The U.S. government's counterterrorism center doesn't track white supremacists. Some think it should.
WASHINGTON — Earlier this week, the Justice Department indicted more than a dozen white supremacists in Alaska for a multitude of alleged crimes, ranging from narcotics trafficking to murder. The arrests came less than two weeks after a white supremacist in New Zealand shot and killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, highlighting what many see as a growing terrorist threat from white nationalism.
While government officials are starting to talk more about white nationalism as a terrorist threat, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the U.S. government’s nerve center for threat information, isn’t allowed to track such attacks. But now some retired senior counterterrorism experts are proposing to change that.
In a recent article for the Lawfare blog, Joshua Geltzer, a former National Security Council official; Mary McCord, who worked at the Justice Department; and Nick Rasmussen, who retired in 2017 as director of NCTC, advocated for a possible expansion of NCTC’s purview “to include threat analysis, information sharing and strategic operational planning for the domestic terrorist threat.”
NCTC reports to both the National Security Council at the White House and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; it is designed to generate timely analysis of the threats posed by international terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State using intelligence and information streams from across the government. While it has access to massive amounts of intelligence on terrorists, NCTC does not focus on threats that are purely domestic.
This is not the first time experts have argued the Office of the Director of National Intelligence be more involved in domestic terrorism. However, an expansion of the center’s mission would challenge existing norms, which dictate that NCTC covers foreign groups, while the FBI handles domestic threats, like white nationalism or ecoterrorists.
NCTC’s origins date back to January 2003, when the CIA’s Joe Augustyn, the first and only deputy associate director of central intelligence for homeland security, was crammed in a room with a few colleagues charged with figuring out what President George W. Bush could say in the State of the Union about how the government was planning on responding to terrorism overseas.
“Bush wanted to announce something, and we had nothing,” said Augustyn during a phone interview with Yahoo News.
That morning’s scrambling, less than two years after the 9/11 attacks, led to that evening’s announcement: the formation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which later became the NCTC.
NCTC occupies a unique place within the intelligence community: It does not conduct operations or collect information, but rather receives information from its partners, allowing it to analyze data from both overseas and within the U.S. borders. However, that excludes “intelligence pertaining exclusively to domestic terrorism,” according to an NCTC primer.
The reason the firewall exists has to do with the long-standing legal differences between gathering information on overseas targets versus those within the country, according to David Kris, a former U.S. assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division and now a partner at Culper Partners, a consulting firm. The “main investigative authority that is deployed against terrorists … is electronic surveillance,” Kris said, noting that the Supreme Court in 1972 concluded that domestic terrorists could not be surveilled without a warrant.
Part of the reason for the different standards between domestic and foreign surveillance, at least at the time, is that judges decided it was more difficult to gather evidence on foreign groups outside of U.S. jurisdiction, explained Kris.
Another complication is that “domestic terrorism” is not a specific crime in the United States — an issue that came up in 2015 when Dylann Roof killed nine black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., and many argued he should be labeled a terrorist. He was instead charged with a violent hate crime, among other offenses.
If bombs and not guns are involved, however, offenders can be charged under a small umbrella of terrorism related criminal offenses — though not simply “domestic terrorism.” For example, Cesar Sayoc Jr., who is accused of mailing bombs to popular media and political figures, was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. If he had used a gun, it’s unlikely it would have fallen under the same category.
Yet the issue of radicalization, experts say, is similar regardless of whether it involved white nationalism or Islamic extremism.
NCTC has “a great deal of experts with a general understanding of radicalization and how you counter it,” said Nate Jones, who worked on counterterrorism on the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama, and along with Kris, co-founded Culper Partners.
Having worked at the White House, he also suggested that bringing domestic terrorism under the umbrella of NCTC could raise its profile. “That [would] give it a higher level of attention,” he told Yahoo News.
FBI and state and local authorities are also routinely strapped for resources, and being able to do community outreach on domestic terrorism, supported by NCTC and the federal government, could allow for the kind of localized, specific attention different communities may need, depending on the different kinds of threats, according a report from the Rand Corporation.
“Many agree that local police departments are better positioned to collect domestic intelligence than federal investigators, although only a few police departments have the resources and public support to do so,” wrote Brian Michael Jenkins, Andrew Liepman and Henry Willis in a Rand report. “Counterterrorism is not just about daring raids and drone strikes. It is about the hard work of collecting and sifting through vast amounts of information” and “managing relationships.”
NCTC also has a presence across the country, giving it regional expertise. NCTC has representatives in 11 locations across the U.S., from New York to Seattle, and those officers work in tandem with the FBI and state and local authorities, according to a Department of Justice Inspector General report from March 2017. Therefore, not only would they have expertise on radicalization relating to terrorism with an overseas nexus, but would also have at least some level of familiarity with their region and local representatives.
Rasmussen, the former director of NCTC, has discussed the issue before, including in an interview with reporters in 2017 as he was preparing to leave office. While he noted that our “population of homegrown extremists” is “relatively small,” he said he feared their capabilities because of the extreme ease of acquiring weapons in the United States — a different reality than other nations with perhaps larger domestic terrorism issues.
NCTC’s current director, retired Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire, testified before he was confirmed that the center “provides support to FBI and DHS on purely domestic terrorism issues when assistance is requested,” potentially indicating an openness to helping with the topic when called upon.
However, despite the fact that NCTC doesn’t gather its own intelligence, the idea of allowing it to focus on purely domestic threats worried some former counterterrorism experts.
“The firewall that previously separated the domestic and foreign arenas before 9/11 has already become more blurred. I don’t think it should be diluted any further,” said Emile Nakhleh, a former senior CIA official who is now a professor at the University of New Mexico. He instead advocated “money and manpower” for the FBI to investigate “this violent phenomenon.”
Even so, that might not be sufficient to counter purely domestic threats, such as white supremacists, he argued.
“As long as the national leadership, including the president, does not recognize the danger of these groups or continue to minimize their threat, pervasiveness and divisiveness, law enforcement authorities will be hampered in their efforts to track, identify and apprehend potential domestic white supremacist terrorists.”
Augustyn, one of the CIA’s first and only homeland security experts, told Yahoo News the years following the Sept. 11 attacks were a mad scramble to figure out how to share information. For example, “[former CIA Director] George Tenet would ask, how many foreigners work in the nuclear regulatory commission — and I had to find out,” he said.
The CIA was aware of terrorism and the threat it posed, particularly after embassy bombings in East Africa in the late 1990s and the attack on the USS Cole, but protecting the homeland was a new mission. Since then, Augustyn argues, the intelligence community has gotten much better at sharing information with the FBI, but expanding that cooperation to domestic terrorism would be something new.
“If NCTC starts to look at white supremacy, hate crimes… I would be very cautious about that,” he told Yahoo News. “To me it’s opening Pandora’s box.”
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