Close to home: how US far-right terror flourished in post-9/11 focus on Islam

Of note. Tragic irony:

The US government acted quickly after 9/11 to prevent further attacks by Islamic extremists in the US. Billions of dollars were spent on new law enforcement departments and vast powers were granted to agencies to surveil people in the US and abroad as George W Bush announced the war on terror.

But while the FBI, CIA, police and the newly created Department of Homeland Security scoured the country and the world for radicalized Muslims, an existing threat was overlooked – white supremacist extremists already in the US, whose numbers and influence have continued to grow in the last two decades.

In 2020 far-right extremists were responsible for 16 of 17 extremist killings, in the US, according to the Anti-Defamation League, while in 2019, 41 of the 42 extremist killings were linked to the far right.

Between 2009 and 2018 the far right was responsible for 73% of extremist-related fatalities in the US, while rightwing extremists killed more people in 2018 than in any year since 1995, when a bomb planted by an anti-government extremist killed 168 people in a federal building in Oklahoma City.

Despite the statistical dominance of far-right and white supremacist killings in the US, America’s intelligence agencies have devoted far more resources to the perceived threat from Islamic terror.

“The shock of 9/11 created this incredible machinery really, in the US and globally – the creation of entire new agencies and taskforce hearings, and all those sorts of things, that created blind spots,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, author of Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right and a professor at American University, where she runs the school’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab.

“Of course, they were also interrupting plots and warning of threats. So some of that was happening, but at the same time, this other threat was increasing and rising, and they weren’t seeing it,” she added.

In the last few years alone, a gunman killed 23 people in El Paso, Texas, after allegedly posting a manifesto with white nationalist and anti-immigrant themes online. In it he wrote that he planned to carry out an attack in “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”.

In February 2019, a US Coast Guard lieutenant who was a self-described “white nationalist” was arrested after he stockpiled weapons and compiled a hitlist of media and government figures. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2020.

Nine black church members were murdered in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2017, by a 22-year-old who confessed to the FBI that he hoped to bring back segregation or start a race war.

But successive governments have spent most of the last two decades putting the majority of their resources towards investigating Muslims, both in the US and abroad. In 2019 the FBI said 80% of its counter-terrorism agents were focused on international terrorism, with 20% devoted to domestic terrorism.

As the government pursued Islamic terrorism, the civil rights of Muslims in America were impinged, and many innocent Muslims suffered. More than a thousand people were detained in the months following 9/11, and thousands more questioned as mosques and Muslim neighborhoods were placed under surveillance. The number of hate crimes against Muslims in the US spiked in the immediate aftermath of the attack, and have remained way above pre-2001 rates in every year since.

“There was a lack of attention from authorities – resources – but some of the actual interventions that authorities made were Islamophobic. And so they fostered some of this Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment,” Miller-Idriss said.

Michael German, a former FBI special agent who specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations, said a disparity in the attention giving to alleged Muslim actors and white supremacists was growing even before 9/11.

After that attack, however, new laws, including the Patriot Act, gave the government extra powers to surveil and target Americans, while the justice department was given more power to investigate people with no criminal record.

German, who is a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program said these powers were mostly focused on Muslim Americans, while paying white supremacists little heed.

“[There was] a disparity between how the FBI targeted Muslim Americans who simply said things the government didn’t like, or were associated with people the government didn’t like, or the government suspected just because they were Muslim, and had never committed any violent crime, had never been engaged with any terrorist group versus failing to even document murders committed by white supremacists,” German said.

After the World Trade Center attacks, “a tremendous amount of resources were coming into the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the counter-terrorism work”, German said. “But that was all being focused on potential terrorism committed by Muslims.”

A justice department audit in 2010 revealed that between 2005 and 2009 an average of fewer than 330 FBI agents were assigned to domestic terrorism investigation, out of a total of nearly 2,000 counter-terrorism agents.

The decision to not focus as intensely on white supremacist or domestic terrorism wasn’t just a strategic one, German said. He said the influence of money and big business had a role, as industries lobbied lawmakers and even the FBI itself to instead pursue anti-capitalist and environmental protest groups.

“The FBI needs resources. And to get resources, it needs to convince members of Congress. And Congress works most effectively when there are wealthy patrons who contribute to their campaigns,” German said.

“So the FBI has to cultivate a base of support in the wealthy community, and how can they do that? Well, by going to corporate boards, and telling them, you know, the FBI needs more resources.

“And then of course, that gets the corporate boards a lot of influence over what the FBI does. And what those corporate boards were saying wasn’t that there are minority communities in the United States that are being targeted by white supremacists, what are you doing about it?

“They were saying: ‘Hey these [anti-corporate or environmental] protesters are a real pain and you know, there’s a potential they could become violent.’”

When the government and intelligence agencies sought to expand its collection of intelligence post-9/11, that gave corporations another bargaining chip, German said – further knocking white supremacy and the far right down the priority list.

“Giant corporations hold a lot of private information about Americans, and getting access to that information became important to the FBI, so pleasing those corporations became part of the mission.”

Alongside that issue is the fact that there are “lingering racism problems within the FBI”, German said, with the agency still a predominantly white and male organization.

“So that’s one end of the spectrum, the people who are either explicitly racist or implicitly racist. Because white supremacists don’t threaten their community so they don’t see it as a threat.

“The white male agent who goes home to a white suburban community doesn’t really see a lot of white supremacist skinheads causing problems in his community. So it becomes a lesser threat.”

In 2020 there were signs that more attention was being focused on the far right. The Department of Homeland Security said white supremacists were “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland” as it announced a report on threats in the US.

But that came just days after Donald Trump had told the extremist group Proud Boys to “stand by” during a presidential debate.

Trump was notoriously reluctant to condemn white supremacist violence, and his “both sides” comments after the Charlottesville riots were seen as legitimizing the far right. In April 2020, as the pandemic raged in the midwest, he told his supporters to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” after Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s Democratic governor, imposed stay-at-home orders. Hundreds of armed rioters duly stormed the Michigan state capitol. In October 2020 the FBI charged six people with allegedly plotting to kidnap Whitmer, who had been a target of Trump’s attacks for months.

The riot in Michigan could be seen as a grim preview of the events of 6 January, when a far-right movement that had been brewing for years spilled out in Washington DC and attacked the Capitol.

Joe Biden has been less reluctant than his predecessors to identify the danger to US citizens. In June Biden said white supremacists are the “most lethal threat” to Americans, and later that month his administration unveiled a sweeping plan to address the problem.

PW Singer, a strategist who has served as a consultant to the US military, intelligence community and FBI and is a fellow of New American, a public policy thinktank, said the growing threat of white supremacism in the US was too complex to blame just on a lack of attention from government intelligence agencies – “but it certainly didn’t help stop it”.

“Think of it as akin to a disease striking the body politic. The person was not only in active denial, deliberately avoiding the needed measures to fight it, but the normal defenses [used] against other like threats were not deployed.”

Trump may be gone, but the pandering of some Republicans to rightwing extremists seems unlikely to stop. As recently as August Mo Brooks, a Republican congressman from Alabama, defended a Trump supporter who carried out a Capitol Hill bomb threat.

“Although this terrorist’s motivation is not yet publicly known, and generally speaking, I understand citizenry anger directed at dictatorial Socialism and its threat to liberty, freedom and the very fabric of American society,” Brooks tweeted, hours after the man had parked close to the Capitol and supreme court and told police he had a bomb.

“The way to stop socialism’s march is for patriotic Americans to fight back in the 2022 and 2024 election,” he said. “Bluntly stated, America’s future is at risk.”

It’s a dangerous game, but with the rise of Trumpism and far-right extremism in conservative politics – which can be traced back to the Tea Party movement which demonized Barack Obama – it is one Republicans seem likely to continue.

“What was once the unacceptable extreme has become an accepted part of our politics and media,” Singer said.

“It is a hard truth that too many are unwilling to accept. It didn’t start on 6 January, but years before, where these extremist views were first tolerated and then celebrated as good for clicks, and then votes.”

Source: Close to home: how US far-right terror flourished in post-9/11 focus on Islam

Historical Fiction at the Supreme Court: The Census and Citizenship

Good critique:
A divided Supreme Court last week blocked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from adding an untested citizenship question to the 2020 census. The Court’s ruling is a victory for representative democracy over the Trump administration’s latest power play, which would have led to a dramatic undercount of the country’s noncitizen population, with substantial implications for federal funding and political representation. In the process of reaching the right outcome, however, the Court has rewritten history, with justices up and down the bench joining together to create an atmosphere of normalcy around a question that is anything but.

Coming into the Supreme Court after a series of decisive trial-court defeats, Donald Trump’s administration really had only two defenses for the citizenship question: first, that it would help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act on behalf of minority communities; and second, that the administration was simply “reinstating” a question that had a deep “pedigree” stretching back “nearly 200 years.”

The Court rejected the Voting Rights Act defense as a pretext. That was all the challengers needed legally, since the law governing federal-agency decision making requires the stated reason for an agency’s action to be the real reason. But the Court accepted much of the administration’s historical argument—which is wrong, as we explained in a law-review article based on research into centuries-old census instructions, mid-century statistical texts, and decades of congressional proceedings.

Most significant, Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion and the partial concurrences are littered with assertions that the Trump administration was trying to “reinstate” the citizenship question. Even justices who were otherwise skeptical of the administration’s scheme and seemed to have a better grip on the historical record—Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—referred repeatedly to “reinstatement.” That word obscures the nature of what the administration was trying to do.

Never in the 230-year history of the census has the complete-count questionnaire (or its equivalent) asked for the citizenship status of everyone in the country, as Ross proposed. When citizenship was asked at all, it was directed to small segments of the population, such as foreign-born men 21 or older (1890 to 1910) or foreign-born people (1930 to 1950), mainly to figure out how well they were assimilating into the United States. After the 1950 census, questions about citizenship or naturalization were confined to sample surveys that went to only a small percentage of households.

The Court acknowledged the change in census practice after 1950, but it mangled the details of the practice leading up to that point, incorrectly treating questions about “birthplace” and “citizenship” as equivalent and asserting that “between 1820 and 1950, the question was asked of all households.” The fact is that multiple censuses during that period had no citizenship question (1840, 1850, 1860, and 1880), and—as mentioned—those that did include one did not direct it at every person in a household. These various errors allowed the Court to ignore the ultimate conclusion it should have drawn from the history: The Trump administration’s gambit was unprecedented, not a return to form.

The majority opinion also soft-pedaled the Census Bureau’s decision to remove all citizenship and naturalization questions from the decennial census following the 1950 count. It is true, as the Court claims, that the bureau concluded that citizenship information had declined in importance to the government, researchers, and other users of census data by this time. But the bureau didn’t just get rid of questions that were unimportant—it overhauled its whole approach, because traditional practices were deficient in accomplishing the one thing the Constitution’s enumeration clause requires the government to do: count everyone in the country.

Traditionally, the federal government tried to do two things at once with the census: count all heads and collect other useful information. By the 1950s, the Census Bureau’s social-science skills had evolved sufficiently that it could evaluate how well it was doing its job, and it found that the second ambition was impeding the first; the count was missing millions while wasting resources. So the bureau stripped out extraneous questions from the main survey, including dozens of other “demographic questions,” as the Court called them. Census Director Robert W. Burgess explained the benefits of these changes to Congress in the lead-up to the 1960 census: “For a long time, the Census Bureau has believed that enumerators were being burdened with more instructions and work than they could effectively handle, with the result that both coverage and content suffered.

The majority similarly understated the Census Bureau’s resistance to proposals in the 1970s and ’80s that would have required it to assess everyone’s citizenship status. According to the Court, the bureau was concerned that such efforts “would discourage noncitizens from responding to the census,” and, in the words of a 1980 district-court opinion characterizing the bureau’s position, that those efforts would “inevitably jeopardize the overall accuracy of the population count.” During this period, Census Bureau Director Vincent Barabba warned that the “census is just not designed for” asking everyone’s citizenship status, and that doing so would erode “the credibility of the Bureau, and, more importantly, the credibility and public confidence in—and, indeed, the accuracy of—the figures embodied in the final census results.” Similarly, the bureau warned—in language from the 1980 case omitted by the Court last week—that “questions as to citizenship are particularly sensitive in minority communities and would inevitably trigger hostility, resentment, and refusal to cooperate.” The concern during this period, then, wasn’t some unspecified loss of accuracy due to “discouragement”; it was a full collapse of the census and everything it stands for, driven by widespread fear of, and anger toward, the government.In his partial concurrence, Breyer supplied some of this crucial context, but a majority made up of Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh overlooked it in ruling that the administration’s decision didn’t violate the Constitution’s enumeration clause. They asserted that citizenship questions have been “open, widespread, and unchallenged since the early days of the Republic.” This is preposterous. If “history matters”—as the conservative majority asserts—it must matter that Ross proposed to do something that has, in fact, never been done before. And it must matter that, for the past 70 years, the Census Bureau—the agency primarily charged with counting everyone—believed that citizenship questions and a whole host of other demographic questions didn’t belong on the decennial headcount, because they made it impossible to … count everyone. The Court thus sent the message that a citizenship question on the decennial census would be normal. The Court blocked the question because Ross lied about why he wanted it; but if he hadn’t lied, it would have been fine.

For more than a year now, the simple prospect of a citizenship question on the 2020 census has elevated vulnerable communities’ fears of the federal government. The Supreme Court’s ruling should help mitigate those fears somewhat. But the Court could have and should have taken a far stronger posture than it did, ruling not that the citizenship question was administratively imperfect, but that it was unconstitutional and un-American.

Source: Historical Fiction at the Supreme Court

Government surveillance of social media related to immigration more extensive than you realize | TheHill

Of note:

In June 2018, more than 400,000 people protested the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border. The following month saw a host of demonstrations in New York City on issues including racism and xenophobia, the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the National Rifle Association.

Given the ease of connecting online, it is unsurprising that many of these events got an organizing boost on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. A recent spate of articles did bring a surprise, however: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been watching online too. Congress should demand that DHS detail the full extent of social media use and commit to ensuring that the programs are effective, non-discriminatory, and protective of privacy.

Last month, for instance, it was revealed that a Virginia-based intelligence firm used Facebook data to compile details about more than 600 protests against family separation. The firm sent its spreadsheet to the Department of Homeland Security, where the data was disseminated internally and evidently shared with the FBI and national fusion centers; these centers, which facilitate data sharing among federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement, as well as the private sector, have been heavily criticized for violating Americans’ privacy and civil liberties while providing little of value.

In the meantime, Homeland Security Investigations — an arm of ICE createdto combat criminal organizations, not collect information about lawful protests — assembled and shared a spreadsheet of the New York City demonstrations, labeling them with the tag “Anti-Trump Protests.” And as Central American caravans slowly traveled north, DHS’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drew on Facebook data to create dossiers on lawyers, journalists, and advocates — many of them U.S. citizens — providing services and documenting the situation on the southern border.

As shocking as these revelations are, DHS’s social media ambitions are both broader and opaque. A recent report I co-wrote for the Brennan Center for Justice, based on a review of more than 150 government documents, examines how social media is used by four DHS agencies — ICE, CBP, TSA, and the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) — and describes the deficiencies and risks of these programs.

First, DHS now uses social media in nearly every aspect of its immigration operations. Participants in the Visa Waiver Program, for instance — largely travelers from Western Europe — have been asked since late 2016 to voluntarily provide their social media handles. The Department of State recently won approval to demand the same of all visa applicants, nearly 15 million people per year; this data will be vetted against DHS holdings. While information from social media may not be the sole basis for denial, it could easily be combined with other factors to justify exclusion, a process that is likely to have a disproportionate impact on Muslim travelers and those coming from Latin America.

Travelers may have their social media data examined at the U.S. border as well, via warrantless searches of electronic devices undertaken by CBP and ICE. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of device searches carried out by CBP jumped more than threefold; one report suggests that about 20 percent are conducted on American travelers. (ICE does not reveal its figures.) CBP recently issued more stringent rules, though it remains to be seen how closely it will follow them; a December 2018 inspector general report concluded that the agency had failed to follow its prior procedures.

ICE operates under a decade-old policy allowing its agents to “search, detain, seize, retain, and share” electronic devices and any information on them — including social media — without individualized suspicion. Remarkably, ICE justifies this authority by pointing to centuries-old statutes, equating electronic devices with “merchandise” that customs inspectors were authorized to review under a 1790 Act passed by the First Congress. This approach puts the agency out of step with the Supreme Court, which recently recognized that treating a search of a cell phone as identical to a search of a wallet or purse “is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.”

The breadth of DHS’s social media monitoring begs the question: Is it effective? It is notable that a 2016 DHS brief reported that in three of four refugee vetting programs, the social media accounts “did not yield clear, articulable links to national security concerns,” even where a national security concern did exist. And a February 2017 Inspector General audit of seven social media pilot programs concluded that DHS had failed to establish any mechanisms to measure their effectiveness.

Indeed, content on social media can be difficult to decode under the best of circumstances. Natural language processing tools, used for some automated analysis, fail to accurately interpret 20-30 percent of the text they analyze, a gap that is compounded when it comes to unfamiliar languages or cultural contexts. Even human reviewers can fail to understand their own language if it’s filled with slang.

We now know far more about the scope of DHS’s efforts to collect and use social media, but there is much that remains obscured. Without robust, ongoing oversight, neither the public nor lawmakers can be confident that these programs are serving our national interest.

Source: Government surveillance of social media related to immigration more extensive than you realize | TheHill