return to government service, this time as his deputy homeland security adviser. Notably, Travers’ boss, White House Homeland Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, is a former deputy energy secretary with expertise in nuclear weapons and Russia, not terrorism, teeing up Travers for an important portfolio. “Russ will be an essential leader on DVE [domestic violent extremism] issues,” said a source familiar with his new job, though not the only point person on the issue.
But some worry that it will be natural—indeed, human—for Travers to apply his post-9/11 experience to far-right and white-supremacist terror. That would be a disaster, they warn, both for the Constitution and for success. With debate underway amongst Democrats over new domestic terrorism statutes, the path Biden chooses is likely to define his early tenure as president.
“War-on-terrorism tactics aren't the solution to our current problems. In many ways, they are a cause of them,” said Michael German, a retired FBI special agent who arrested white supremacists in the 1990s, and who spoke generically and not about Travers particularly.
Travers has marinated in the War on Terror, holding multiple positions in NCTC before becoming its acting director. He’s held other jobs within the office of director of national intelligence, the National Security Council, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Not long after Trump appointed him acting director in August 2019, Travers began speaking publicly about a threat that NCTC largely did not address: domestic terrorism, something that by bureaucratic design was in the FBI and Department of Homeland Security’s purview instead. Travers’ interest resulted in a September 2019 conference on domestic terror; one of the driving forces behind the conference, Clare Linkins, recently the NCTC executive director, is now senior director for counterterrorism on Biden’s National Security Council. At a think-tank speech that November, Travers observed that the U.S. was increasingly seen as an “exporter” of far-right terror, as evidenced by events like the Christchurch mosque murders, and contended that such extremism was unfortunately becoming a a global movement.
George Selim, a former DHS official now with the Anti-Defamation League, recalled Travers soliciting his views over the past several years seeking to get up to speed about far-right and white supremacist violence. “He’d look at all our analysis,” said Selim. “He was curious about this. I had those conversations first-hand. He really wanted to understand and contextualize the threat picture, given the increased nature of the threat of extremism in the homeland.” Selim said it was valid to be concerned about a longtime counterterrorism official adopting a 9/11-era framework for the threat of far-right terrorism, but he considers Travers "a knowledgeable, fact-driven person who is looking for what worked and its applicability."
Travers has been at times prescient about far-right terror. In an August interview, he told Yahoo News’ Sean Naylor that such terror was likely should Trump lose the election. Travers considered it absurd to change the subject to comparatively marginal instances of left-wing violence, as Trump did, as the greater danger from the right made it appear like “night and day.”
He’s also made some questionable statements along the way. One of his themes after his firing has been that “Americans should think twice before undoing any” of the post-9/11 security apparatus. In an article for Foreign Affairs, about the continued relevance of counterterrorism Travers portrayed “a much longer fight ahead,” including with white supremacists at home. He portrayed the current terror threat as one from “people inspired by radical Islam but also from non-Islamist extremists,” although the available data points to a far greater threat from those “non-Islamist extremists.”
Even after acknowledging the threat from “white supremacists, who account for most of the recent terrorist violence in the United States,” Travers judged that “[r]ight-wing extremism is probably still best characterized as a fringe phenomenon, but it is a fringe that is growing, and it is a fringe that has the megaphone of social media.”
It was an alarming statement to read after Dylann Roof, Charlottesville, the Tree of Life Synagogue, El Paso and a summer of cars ramming into Black Lives Matter protesters. Four days after Travers’ piece, 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse drove to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with a rifle and shot three people protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
The Biden team declined to make Travers available for an interview. But some who have worked with him consider that line an unfortunate but unrepresentative choice of words.
“I don’t know if post-Jan. 6 he’d say it’s fringe,” said Elizabeth Neumann, who until April was DHS’ counterterrorism chief and who has known Travers for 15 years. “He was the one that had the guts to encourage the lawyers at NCTC to look at how NCTC could help DHS and FBI in the fight against domestic terrorism. Historically, the presumption has been NCTC, like the overall intelligence community, cannot touch anything inside the homeland. He had the lawyers go study it and figure out a way within certain aspects of their authority to help us with the fight.”
Neumann suggested that such actions, like his willingness to address domestic terror, got Travers fired. “Multiple times he stuck his neck out to do the right thing in the Trump administration,” she said, “and it caught up with him and he was pushed out.”
Nick Rasmussen, a former National Counterterrorism Center director himself, doubted that Travers would simply cut and paste the post-9/11 template onto a much different challenge.
“I look at Russ as being an ideal person for this position right now, because he knows where the seams are, where we’re not as equipped to deal with the more pressing challenges,” Rasmussen said. “Russ is sometimes a bit of a contrarian by nature, ‘don’t pat ourselves on the back too much,’ and a skeptic’s eye is a useful thing right now—do we have it right, can we rely on tools as we’ve developed them in the past? I think his answer would be to say no.”
But Travis has been less skeptical about the American effort against jihadi terrorists. He contends that “the United States’ post-9/11 counterterrorism effort has been nothing short of extraordinary,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. Yet post-9/11 counterterrorism cost $6 trillion, killed at least 800,000 people and created at least 22 million refugees, all to see al Qaeda give way to the far worse so-called Islamic State, both of which persist today. The War on Terror normalized the militarization of society, securitized American politics, and progressively damaged important legal and Constitutional safeguards protecting all Americans from invasive law enforcement and intelligence access to their lives. And it created an atmosphere of domestic paranoia focused on internal enemies, untrustworthy elites and dangerous nonwhites. All of that contributed to today’s explosion in right-wing violence. Travers acknowledged elsewhere in his piece that “there are far more radicalized individuals now than there were on September 11, 2001, perhaps by a factor of three or four.” An expansion of a problem that a policy is supposed to solve is typically considered failure, rather than “extraordinary,” but the War on Terror is a security bureaucrat’s perpetual motion machine.
“Many of those pushing to apply war on terrorism tools to address white supremacist violence in the U.S. overstate their success in quelling Middle Eastern terrorist groups, which are larger, more numerous, and widespread across the world since 9/11. Worse, many of their tactics sowed racist hostility toward Arab and Muslim Americans at home, increasing social divisions that put many in law enforcement and the military on the same side as white supremacists and nativist militant groups on issues of security and immigration,” noted German, now with the Brennan Center for Justice.
It’s not clear if Travers supports a domestic-terrorism law. Travers’ public writings provide some reason to think he looks skeptically upon formally designating domestic organizations as terrorists similar to international-terror designations—a key component of a domestic terror law some liberals are urging Biden to adopt. He wrote that it would be “of questionable legality for amorphous domestic groups.” But two people who know Travers said they didn’t know if he favors one.
Daryl Johnson is a longtime analyst of far-right extremism, and he favors a different approach. As far back as 2009, Johnson, a DHS analyst, assessed that the “economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.” A Republican backlash led to Obama administration capitulation, and it was the beginning of the end for Johnson at DHS. Johnson remains an analyst of domestic far-right and white-supremacist extremism and said he’s unfamiliar with any work on the issue that Travers has contributed.
What the administration needs to do now, Johnson argued to The Daily Beast, is revitalize a local-police training program against domestic extremism known as SLATT, which he called “the best training I’ve attended in my career.” States need to enforce laws against illegal militias—that is, every militia not controlled by the state—and social and religious organizations need to have “kind of like a rehab program” for those detoxing from conspiracy theories like QAnon. “Using our churches, our veterans groups, we need to have a program to help talk about this subject and persuade people that extremism and violence is toxic – it affects your health [and] your mental stability,” he said.
As well, Johnson added, combating far-right violence isn’t just a criminal matter. “You can go after them civilly,” he said. That’s what a nonprofit called Integrity First for America has been doing since Charlottesville.
After the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions opted against conspiracy charges for the organizers of the deadly 2017 march, Integrity First for America filed suit against the event’s leaders to target their money. They relied on statutes like the Reconstruction-era Klu Klux Act of 1871 passed to protect recently emancipated people from vigilantism. The case is expected to go before a Charlottesville jury in the fall—just a few blocks from Heather Heyer Way, even—but it’s already taken tens of thousands of dollars from far-right leaders in court fees and fines. Richard Spencer said the case had been “financially crippling” during a hearing in June, according to court papers.
“If we as a small nonprofit can take on these white supremacists and neo-Nazis in court and financially cripple Richard Spencer—his words—using civil litigation, imagine what can be done by the Justice Department, criminally and civilly, using the current tools that they have,” said Amy Spitalnick, Integrity First for America’s executive director. “We’re doing this already. It’s working. Use us as a model. Use our case as validation that this strategy works.”
None of it involves a domestic War on Terror. It involves, as German and others have pointed out, the will to challenge the practitioners of white terror politically, socially and legally, rather than securitizing a fundamentally political problem. With the new administration underway, Biden and key aides like Travers face a momentous choice, as does the new leadership of the Justice Department.
“Many of us were working successful domestic terrorism cases against violent white supremacists long before the al Qaeda attacks, using traditional law enforcement tools that strengthened rather than undermined the rule of law and American values,” said German. “The failure of the FBI to use these tools to greater effect against violent white supremacists and far-right militants over the last two decades was a choice. It prioritized investigations against far less violent groups like animal rights activists, environmentalists, Standing Rock water protectors, and Black Lives Matter protesters, creating greater social divisions that white supremacists and conspiracy theorists exploit.”