Although these right-wing extremists have posed a growing threat for years, federal investigators have been reluctant to publicly address that threat or to point out the movement’s longstanding strategy of infiltrating the law enforcement community.
No centralized recruitment process or set of national standards exists for the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, many of which have deep historical connections to racist ideologies. As a result, state and local police as well as sheriff’s departments present ample opportunities for white supremacists and other right-wing extremists looking to expand their power base.
In a heavily redacted version of an October 2006 FBI internal intelligence assessment, the agency raised the alarm over white supremacist groups’ “historical” interest in “infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel.” The effort, the memo noted, “can lead to investigative breaches and can jeopardize the safety of law enforcement sources or personnel.” The memo also states that law enforcement had recently become aware of the term “ghost skins,” used among white supremacists to describe “those who avoid overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.” In at least one case, the FBI learned of a skinhead group encouraging ghost skins to seek employment with law enforcement agencies in order to warn crews of any investigations.
That report appeared after a series of scandals involving local police and sheriff’s departments. In Los Angeles, for example, a U.S. District Court judge found in 1991 that members of a local sheriff’s department had formed a neo-Nazi gang and habitually terrorized black and Latino residents. In Chicago, Jon Burge, a police detective and rumored KKK member, was fired, and eventually prosecuted in 2008, over charges relating to the torture of at least 120 black men during his decadeslong career. Burge notoriously referred to an electric shock device he used during interrogations as the “nigger box.” In Cleveland, officials found that a number of police officers had scrawled “racist or Nazi graffiti” throughout their department’s locker rooms. In Texas, two police officers were fired when it was discovered they were Klansmen. One of them said he had tried to boost the organization’s membership by giving an application to a fellow officer he thought shared his “white, Christian, heterosexual values.”
Although the FBI has not publicly addressed the issue of white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement since that 2006 report, in a 2015 speech, FBI Director James Comey made an unprecedented acknowledgment of the role historically played by law enforcement in communities of color: “All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.” Comey and the agency have been less forthcoming about that history’s continuation into the present.
In 2009, shortly after the election of Barack Obama, a Department of Homeland Security intelligence study, written in coordination with the FBI, warned of the “resurgence” of right-wing extremism. “Right-wing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African-American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda,” the report noted, singling out “disgruntled military veterans” as likely targets of recruitment. “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.”
The report concluded that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” Released just ahead of nationwide Tea Party protests, the report caused an uproar among conservatives, who were particularly angered by the suggestion that veterans might be implicated, and by the broad brush with which the report seemed to paint a range of right-wing groups.
Faced with mounting criticism, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano disavowed the document and apologized to veterans. The agency’s unit investigating right-wing extremism was largely dismantled and the report’s lead investigator was pushed out. “They stopped doing intel on that, and that was that,” Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s tracking of extremist groups, told The Intercept. “The FBI in theory investigates right-wing terrorism and right-wing extremism, but they have limited resources. The loss of that unit was a loss for a lot of people who did this kind of work.”
“Federal law enforcement agencies in general — the FBI, the Marshals, the ATF — are aware that extremists have infiltrated state and local law enforcement agencies and that there are people in law enforcement agencies that may be sympathetic to these groups,” said Daryl Johnson, who was the lead researcher on the DHS report. Johnson, who now runs DT Analytics, a consulting firm that analyzes domestic extremism, says the problem has since gotten “a lot more troublesome.”
Johnson singled out the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association for their anti-government attitudes and efforts to recruit active as well as retired law enforcement officers. “That’s the biggest issue and it’s greater now than it’s ever been, in my opinion.” Johnson added that Homeland Security has given up tracking right-wing domestic extremists. “It’s only the FBI now,” he said, adding that local police departments don’t seem to be doing anything to address the problem. “There’s not even any training now to make state and local police aware of these groups and how they could infiltrate their ranks.”
A spokesperson for DHS declined to comment on the 2009 report or on the agency’s specific concerns about white supremacist and right-wing groups.
In 2014, the Department of Justice re-established its Domestic Terrorism Task Force, a unit that was created following the Oklahoma City bombing. But for the most part, the government’s efforts to confront domestic terrorism threats over the last decade have focused on homegrown extremists radicalized by foreign groups. Last year, a group of progressive members of Congress called on President Obama and DHS to update the controversial 2009 report. “The United States allocates significant resources towards combating Islamic violent extremism while failing to devote adequate resources to right-wing extremism,” they wrote. “This lack of political will comes at a heavy price.”
Critics fear that the backlash following the 2009 DHS report hindered further action against the growing white supremacist threat, and that it was largely ignored because the issue was so politically controversial. “I believe that because that report was so denounced by conservatives, it sort of closed the door on whatever the FBI may have been considering doing with respect to combating infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists,” said Samuel Jones, a professor of law at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago who has written about white power ideology in law enforcement. “Because after the 2006 FBI report, we simply cannot find anything by local law enforcement or the federal government that addresses this issue.”
Pete Simi, a sociologist who spent decades studying the proliferation of white supremacists in the U.S. military, agreed. “The report underscores the problem of even discussing this issue. It underscores how difficult this issue is to get any traction on, because a lot of people don’t want to discuss this, let alone actually do something about it.” Simi said that the extremist strategy to infiltrate the military and law enforcement has existed “for decades.” In a study he conducted of individuals indicted for far-right terrorism-related activities, he found that at least 31 percent had military experience.
After a series of investigations uncovered substantial numbers of extremists in the military, the Department of Defense moved to impose stricter screenings, including monitoring recruits’ tattoos for white supremacist symbols and discharging those found to espouse racist views.
“The military has completely reformed its process on this front,” said the SPLC’s Beirich, who lobbied the DOD to adopt those reforms. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t be the same for police officers; we can’t have people with guns having crazy ideas or ideas that threaten certain populations.”
Reforming police, as it turns out, is a lot harder than reforming the military, because of the decentralized way in which the thousands of police departments across the country operate, the historical affinity of certain police departments with the same racial ideologies espoused by extremists, and an even broader reluctance to do much about it.
“If you look at the history of law enforcement in the United States, it is a history of white supremacy, to put it bluntly,” said Simi, citing the origin of U.S. policing in the slave patrols of the 18th and 19th centuries. “More recently, just going back 50 years, law enforcement, particularly in the South, was filled with Klan members.”
Norm Stamper, a former chief of the Seattle Police Department and vocal advocate for police reform, told The Intercept that white supremacy was not simply a matter of history. “There are police agencies throughout the South and beyond that come from that tradition,” he said. “To think that that kind of thinking has dissolved somehow is myopic at best.”
Stamper said he had fired officers who expressed racist views, but added, “It’s not likely to happen in most police departments, because many of those departments come from a tradition of saying the officer is entitled to his or her opinions.” Whether the First Amendment protects an officer’s right to express racist, white supremacist views — or even to associate with organizations that endorse those views — is something that remains a subject of debate, Stamper said. “You can fire someone. Whether the termination will stand up under review is the real question.”
“Local, state, federal agencies, all to some extent have their hands tied, because it’s not necessarily against the law to be a member of a domestic hate group” said Simi, noting the military as the one exception because of its unique legal status. For instance, the U.S. government considers the KKK a hate group — but membership in the group is not illegal. That’s the case for all domestic hate or extremist groups, though authorities can choose to target their members under conspiracy statutes, Simi said.
Most police departments don’t screen prospective officers for hate group affiliation. The SPLC has reported that the number of these groups peaked at more than 1,000 in 2011, from less than half that in the late 1990s, though experts like Simi note that many of these groups “come and go” and membership between them is often fluid.
Although officers have been fired for expressing hateful views — sometimes to be re-hired by other departments, as happens regularly with officers accused of misconduct — some officers have also challenged those dismissals in court. Robert Henderson, an 18-year veteran of the Nebraska State Patrol, was fired when his membership in the Klan was discovered. He sued on First Amendment grounds and appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear his case. Last year, 14 officers in the San Francisco Police Department were caught exchanging racist and homophobic texts that included several references to “white power” and messages such as “all niggers must fucking hang.” Most of those officers remain on the force after an attempt to fire several of them was blocked by a judge, who said the statute of limitation had expired.
“All agencies, if they want to, can curtail this problem — the problem is that many do not,” said Jones, who has been tracking similar incidents following the 2006 FBI report and believes many more get buried behind the code of silence that often dominates police departments. “When somebody holds a belief that indicates that they do not see all Americans are worthy of equal protection under the law, it compromises their ability to be a police officer.”
According to the Counterterrorism Policy Guide, the FBI has the option to mark a watchlisted police officer as a “silent hit,” thus preventing queries to the National Crime Information Center, a clearinghouse for crime data accessible to law enforcement agencies nationwide, from returning a record that identifies the officer as having been flagged as a known or suspected terrorist. The document states that a “specific, narrowly defined, and legitimate operational justification” must be given in order to mark a KST’s entry as a silent hit. The suspect’s membership or affiliation with a law enforcement or military agency with access to the NCIC database is one of the specific justifications listed, implying that extremist infiltration is enough of a concern that the FBI has built-in protocols to prevent domestic terrorism investigations from being obstructed by members of law enforcement.
The FBI document also notes that in order to protect the safety of local law enforcement, suspects who are “violent or are known to be armed and dangerous” may not be marked as silent hits. It’s unclear how that standard applies to armed law enforcement personnel, especially since the FBI document singles out not only white supremacist groups for their ties to law enforcement, but also militia extremists and sovereign citizen extremists. While there is plenty of overlap between them, the last group, in particular, is characterized by deep anti-government ideology and the belief that “even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or ‘sovereign’ from the United States,” the FBI notes on its website. “As a result, they believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, or law enforcement.”
In a 2011 article, the FBI’s counterterrorism analysis section called sovereign citizens “a growing domestic threat to law enforcement.” In one 2010 incident, two Arkansas police officers were killed when 16-year-old sovereign citizen Joseph Kane fired on them with an AK-47 assault rifle after he and his father were pulled over for a routine stop.
A 2014 survey found that sovereign citizen extremists were perceived by law enforcement agencies as a top threat, ahead of foreign-inspired extremists. And a 2015 DHS intelligence assessment, written in coordination with the FBI, warned about the continuing threat sovereign citizen extremists pose to police officers.
The counterterrorism guide does not specify the conditions under which the FBI will notify local law enforcement agencies whose members may be under surveillance as silent hits. Michael German, a former FBI agent who specialized in domestic terrorism investigations, told The Intercept that such alerts are likely handled on a “case-by-case basis.” “Typically, if someone in the police department is suspect, unless it’s an extreme case of leadership, professional courtesy requires some sort of notification,” he said.
The FBI did not respond to a detailed series of questions sent by The Intercept about its knowledge of extremists’ presence in law enforcement agencies, but a spokesperson for the agency did comment on the practice of placing silent hits on law enforcement officers. “While a silent hit would keep a subject who is a law enforcement employee from knowing they are under scrutiny, it would be standard practice to let someone at the agency know that one of their officers was under investigation,” the spokesperson said.
Although the FBI’s counterterrorism guide prohibits watchlisting individuals in the Known or Suspected Terrorist File “based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment,” the document does not elaborate on what would constitute such activity. Nor does it state what specific actions on the part of officers would be serious enough to warrant inclusion in the watchlist. The document refers to the Terrorist Screening Center’s March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance, previously published by The Intercept, for additional details regarding the watchlisting standard. The FBI did not answer questions about what activities would warrant entry into the list.
Civil rights groups have denounced the Known or Suspected Terrorist database’s lack of transparency and the vague formulation of its standards. In a detailed analysis of the KST watchlist based on documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the ACLU observed that the goal of the list “is not law enforcement, but the surveillance and tracking of individuals for indefinite periods.” The April 2016 report characterized the watchlist as “essentially a black box — an opaque and expanding accumulation of names.”
A disproportionate number of Muslims have been included on the watchlist, and because the database is accessible to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies nationwide, the ACLU said, they are exposed to “unwarranted scrutiny or investigation by police.” That level of scrutiny has hardly been applied to white supremacists, however, even though the country’s first anti-terrorism laws, in the 1870s, were aimed at protecting black citizens from groups like the KKK, and despite the ongoing threat posed by these extremists.
“This is a fundamental problem in this country: We simply do not take this flexible, and forgiving, and exceptionally understanding approach for combating any other form of terrorism,” said Jones. “Anybody who’s on social media advocating support for ISIS can be criminally charged with very little effort.”
“For some reason, we have stepped away from the threat of domestic terrorism and right-wing extremism,” Jones continued. “The only way we can reconcile this kind of behavior is if we accept the possibility that the ideology that permeates white nationalists and white supremacists is something that many in our federal and law enforcement communities understand and may be in sympathy with.”
That sympathy might just be reflected by the election of a president who was endorsed and celebrated by the KKK, and who has been reluctant to disassociate himself from individuals espousing white supremacist views.
“This election, for white supremacists, was a signal that ‘We’re on the right track,’” said Simi. “I have never seen anything like it among white supremacists, where they express this feeling of triumph and jubilee. They are just elated about the idea that they feel like they have somebody in the White House who gets it.”
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