April 29, 2021

IntelBrief: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Assesses Risk of Extremism in Government

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is slated to undergo a comprehensive review to identify and eliminate extremism from its ranks.
  • Within DHS, numerous agencies will be subjected to the review, including Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol, among others.
  • As promised, the Biden administration is taking an aggressive approach to combating the threat posed by domestic violent extremism and terrorism.
  • One challenge in conducting the review will be avoiding the perception of a politically partisan response to the insurrection at the Capitol. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is slated to undergo a comprehensive review to identify and eliminate extremism from its ranks. The move comes alongside a similar directive for the Department of Defense, which is also closely scrutinizing various forms of extremism within the U.S. military. The issue has assumed added importance following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, which included participation by both active-duty members of the military and veterans. Consequently, there is growing concern over the participation of military personnel, both active and retired, in various forms of domestic violent extremism in the United States. The percentage of active-duty military personnel and reservists implicated in domestic terrorism plots and attacks is also rising, according to analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Within DHS, numerous agencies will be subjected to the review, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Border Patrol, the Secret Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard. In February 2019, Christopher Hasson, at the time an active-duty Coast Guard lieutenant who worked at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C., was charged with weapons and drug violations; he was described as “a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect governmental conduct.” Hasson was motivated by white supremacy extremism. There have reportedly also been issues with members of the Border Patrol, who participated in private Facebook groups that included threats against Hispanic lawmakers. Given the nature of the work that Border Patrol and ICE are asked to perform, it is especially important that individuals expressing anti-immigrant sentiment are removed from their posts pending further investigation.

In announcing the review, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the ubiquity of domestic violent extremism and proclaimed, “We have a responsibility, given what we do, to ensure that that pernicious influence does not exist in our department.” The approach by the Biden administration stands in stark contrast to what occurred during the previous four years under President Trump, who consistently downplayed the threat posed by far-right extremists. Moreover, policymakers at the highest levels attempted to portray equivalence between violent far-right groups and acts of domestic violent extremism, and groups protesting police brutality and racial injustice or Antifa activities, despite largely non-violent protests and reportedly low levels of “anti-fascist violence.” The growth of domestic violent extremism in the U.S. has been further fueled by far-right groups, including formalized organizations like The Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, but also lone actors motivated by white supremacy extremism, conspiracy theories, and anti-government sentiment, as well as those motivated by a “salad bar” of ideologies.

One of the challenges in conducting such a review will be the perception that the U.S. government is being heavy-handed, or overreaching in response to January 6, and taking an unduly partisan approach to accountability; yet, this is a longstanding issue that the Capitol insurrection only punctuated. Additionally, the Biden administration, in prioritizing urgent action on a range of issues including climate change, the pandemic, infrastructure, and rebuilding international partnerships, will be loath to allow this effort to overshadow all aspects of the domestic agenda. Moreover, there are technical and legal issues at play as well, and it is reasonable to suspect that communication between those with extremist tendencies often takes place on private social media pages or chat rooms, and in ways that are protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment. The Biden administration has pledged to make resources available for training and education for government agencies as they attempt to deal with this issue. The internal U.S. government assessment of possible violent extremism within its ranks is consonant with President Biden’s promise to tackle the problem head on. The President has already tasked the Director of National Intelligence to conduct an assessment of the most pressing domestic extremism threats. The resultant report highlighted white supremacist organizations and anti-government militia groups as the most serious threats.