FBI Extremist Probe and Veterans
The revelation that the FBI’s investigation of white supremacists and militia groups included a focus on veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has prompted another round of outrage from the right wing blogosphere and talk radio—who seem completely unwilling to admit there could be a point to the investigation, and instead are distorting the situation into an “investigation of all veterans.” Which it is not.
Disclosure of the DHS memo this week has sparked controversy among some conservatives and veterans groups. Appearing on television talk shows Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the assessment, but apologized to veterans who saw it as an accusation.
“This is an assessment of things just to be wary of, not to infringe on constitutional rights, certainly not to malign our veterans,” she said on NBC’s Today Show.
The documents outlining Operation Vigilant Eagle cite a surge in activity by such groups. The memos say the FBI’s focus on veterans began as far back as December, during the final weeks of the Bush administration, when the bureau’s domestic counterterrorism division formed a special joint working group with the Defense Department.
A Feb. 23 draft memo from FBI domestic counterterrorism leaders, obtained by The Wall Street Journal, cited an “increase in recruitment, threatening communications and weapons procurement by white supremacy extremist and militia/sovereign-citizen extremist groups.”
The FBI said in the memo that its conclusion about a surge in such activities was based on confidential sources, undercover operations, reporting from other law-enforcement agencies and publicly available information. The memo said the main goal of the multipronged operation was to get a better handle on “the scope of this emerging threat.” The operation also seeks to identify gaps in intelligence efforts surrounding these groups and their leaders.
The aim of the FBI’s effort with the Defense Department, which was rolled into the Vigilant Eagle program, is to “share information regarding Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans whose involvement in white supremacy and/or militia sovereign citizen extremist groups poses a domestic terrorism threat,” according to the Feb. 23 FBI memo.
Michael Ward, FBI deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, said in an interview Thursday that the portion of the operation focusing on the military related only to veterans who draw the attention of Defense Department officials for joining white-supremacist or other extremist groups.
“We’re not doing an investigation into the military, we’re not looking at former military members,” he said. “It would have to be something they were concerned about, or someone they’re concerned is involved” with extremist groups. Mr. Ward said that the FBI’s general counsel reviewed the operation before it began, “to make sure any tripwires we set do not violate any civil liberties.”
If I honestly believed the FBI and DHS were focusing suspicion on all veterans, I’d be yelling about this louder than the demagogues are yelling now. But until I see some evidence that the focus is overly broad, I can’t join the chorus.