Some of President-elect Donald Trump’s most controversial cabinet nominees face Senate confirmation hearings this week, but one top adviser will not have to be approved by the Senate: Thomas Bossert, who will serve as the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. Bossert will occupy a powerful position in the White House, though little is known about his current political positions. The few indications of his political leanings that are available are not reassuring; for example, Bossert retweeted an Islamophobic Twitter post in 2015 — a choice that could potentially foreshadow the incoming administration’s homeland security policies.
Unlike many top Trump aides, Bossert maintains a low public profile, but his previously unpublicized retweet raises concerns about his willingness to promote anti-Muslim rhetoric. In the hours following the Paris attack in November 2015, Bossert retweeted a post from former NSA official and conservative columnist John Schindler that read: “The liberalism I was raised in was not a societal death-wish. If you think political Islam is a plan for progress or diversity, get help.” (Schindler has also, however, tweeted statements denouncing Trump’s Muslim ban and praising Muslims who fight against ISIS.)
Robert McCraw from the Council on American-Islamic Relations said he found the tweet to be concerning, especially in the larger context of the people Trump is surrounding himself with. “Bossert’s retweet is just another troubling example of the Trump administration’s comfort in mainstreaming Islamophobic messages,” he told me in a phone interview. “A number of the Trump administration’s national security, homeland security and intelligence appointees and nominees express a deep fear and mistrust of Islam and Muslims.”
The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Trump has proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States, and a process of “extreme vetting” that would by design disproportionately impact Muslims. His advisers have at times seemed like they are attempting to one-up each other in anti-Islam rhetoric.
Bossert will serve as an equal-ranking counterpart to Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser and one of the president-elect’s closest confidants. Flynn has been extensively scrutinized by journalists for his history of Islamophobic statements, though Bossert remains a relatively unknown quantity. His retweet of Schindler, however, suggests he is at least comfortable with the type of anti-Muslim rhetoric used by Trump and Flynn. As homeland security adviser, he could push Trump to revive some of the discriminatory policies carried out by George W. Bush’s administration at the height of the global war on terror.
In a statement announcing Bossert’s appointment in late December, the Trump transition team highlighted a 2007 report Bossert coauthored during his time as deputy homeland security adviser to President Bush. The National Strategy for Homeland Security of 2007 lays out priorities for law enforcement for the year, and praised fusion centers and intelligence-led policing. The report is an important window into the kind of advice Bossert may give Trump, particularly considering the relative lack of recent public statements he has made and the fact that he won’t have to go before the Senate.
Now nearly a decade old, the report is most remarkable in revealing how little has changed in the Republican approach to homeland security — a mindset shared by many Democrats as well. For one, the report called on Congress to make a controversial bill called the 2007 Protect America Act permanent. The ACLU at the time referred to the bill as the “Police America Act,” because it gave the government broad eavesdropping power with virtually no oversight. That act was replaced in 2008 with the FISA Amendments Act, which had many of the same problems.
In addition to calling for increased surveillance powers, the report praises fusion centers — hubs that were created after 9/11 to facilitate increased intelligence sharing between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement. Even at the time, civil liberties groups criticized fusion centers as potential areas of concern for privacy issues. The ACLU in 2007 criticized fusion centers for their excessive secrecy, their reliance on corporate partners and the massive amounts of data they were collecting.
Subsequent reports found endemic problems with fusion centers also. A Senate report in 2012 found they were ineffective in preventing terrorism and regularly infringed on citizens’ civil liberties. A 2012 study from The Constitution Project, a bipartisan think tank, have found that “Some fusion centers’ policies and training programs have enabled racial, religious and political profiling, and their collection of information for ‘suspicious activity’ reports has threatened constitutional rights of privacy.”
Jake Laperruque covers privacy issues at The Constitution Project, and told me that there simply isn’t enough information in the 2007 report to make detailed predictions. “In terms of fusion centers, the devil is in the details,” Laperruque told me. “It’s important that you have those privacy protections, especially as the federal government and local police are rapidly scooping up more and more information. There’s some reason for concern there, depending on how it is laid out, but I don’t think as it’s mentioned in the report itself there are any red flags.”
Another possible area of concern is the 2007 report’s call for an increase in “intelligence-led policing,” which can lead to discriminatory practices, especially directed at Muslim communities in the United States. Laperruque notes that as it is referred to in the report, intelligence-led policing (ILP) could simply be a method for allocating resources and gathering data on when and where crimes happen. Still, the report adopts a paradigm common in law enforcement known as “prevent,” which seeks to anticipate and disrupt attacks before they happen. As it was practiced by the FBI, the NYPD, and other federal and local cops, that approach effectively resulted in widespread surveillance of Muslims.
While the report gives lip service to the fact that non-Muslims can commit acts of terror — saying “we recognize that terrorists and violent extremists can arise in many other faiths, communities, or persuasions” — it does so essentially in passing. The document focuses almost entirely on violence perpetrated by Muslims. When the authors do focus on other perpetrators of violence, they lump “white supremacist groups, animal rights extremists, and eco-terrorist groups” together.
Beyond the 2007 report, an op-ed written by Bossert gives clues as to his current counterterrorism thinking. In 2015, Bossert wrote a piece for the conservative Washington Times defending the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan on moral grounds. “To be clear, the use of military force against Iraq and Afghanistan was and remains just,” Bossert wrote. He added that the invasion of Iraq was “at the time, necessary.”
In at least one area, however, there appears to be some positive news for Bossert’s willingness to protect civil liberties. In his writings about TSA security provisions, he specifically criticized PreCheck, an expedited screening system he believes is ineffective and could result in profiling. Though many have raised concerns that PreCheck, as it was first proposed, might include scanning a traveler’s social media posts and credit card purchases, Bossert’s concerns extended to what he saw as a lack of security. To his credit, he criticized outsourcing data mining of travelers’ information to private companies as “a bad idea,” arguing that the “privacy and civil liberties implications alone are astounding.”
Compared with some of the outsized personalities in the Trump circle, Bossert remains a bit of a mystery. Several experts I contacted had no specific knowledge about him whatsoever. It is obviously good that Bossert hasn’t been making a name for himself by repeatedly and loudly stoking anti-Muslim bigotry, like Flynn has. Still, a return to 2007-era policing at the federal and local level would be a disaster for Muslims and other marginalized and disproportionately policed communities. As the other top advisors claim the majority of the spotlight, one of the quietest people in Trump’s circle could be one of the most influential.