Violent attacks by right-wing groups and individuals have increased by 400% since 1990, and dramatically in the last five years, according to a new report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
When examined side-by-side with FBI reports on domestic terrorism, the data from this study shows that the FBI has been either grossly miscalculating, or intentionally downplaying, murders and violent attacks by right-wing extremists while exaggerating the threat posed by animal rights activists and environmentalists, who have only destroyed property.
SHARP INCREASE IN VIOLENCE AGAINST MINORITIES
Between 2007 and 2011, there was a sharp increase in the number of victims of right wing violence, according to the study, to the highest levels documented so far. On a broader timeline, the increase is even more dramatic.
There was a spike in both from injuries and fatalities in 2007, and those levels have remained constant through 2012. That’s approximately 190 injuries a year, and 30 deaths, due to right-wing violence.
The victims of this violence are not surprising. Approximately 65% of the attacks were directed against ethnic and religious minorities. And 14% of violent attacks were against people because of their sexual orientation.
As the author notes, this only includes crimes that were reported and could be directly tied to right-wing politics.
It’s possible that these numbers are actually much higher.
FBI DOWNPLAYS RIGHT-WING THREAT
This data is troubling on its own, but it is even more disturbing that as right-wing violence has increased, the FBI has frequently downplayed the threat.
For instance, an FBI intelligence bulletin dated January 28, 2010 is titled “White Supremacist Extremist Violence Possibly Decreases.” It notes that, based on data from the FBI and open source reporting, violence by racist groups declined from 2007-2009. In this period, the FBI identifies 40 injuries and 7 fatalities; in the same period, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center documented 599 injuries and 108 fatalities.
This is no anomaly. In my book Green Is the New Red, I combed through FBI terrorism reports, and the data sets the bureau uses to create them. I found that crimes by anti-abortion, racist, and militia groups were repeatedly absent.
The FBI has directed public attention elsewhere: in its chronological listing of terrorist incidents in the United States, the FBI says that in the three years after 9/11, every act of domestic terrorism, except for one, was the work of animal rights and environmental activists, including groups like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.
In that period, right wing violence resulted in 283 injuries and 71 deaths.
In contrast, the crimes by animal rights and environmental activists physically harmed no one.
MISPLACED PRIORITIES PUT LIVES AT RISK
Disproportionately focusing time and money on animal rights and environmental activists, while more serious threats are minimized, wastes government resources and puts Americans’ lives at risk.
This concern has been raised within the federal government and law enforcement. A 2012 Congressional report on domestic terrorism examined the government’s crackdown on animal rights and environmental activists, and asked members of Congress to question why laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act single out political activists as terrorists when they have not harmed anyone.
In the context of right-wing extremism, the report said, “the crimes committed by animal rights extremists and eco-terrorists cannot be compared to clearly violent attacks…”
These concerns have also come from the Justice Department’s own Inspector General. The Justice Department warned as early as 2003 that the FBI’s obsessive focus on animal rights and environmental activists, the “number one domestic terrorism threat,” would leave more dangerous threats unchecked.
In a written response to the audit, the FBI refused to shift its focus.
The FBI continues to train agents on the threat posed by animal rights activists, environmentalists, and anarchists, and lists lawful, First Amendment activity and low-level criminal activity (such as civil disobedience) by these groups as examples of domestic terrorism.
How do we explain the FBI’s misplaced priorities? Part of the explanation might be individual politics (as I’d wager most FBI agents lean more conservative than leftist). Part of it might be poor information gathering and reporting.
However, as the West Point report notes, we also need to take into consideration the nature of the victims:
“…some immigrant and minority communities,with a recent history in the United States, typically constitute a more vulnerable part of society: they have limited access to political power and economic resources and, as a result, are unable to secure severe sanctions against those threatening them; they are easy to identify and are likely to have contentious relations with law enforcement agencies. Thus, it is easy to understand why far-right elements might assume that attacking minorities will have limited potential costs in comparison to the costs of attacking other types of targets.”
And who are the targets of animal rights and environmental activists? Big Ag, the pharmaceutical industry, the energy industry. The most powerful corporations on the planet. Unlike minority groups, they do not have “limited access to political power,” they do not lack economic resources, and they do not have contentious relations with law enforcement (in fact they work very closely with them, and an entire industry of spy firms has risen to supplement those relationships).
The FBI’s priorities send a clear message that you can murder minority groups, and it will most likely be ignored. But if you are a member of those vulnerable communities, or if you effectively target the profits of multinational corporations, you may be listed as a domestic terrorist.
Years of manufactured hysteria about “eco-terrorism” have led to the normalization of unconstitutional surveillance, harassment, and entrapment of these movements. [As background on one of these plots, read Dean Kuipers’ recent article in Outside: "Honey Stinger: The FBI used an 18-year-old woman called ‘Anna’ to infiltrate an alleged ecoterrorism cell. Did she stop a bomb plot before it came off? Or did she launch one?]
Mike German is a former FBI agent, who worked undercover to infiltrate right-wing groups. He’s now a senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. He told me we need to be careful that this report isn’t used to expand these types of invasive tactics to other groups, even if they’re people you strongly disagree with.
“Hopefully this report will cause the FBI to re-examine its intelligence priorities to focus on real threats, and scale back invasive surveillance and investigative measures taken against Muslim-American communities, environmental activists and others where there is no reasonable evidence of wrongdoing,” he says. “My fear however, is that the FBI will instead use the report to broaden the number and types of groups it targets with suspicion-less investigations and unwarranted surveillance, and that will only violate more Americans’ rights.”
Instead, I think it’s clearly time for Congress to demand accountability, oversight, and an overhaul of the FBI’s domestic terrorism priorities. As President Obama prepares for the inauguration this weekend, it is time he addressed issues that he said were troubling to him as a U.S. Senator. To continue ignoring them is to invite further civil liberties violations, and potentially even bloodshed.