Police tape and flowers mark the site where a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.

Police tape and flowers mark the site where a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. Steve Helber / AP

FBI and Homeland Security Hit for Softpedaling White Supremacy Threat

Democrats press for details on budget and staff cuts during debate over hate crimes.

The August 2017 fatal clash between protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., “one of the most horrific hate crimes in the country,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said this week, “didn’t even make it in the FBI’s hate crime statistics.”

Scolding an FBI official at a June 4 hearing titled “Confronting White Supremacy”—the second in a month held by the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties—Maloney asked, “How can you have good policy if we don’t have good data?” 

Calvin Shivers, the FBI’s deputy assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division, replied that state and local law enforcement reporting to the Uniform Crime Reporting database is voluntary, and that often only “the most egregious” crimes such as murder are included. But the bureau, he added, is switching by 2021 to a system with “more granularity” called the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

He stressed that federal officials are working to better train field agents and local law enforcement in recognizing hate crimes, and that investigations of civil rights violations can “sometimes overlap” with probes of domestic terrorism.

The hearings were called by Democrats skeptical of the Trump administration’s recent shifts in emphasis at the Justice and Homeland Security departments in the politically dicey area of how much federal crime-prevention resources focus on domestic hate groups, as opposed to Islamic terrorists who sometimes have an overseas connection.

The divide between the parties emerged as far back as 2009, when the Obama administration’s Homeland Security Department published a report on “right-wing extremism” that Republicans bashed as political propaganda. Then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano “owes the American people an explanation for why… her own department is using [‘terrorist’] to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”

A more recent, February 2019 RAND Corp. report commissioned by Homeland Security and referenced at Tuesday’s hearing said that the mission of “countering violent extremism” deserved more funding and training of partners at the local level.

Chairman Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told witnesses from the FBI and Homeland Security that he was having trouble detecting a strategy for countering domestic extremism and expressed alarm at what he called a “misallocation of resources” in recent staff and budget cuts.

In 2018, there were 50 domestic extremist murders, all of which were committed by perpetrators with ties to right-wing extremists, and 78% of which were committed by white supremacists, Raskin said. Right-wing extremism is also responsible for 73% of extremist killings over the last decade, compared to 23% for Islamist extremism and 3% for left-wing extremism, he said. Yet the bureau’s own data show it has devoted 80% of field grants to stopping internationally inspired terrorism compared to 20% for stopping far right and white supremacists.

The Trump policy, he noted, has resulted in the disbanding of a group of analysts focused on domestic terrorism at DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, reducing the number of analytic reports on white supremacists.

Ranking member Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, as he did at the first hearing, expressed hope for a more bipartisan approach that is “agnostic on ideology.” He added, “I hope we can lay down attempts to score political points and best support our law enforcement officials.”

Drawing on May 15 testimony from George Selim, who ran DHS’s Office of Community Partnerships for the Obama administration, the Democrats asked DHS and FBI witnesses to explain why that office focusing on the domestic terror threat went from 16 full-time employees, 25 contractors and a budget of $21 million, to seven employees, no contractors and a budget of $2.6 million.

 “The Trump administration's decision to cut funding for efforts to prevent all forms of domestic extremism, and its continued use of harsh and discriminatory policies, illustrate that we cannot rely solely on the federal government’s leadership,” Selim testified last month. “Congress must authorize and appropriate funds to build partnerships for a comprehensive and holistic approach to prevention. Civil society, academic institutions, state and local actors, the technology sector and others have a role to play in preventing hate from manifesting, and to prevent it from becoming extreme and violent.”

The agency officials pointed to the April announcement by acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan of a new DHS Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention. “This new office supports the direction the president outlined in the National Strategy for Counterterrorism and will enable DHS to more effectively coordinate our resources and capabilities to better serve the needs of states and local communities,” he said. “By expanding the aperture of terrorism prevention to include targeted violence, DHS can help communities better protect themselves against a broader range of current and emerging threats. This new office will focus on moving beyond ‘whole of government’ efforts to ‘whole of society’ and give prominence to the needs and leadership of states and local communities.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., peppered the Homeland Security witness with questions about why the funds were cut, where they were diverted to, who’s in charge of the office, and to whom they report. “Actions speak louder than words,” she said. “The shift sends a signal that you really don’t care about this as much and are not making much of an effort.”

Elizabeth Neumann, assistant Homeland Security secretary for threat prevention and security policy, said the department is preparing a framework for prevention that will be a part of a larger departmental counterterrorism document.

Funding at $3 million for countering domestic threats has been “relatively static” since fiscal 2016, she said. The $8 million was reprogrammed for contractors, and $10 million of the previous total $21 million was a one-time two-year grant. Results of the grant are just coming in this summer, she said, and prove that “prevention does work.”

The question of funding prevention has “been controversial,” Neumann said, the result being recognition by “both sides” that the “dialog has been tainted.” The program has been “rebranded” a couple of times. Its new acting director is David Gerstein, who is two rungs below her on the org chart.

Yes, the Trump administration did not propose renewing the grant program, Neumann acknowledged, but the study’s results came too late for the fiscal 2020 budget cycle. “The secretary is very committed to working with Congress” on more funding, she said.