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Controversial '09 DHS Rightwing Report Author Responds to Critics

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Daryl Johnson was the main author of a controversial 2009 law enforcement report entitled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment. It was hailed by some as prescient trend analysis and condemned by others as a politically motivated hit piece. It was one of many reports Mr. Johnson worked on as a former senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) during his tenure there from August 2004-April 2010. At DHS, Mr. Johnson wrote numerous sensitive intelligence reports and briefed congressional staff; intel analysts and law enforcement. Previously, he was the subject matter expert on domestic right-wing extremists at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF). He is now the owner of DT Analytics - a private consulting firm that monitors domestic extremist activity within the U.S. He received no compensation for this interview and there were no preconditions on questions.

In previous interviews in the wake of the 2009 controversy, another DHS official was made completely available by the agency without any precondition other than that he not be identified. He disputed the contention that changes to the I&A Unit were political in nature and stated at the time the unit was "going through a planning process for restructuring and rethinking how it produces products," but declined to respond specifically about the frequency or titles of any subsequent radicalization reports, or of the continued existence or configuration of specific offices with relevant analytic tasks. He did say that irrespective of whether or not a particular analytic branch still existed, "the focus on violent extremism is still a priority" and noted future efforts would materially involve fusion centers. These state based centers are partnerships by federal, state and local officials to coordinate extremist information collection and analysis.

This week, "DHS officials told NBC News that the domestic intelligence division of DHS was merely reorganized. And they say they are tracking the problem as closely as ever, but see no signs it is getting worse." The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism recently welcomed an invitation, without remuneration or precondition, to consult in person with DHS and its partners of its own findings which, like other analysts, point to significant recent activity involving both domestic rightwing extremists and homegrown radical Muslim Salafists.

Interview
Did you have a political agenda when writing the DHS Rightwing Extremism report?

No. My team and I analyzed the entire spectrum of extremist movements within the United States. Our work was all about identifying extremist threats, understanding the radicalization process and informing law enforcement of emerging extremist trends in the U.S.

Do you have any political antagonism towards conservatives, military veterans or religious people?
Absolutely not. I am a conservative. I'm married, have children and am a lifetime third generation registered Republican. I have military veterans in my extended family. I'm also a Mormon. I respect people of all faiths. I feel so strongly about our religious freedoms, that I served two years as a missionary for my church.

Would you consider yourself prolife?
Yes. I believe in the sanctity of life including the preborn.

Do you support a broad right to individual gun ownership by competent non-felons?
Yes, I am a gun owner myself and enjoy target shooting and experienced game hunting in my youth.

Do you support a limited federal government and broad autonomy for states?
Yes, but I believe there is an important role for federal law enforcement.

Under which administration was this research actually started?
The research for this report began in 2008 under the Bush Administration.

What do you say to people that said your report was a political "hit job" against conservatives?
The report was not politically motivated. It was researched over a long time period, but put together in a relatively short period of time. Hence, some of the language could have been better worded. But I stand by its core analytical judgments. I regret that so many people took things out of context, mischaracterized the report and used it to orchestrate political attacks against President Obama and his administration.
There was also a wide range of support that went unnoticed but included groups as diverse as law enforcement officers and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as People for the American Way, and the National Abortion Federation.

Why interview now?
Obviously, I couldn't discuss this with the media while employed at DHS. It took me a year after leaving to finally decide that this was truly the right thing to do. I also wanted to give DHS adequate time to determine whether or not it wanted to reconstitute the domestic non-Islamic terrorism effort. It never did.
Since Obama took office, there have been nearly twenty extremist rightwing attacks and plots, including the killing of almost a dozen police officers in six separate attacks. There have also been militia plots in places like Alaska and Michigan that targeted government officials such as a judge and police. Package bombs were mailed in the DC area. In recent months we had three sovereign citizen related shootings in Florida, Arizona and Texas.

How many people worked on your team?
Six worked directly for me with two others in support roles.

How many analysts at DHS worked Muslim extremism issues?
In 2008, there were close to 40. A year later that number had decreased to around 25. There were additional analysts working other topics such as critical infrastructure, border security and weapons of mass destruction.

How does the threat from radical Muslim extremists in the U.S. compare with that of right wing domestic extremists?
During the past 10 years there have been five successful attacks in the U.S. by Muslim extremists, but in the last three years there have been 20 attacks attributed to domestic right wing extremists and the number of fatalities is about equal between the two. There were more firearms possessed by the Hutaree [an alleged extremist] militia than by all 200 of the Muslim extremists arrested in the U.S. since 9/11.

Do you include the mass shooting incident involving Congresswoman Giffords by a seemingly mentally ill assailant in that tally?
No. The suspect arrested for the 2011 Tucson shootings does not appear to have an ideological motive for the attack.

Did you receive any feedback or responses from DHS stakeholders?
We received about two dozen formal feedback forms from DHS stakeholders concerning the rightwing extremism report. The feedback was mixed - positive, negative, and neutral. The vast majority of individuals who submitted feedback on this report were from U.S. military members who are not traditional customers of DHS information or reports.

How did your analytic team differ from other agencies covering the same topic?
Our mission was to identify potential terrorists, assess their level of threat and notify law enforcement when we noticed something of concern. We looked at extremists who embraced belief systems that were known for advocating violence and criminal activity, but may not necessarily be currently engaging in such activity. We were responsible for understanding the radicalization process - how someone evolves from a peaceful, law-abiding person to an individual who commits crime or acts of violence. We also provided an alternate voice to the FBI. It is very important to have alternate voices weighing in on issues of interest within the intelligence community. That way, the intelligence community doesn't get caught up in "group think" or inaccurate judgments. That voice is no longer there.

Upon release, what types of criticism resulted about the report?
Most of the criticism focused on the definition of rightwing extremism and my statements concerning returning military veterans.

Who criticized the report?
The report had upset many conservatives and veterans organizations. Some believed it was a deliberate attack on their beliefs and way of life.

You received criticism about returning military veterans, was it deserved?
I honor and respect our nation's veterans. They are sacrificing their time, talents and lives each and every day to keep our country safe and secure. For that, I am extremely grateful. I have family members who served in the military. That said, unfortunately there are those who would prey upon our military veterans and attempt to recruit them into joining extremist causes such as white supremacist groups, militias and the sovereign citizen movement.

What about the American Legion's criticism?
I took the American Legion's criticism of the report very seriously. However, over the ensuing months as DHS was writhing in the aftermath of the rightwing extremism report controversy, it was disturbing to see sovereign citizens and militia members holding extremist meetings, bogus political elections and the convening of kangaroo courts at American Legion facilities in New York, Florida and elsewhere - apparently with the full support and backing of the American Legion. When I saw this information, I was in disbelief.

In hindsight, would you change anything about the report?
Certainly, anything could be better written in hindsight. I wish we could have worked on a better definition of rightwing extremism. I wish some of the other wording in the report would have been written more clearly and concisely.

What happened at DHS as a result of the criticism?
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.

Why would DHS leaders dissolve your team and stop these analytic activities?
The subject had become too politically charged. As a result, DHS leaders adopted a risk adverse approach toward this issue. Perhaps they thought it was a matter of organizational preservation.

Do you think the dissolution of your unit that you discuss has negatively affected state and local law enforcement?
Certainly. There is one less agency to assist state and local law enforcement with this growing and dangerous problem at a time of heightened activity.

Why did you leave DHS?
I could no longer effectively do my job. New processes made it increasingly difficult to get any work accomplished.

Have the conditions which affected your conclusions changed since the report was issued?
No. The factors have remained the same - the economy remains sluggish and uncertain; unemployment hovers around 10 percent nationally; Obama is still President; and the 2010 Census results show a changing demographic in America shifting away from a predominantly Caucasian nation.

Has the leak had a chilling effect on the analyst community?
Within the intelligence community at-large, I don't think so. Inside the Department of Homeland Security, I believe it did. Other DHS analysts saw what happened to us - saw leadership backing away from supporting the report and those responsible for writing it. Many left the agency as a result.

Was a revised version of the report ever disseminated as promised?
There was an attempt to rewrite the report that basically removed some of the controversial language such as the definition, the terms "rightwing" and "disgruntled veteran". Nevertheless, all of the main points, primary themes and analysis remained the same. It was never disseminated.

Why was your work important? Do any other agencies replicate what you were doing?
My unit at DHS was unique in that we conducted trend analysis of domestic non-Islamic extremism in the United States. We were also congressionally mandated by statute to study the radicalization phenomena. We were the only analytical unit in the intelligence community doing this type of work from a purely domestic non-Islamic perspective.

How does the attack in Norway affect us?
It should be a "wake up call" for our nation's leaders. From a U.S. government perspective, our leaders are not really concerned about this issue. They appear to be downplaying or outright dismissing the threat from domestic non-Islamic extremists. There is an overall lack of adequate resources at the local, state and Federal level to effectively analyze and assess the vast number of domestic extremists who are likely on the verge of violence in this country. We are vulnerable to a Norway-style of attack - lone extremists using small arms and improvised explosives to carry out devastating attacks with little effort or formalized terrorist training. It should also give pause to those who are engaging in overly heated political rhetoric for personal gain.

This interview has been edited for length, but not content.