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Recent Murders Don’t Sway Napolitano on DHS Report

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/06/napolitano-sitting.jpgHomeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (dhs.gov)

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she doesn’t think the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller, a late-term abortion provider, and the shooting of a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum vindicate a controversial Department of Homeland Security report issued to law enforcement about rising right-wing extremism.

The shootings were not evidence of growing violent political extremism in the United States, Napolitano said at a Thursday press briefing in Washington. “I don’t look at those murders as anything other than terrible crimes and tragedies,” Napolitano said. Stepping up her criticism of the report, Napolitano added, “I do think, as I’ve said before, that the so-called right-wing extremist report was not a well-produced product. It could and should have been done better. We’ve already taken steps within the department to improve that situation.” She did not elaborate.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Released in April, the report from the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis warned law enforcement that white-power militias and other right-wing extremist groups might exploit the economic downturn and the election of the nation’s first African-American president. Conservative groups immediately denounced the report, contending it insufficiently distinguished mainstream political opinions on the right from incitements to violence.

Napolitano added a limited defense of the report for placing a warning about so-called “lone wolf” attacks — in which assailants who might be motivated by political extremism to commit acts of violence without detectable signs of supporting networks that can alert law enforcement to an impending crime — within an economic context. “The right-wing report correctly identified that the circumstances in the United States now, the down economy and the like, historically are the types of circumstances that can give rise to this type of activity,” she said. “That’s why it was pointing that out for local law enforcement.”

After the report first emerged in April, conservatives and civil libertarians objected to the prospect of the department stigmatizing conservative political speech as a security threat. Napolitano initially directed her own criticism of the report at its implications that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were at risk of being recruited to commit extremist acts, visiting with representatives from the American Legion to apologize to the veterans community. By contrast, she defended the report’s focus, saying “we don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence,” in an April 15 statement.

A footnote in the report defined right-wing extremism as “those groups, movements, and aherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.” In an interview with Fox News on April 17, Napolitano conceded, “If there’s one part of this report that I would rewrite … it would be that footnote.”

In late May, a gunman walked into church services attended by Tiller and shot him, apparently in response to Tiller’s provision of late-term abortion services to his patients. Progressives on cable news and in the blogosphere generally considered the homicide to be the sort of politically motivated violence warned of in the DHS report. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post’s Plum Line blog wrote that the report “now looks perfectly defensible, even reasonable.” Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, a critic of the report, added, “Prepare for DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s defenders to gloat about vindication.”

Less than two weeks later, James von Brunn, an elderly man with a history of racist and antisemetic writings, was arrested for firing a shotgun inside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall, killing security guard Stephen T. Johns.

Napolitano did not describe the report in terms of its political context at the Thursday briefing, instead portraying it as representing an alert to local law enforcement about a complex security risk. Such “lone wolf” attacks are “very difficult to stop and prevent,” Napolitano said, because “a lone wolf is, by definition, not planning with anybody, or doing something that would perhaps help them be intercepted before they actually act out.”

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