In April 2009, federal intelligence officials issued a prescient warning to police departments around the country.
“Right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat,” experts in the Department of Homeland Security wrote. “These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists – including lone wolves or small terrorist cells – to carry out violence.”
It was one of DHS’ most explicit mentions of homegrown terrorists since 9/11, one with a direct connection to the military.
But the call to action was effectively buried after powerful Republican politicians and their allies in the right-wing media launched broadsides against President Barack Obama’s administration and Democrats, alleging that they had disrespected the men and women in the U.S. military while attempting to surveil and silence conservatives. The blowback shifted the debate away from how to actually address the threat and into another partisan public spectacle.
While the federal government, including the FBI, continued gathering intelligence, the episode turned the topic of right-wing extremism into political poison, according to former senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, hobbling any serious public discussion about how to deal with this emerging threat. The officials said the agency disbanded the unit that wrote the report and failed to adequately focus on white supremacy and domestic terrorism for years afterward.
During Donald Trump’s tenure as president, his rhetoric and refusal to clearly denounce white supremacists and other hate groups only encouraged what the analysts had warned about 12 years ago, experts say. Then, in one of his final acts in office, Trump repeatedly claimed that the election had been stolen from him, and thousands of supporters marched on the Capitol to prevent the results from being certified. Five people died in the ensuing riot, including a police officer.
It was an embarrassment for federal intelligence officials who failed to prevent violence that had been telegraphed online for months ahead of time. The aftermath has brought renewed national attention to the threat of right-wing extremism and crystallized the warnings in DHS’ 2009 intelligence report – including the explicit concerns about veterans.
At least 76 current or former members of the military are among the more than 820 individuals charged in connection to the Capitol riot, including 30 Marines and 25 Army veterans, according to a USA TODAY examination of court filings, news reports and other public records. Several have also been accused of being part of extremist groups, including a Navy veteran and supposed leader of the Oath Keepers, a far-right, anti-government paramilitary organization, who prosecutors say coordinated a group that attacked the Capitol.
President Joe Biden – who has said he decided to run for president after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 – vowed in his inaugural address to crack down on white supremacists. And last week he ordered law enforcement and intelligence officials, including those at DHS, to investigate the risk of domestic terrorism.
But his administration is already facing backlash that echoes the criticism from 2009, once again coming from Republicans and some of their supporters in the media.
Click here to read the rest of the USA Today story.