Panelists discuss the history of emerging threats facing U.S. homeland security, particularly the rise of domestic terrorism and white supremacist extremism, and the framework that is necessary to address these issues.
NAWAZ: Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting “Homeland Security, Emerging Threats: Domestic Terrorism and White Supremacy.” I'm Amna Nawaz. I'm senior national correspondent and primary substitute anchor at the PBS NewsHour and I will be presiding over today's discussion. Here's how it will go. I'll be posing my own questions for the first thirty minutes or so at which point we will turn to member questions. We do have more than 300 people registered for the event. So we'll do our very best to get to as many questions as we can. Today's focus, as mentioned is on domestic terrorism and white supremacy. In the way of background, white supremacists and other far right extremists have killed more people since September 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremism. The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism has reported that 71% of the extremists-related fatalities in the U.S. between 2008 and 2017 were committed by members of a white supremacist or far-right group. And yet for two decades, critics say that the U.S. counterterrorism effort, which has spent nearly $3 trillion between 2002 and 2017 alone, has largely focused on foreign threats. So our discussion today will focus on how the nature of the domestic threat has changed over the years and what can be done to combat it.
Joining us to discuss this we have Kevin McAleenan, who was acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in 2019, now the CEO of Pangiam; Janet Napolitano was the DHS Secretary from 2009 to 2013, now at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and on the board of directors for CFR; and Fran Townsend, who was Homeland Security Advisor from 2004 to 2008, is now vice chairman, general counsel and chief administration officer at MacAndrews and Forbes Incorporated, also on the board of directors for CFR. Secretaries McAleenan, Napolitano, and Ms. Townsend.
Thank you all for being here. I do want to kick off by giving each of you a moment to sort of set the table for our conversation. So in a couple of minutes each. If you could sort of give us insight into the agency, into Homeland Security, its priorities during your specific tenure and where the domestic threat fit into those priorities and resource allocation at the time. Ms. Townsend, we'll begin with you. And we should note that this is nothing new during the time that you were Homeland Security Advisor. There were white supremacist groups who'd been around for years, the Oklahoma City bombing had been years earlier, but in those years, 2004 to 2008, where was the Homeland Security focus? And where did domestic threats fit in?
TOWNSEND: Thank you very much, and was for residing. And it's a pleasure to be with both Secretary McAleenan and Secretary Napolitano, my former colleagues. So let me just sort of, as you say, set the table a little bit, right, we were in the immediate years post 9/11 and we continued to worry very much about threats that began manifesting themselves overseas and stopping them before they got themselves here. Probably the biggest disruption, public disruption, that we did was the flights coming in from Europe that had been targeted by al-Qaeda to blow them up over the Atlantic and kill hundreds of Americans. The foreign focus really was on not only disrupting them over there but identifying any threats before they got to U.S. shores. We remember there was the Patriot Act, there was FISA was passed—changes to FISA were passed during this time—to enable those sorts of investigations. There were changes to the attorney general guidelines at the FBI. The department was new and getting its legs underneath it and working to do these investigations alongside and with the FBI and enabled by some of the intelligence coming from overseas from the CIA and NSA. And so that was the environment we were in.
Towards the end of the Bush administration, we began to see this phenomenon we called lone wolves. Those really at that time were individuals who were self-radicalizing using the internet. As time passed, we came to see there's a little bit of the myth of lone wolves in the context of white supremacists. You know, the white supremacist groups share the internet as an accelerant to radicalization with Islamic extremists. But this is a much more global connected but decentralized movement, the white supremacist movement, as opposed to Islamic extremism, which was in some ways easier to target because of its centralization. Its centralization was its weakness. Supremacists understood that and so they are connected, but decentralized, which makes them much more difficult to target. But I think this has been an evolution. As you say we had domestic terrorism. It was sort of a different flavor when you look at Oklahoma City, but this has been an evolution over several administrations to what we're facing now.
NAWZ: Thank you, Ms. Townsend. Secretary Napolitano, same question to you from the years 2009 to 2013, what was it you were seeing in the way of what constituted a domestic threat, and where was the Homeland Security focus, and were there any resources going towards addressing that threat at the time?
NAPOLITANO: I took over at Homeland Security shortly after Fran. Our initial focus was still al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda related groups, with aviation being a continued threat. And our focus initially was there. After all, the attacks of 9/11 were the precipitant for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Nonetheless, we had an intelligence and analysis division that was designed to collect threat information, both internationally and domestically, and put it into a format that could be shared across the state and local environment. And that is where we have had efforts with respect to white supremacist groups in the United States. And as Fran said, it was not only groups, but it was the growth of the so-called lone wolves that we were seeing. And so we were collecting information about them and sharing it again across the country. Frankly, I think the white supremacist and lone wolf threat has been a growing phenomenon over the years and threats change, the risk environment changes. And if I were the secretary today, I would give it a much higher priority than frankly, we did then.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Madam Secretary. Secretary McAleenan, over to you. By the time you stepped into the helm in 2019, as Ms. Townsend referenced, the internet had sort of been acting as a rage accelerator. We know that there had been record growth in the number of domestic hate groups. Walk us through how much had changed in terms of the priority and the resources given to the domestic threat.
MCALEENAN: Sure, and I was privileged to serve in career roles under the leadership of both of my co-panelists in trying to programmatically and operationally implement the architecture that they helped define and drive for preventing foreign terrorist threats from accessing the U.S. and addressing threats to aviation in route. But that focus in U.S. Customs and Border Protection, where I spent most of my career, it's very operationally driven on those foreign threats. By the time I was asked to serve as Acting Secretary, a lot had changed in that picture. Starting of course, we had the Anders Breivik attack in 2011, in Norway, and the tragic attacks in Charleston, the church in Charleston by Dylan Roof, but really starting in October of 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pennsylvania, going through the Christchurch attacks early in 2019 in March in New Zealand, but then two more on U.S. soil in Poway at the Chabad synagogue and then very tragically in El Paso, where twenty-two people were killed in the Walmart there. We saw this internet inspired and encouraged set of lone wolf actors really espousing a hateful white supremacist extremist ideology. And for me, coming into the leadership role in the Department of Homeland Security, knowing that the FBI continues and always has had the lead for counterterrorism and domestic terrorism investigations, I wanted to see what we could do to support state and local communities just as Secretary Napolitano was articulating and it's actually a pretty powerful and diverse apparatus that DHS has, that we wanted to build and strengthen.
So about six weeks after the El Paso attacks, we issued a new strategic framework for countering terrorism and targeted violence. I should note that we also had the Las Vegas attacks during this period, which doesn't appear to be a domestic terrorist ideology inspired attack, but was another example of a mass attack in the U.S., a targeted violence, an incident of targeted violence that we wanted to address. So, in my first week, we stood up a targeted violence and terrorism prevention office to try to coordinate and galvanize this effort, and had five people at the start it now has forty. We sought additional grants out of cycle from Congress, and really tried to wield those elements of the department that already were focused on these threats. The U.S. Secret Service with the National Threat Assessment Center, and their massive tax and public spaces report which educates and trains sixty thousand state and local law enforcement every year. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which took over the national programs and protection directorates protective security advisors, which are embedded in metropolitan areas, bringing and training an active shooter type training resources to state local communities.
And then really asking our intelligence analysts at INA, intelligence and analysis, the element of DHS as part of the intelligence community to focus some of their work on providing good threat assessments to state and local fusion centers to really highlight domestic violent extremist threats and white supremacist extremist threats. As you noted, that has culminated in the homeland threat assessment in October, which was a product we called for and asked the department to issue every year to help inform our state and local partners. They very explicitly identified it as the most persistent and lethal threat facing the homeland today. So this happened very quickly. Even in September of 2019, we still started with the international terrorist threat and our assessment, and then highlighted the emerging threat of domestic violent extremists.
But by October of 2020, the violent the domestic violent extremist threat, and specifically, racially, and ethnically motivated vinyl extremists were highlighted as the number one most persistent and lethal threat facing the homeland. It has been an evolution, but it's really accelerated in the last two or three years in terms of the number, the lethality of the attacks, and unfortunately, both the size of groups operating in the U.S., but also their ability to help inspire lone actors. So it's serious set of challenges that the homeland security enterprise has to be part of the solution for.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Secretary McAleenan. So as you've all laid out, the problem has been getting worse: the number of groups has been growing, the attacks have been, the violence has been accelerating. It's also I think, a fact we should point out that none of the decisions you're making none of the assessments are divorced from the politics at the time that you are making those kinds of decisions and assessment. So Secretary Napolitano, would like to ask you about a time back in 2009, because you did ask your team for more information on right-wing extremism. They studied it. There was a report in April of that year produced, it was distributed, it was leaked to the press. And it caused a fierce political backlash. The analyst who was behind that report later came out and said that he felt that under political pressure, DHS caved, walked back the report, took it off the website. When you look back at that time now, why did you do what you did in responding to the political backlash? And did the politics get in the way of addressing what was a very real growing threat?
NAPOLITANO: Yeah, so the report caused a firestorm no doubt about it. It caused a firestorm because there was some ill-conceived language in it that made it seem like every veteran of the of the military service was a terrorist in waiting. And we know that that's not true, although I do think we need to be interacting more with the military in terms of how they prepare individuals when they leave the service and make sure they are really ready to get education, get jobs, etc., etc. But the veterans’ community went to great offense at this and they then got Congress to take great offense at this. The Obama administration was new. We're concerned frankly about the politics of this. And so, you know, the report came out on my watch. I apologized, not for the report, but for the language in the report, and it was withdrawn to be reissued later. And I continued to ask our team to do updated threat assessments on what we were seeing domestically, and what could be done about it.
NAWAZ: Thank you for that, Secretary Napolitano. Secretary McAleenan, you mentioned the many steps that you took during your tenure at DHS: you ordered a review of the department's domestic terrorism efforts, you set up the new office on targeted violence, you actually secured funding for the office and for grant making. At the same time, when the president you work for a responds to a violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi march by saying you have very fine people on both sides. When there is that failure to unequivocally condemn, does that hinder your ability to meet the thread in a full-throated way?
MCALEENAN: Yeah, so when I when I took over in April of 2019, the facts that were evolving in those attacks that I listed, you drove an imperative to respond. And so that's where we were focused on. And frankly, we had bipartisan support on the hill for an out-of-cycle appropriations request to augment our grant funding capability, and to stand up this office. And then by the time we had the El Paso attacks, our strategy had been in work all summer. But we knew we needed to get it out and speak with very great clarity on the emerging threats and where they were arising, specifically with white supremacist, extremist violence. And we thought that was a very important statement. There was support for that in the remarks the president made on the Monday after the El Paso attacks, certainly. But really, I do think it's very important to be very clear about the threats you're facing and not be equivocal.
NAWAZ: Just to follow up on that, if I may, there been a number of reports from some of your former colleagues who felt that there was a dismissiveness and downplaying of the growing white supremacist threat within this administration. And they were frustrated by that. Did you share that frustration?
MCALEENAN: So again, I was in the operational side for most of this period that some of my former colleagues have articulated that frustration. And frankly, Elizabeth Neumann and others were critical players in helping us advance the strategy during my tenure as Acting Secretary. And it was supported the release of our strategic framework by the White House. That said, you know, different White Houses have different sets of priorities. And I've seen the power of a coordinated effort from the White House level, like the one led by Ms. Townsend to articulated a new Homeland Security Strategy. But I've also seen operators work together to accomplish improvements in our efforts, like we did with Chris Wray at the FBI and within our Office of Policy, with a lot of efforts by Elizabeth Neumann and others on her team. So I think you can do it both ways. And we saw the threat and we responded to it. That's the mandate of a leadership team at Homeland Security.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Secretary McAleenan. Ms. Townsend, I want to ask you about the Bush administration, because it's true looking back now, despite messages to the contrary, from the very highest office in the land, under the Bush administration, the idea of an extremist threat became very closely linked to Islam as a faith to a foreign threat as you laid out, and certainly in political rhetoric that persists today. And while violent Islamist extremism does remain a threat, today's domestic threat in the U.S. is increasingly from white Christian men. So in your view, have our political leaders been slow? Have they been reluctant to recognize the danger of a threat that comes very much from the core of the American social fabric?
TOWNSEND: I think it's worth understanding, America is not the only place and we're not the only people facing this very white supremacist extremism problem. The three countries in the world that account for the largest number of these attacks: the U.S., UK, and Germany. And it's worth looking at what do we have in common, right? There's been this rise of populism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant. So in Germany, it was a reaction to the flood of Syrian immigrants coming as a result of the war there. In the UK, it was by and large, again, a reaction to illegal immigration, refugees, and Brexit. And so you have the same thing here. And interesting to me is, you know, one of the things that I think added to the success or the strength of the effort that we had globally to combat Islamic terrorism, was the fact that we acted globally, right, we acted with our allies. I find it sort of frustrating and interesting, I don't see that same level of cooperation. Look, the UK is our closest foreign ally. There's a lot we could do with them to understand where the commonalities and how we could combat this. Ditto with Germany. And so I think there's more that we can do. I think there's been good progress made. But I think we have to start thinking strategically, this is not just a U.S. problem. And it wasn't just created here. And we are not the only ones facing it. And we ought to see if there's not strength in our alliances.
NAWAZ: I can just stick with you for a moment on that. Because as you've noted, we can sort of do away with this idea of a lone-wolf attacker anymore. We know that white supremacist movements are very connected globally, so they're just not hierarchical in the same way other threats have been. You have said previously that the U.S. needs to start responding to this threat, employing some of the same tools that we did to fight terrorism abroad, using them here at home. Obviously, there's a different set of rules, civil liberties, surveillance issues, and so on dealing with American citizens on American soil. So how do you see that being used? What tools could be used here to combat white supremacist violence?
TOWNSEND: I do think when you're anytime you're doing an investigation, a domestic investigation inside the United States, there are different rules that protect Americans here at home, and rightly so under the Constitution. And so, the FBI operates under the Attorney General's guidelines, which are much stricter than anything that applies, for example, to the CIA operating against non-American citizens overseas. And you can understand why that is. Just because the rules are different doesn't mean there's not a process under which that the FBI and investigators can legally access information. I will say one of the, we've talked about it, one of the accelerants to radicalization is the internet. And something that is quite different now than it was when I was in the White House at the beginning of this is the social media companies are much more engaged, much more active than they ever were. This was a real source of frustration for me when I was in the White House and shortly after I left. The social media companies acted as if they had no responsibility for extremist content that wrote on their platforms. They've since come around with a lot of pushing from Congress and the public, and multiple administrations. They've come around to understand they do have a responsibility. And so I think those relationships actually matter. I think the legal structure around how we investigate crime, frankly, like any other crime, white supremacist extremism is a crime here at home. And we have the rules and the tools in place to be able to use to investigate it successfully.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Ms. Townsend. Secretary Napolitano, I'd love to ask the same question of you about what tools could be put to use, how they could be implemented now. Particularly given that we're speaking during a global pandemic when many people worry because so many are stuck at home spending more time online that a lot of that recruitment and radicalization is being further accelerated right now. What would you say to that?
NAPOLITANO: You know, I think this really deserves a fresh rethink, and really the development of a national strategy. You know, one of the issues here is that you have so many players on the law enforcement side because this is domestic activity. So you've got state and local law enforcement. On the federal level, you've got the FBI and you've got DHS. With so many players, there's no kind of organized strategy—how do we as a collective law enforcement community interact with the social media companies with respect to content? How can we work with social scientists and others to do more research on to what causes someone to become a white supremacist? What causes someone to become a lone wolf? What are the best tactics and techniques that can be deployed? Probably not to eliminate this kind of activity. We've had it for decades, probably going back, you know, to the 19th century or the 17th century even, but to mitigate it, to keep it as confined and as limited as possible. And so I think a real fresh rethink is needed here.
TOWNSEND: Can I add something? You know, this is we've seen over the last administration. The position I held was I was an assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. And I was a direct report to the president and Kevin mentioned, we issued a national counterterrorism strategy and the national homeland security strategy. That position doesn't exist as a direct report to the president or at that rank anymore. There's a real opportunity for the new administration to appoint an assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism and issue the very strategy out of the White House with the imprimatur of the president of a national strategy to address white supremacist extremism. And I think it's time for that I think it is a problem of sufficient national magnitude. And because it's an interagency problem, the White House is where it ought to be pulled together. And it will require presidential leadership.
NAPOLITANO: Yeah, otherwise, we're going to live in a country where it's only going to keep increasing and it's going to require some intentionality to get our arms around this and get it more confined.
NAWAZ: Secretary McAleenan, I'd love to bring you in here because we should remind people that there was an entire rethink an entire U.S. governmental reorganization after 9/11, after a single attack and a specific threat. Does this moment now demand a similar level of reorganization to respond to a threat that is born and bred within our borders?
MCALEENAN: Some really important questions and comments in the last few minutes here. One, I think you are right to really highlight the difference in the tools that the interagency has to confront domestic terrorism issues. Without the intelligence community, without the Department of Defense on the field, that's a very different effort, right. So you do have to rely largely on FBI domestic investigations with the appropriate civil liberties protections and rules under the Attorney General's guidance that Fran mentioned. So how do we how do we address it in that framework? I think I cannot agree more with my co-panelists on the need to elevate this at the White House. And to really kind of reset the role of counterterrorism and homeland security within the National Security Council as a critical priority and really task that office, that individual in that office, with redevelopment of a strategy, because we have a combination of tools that we're not currently utilizing fully, in my view. For instance, I think we could consider designation of some of these groups, especially as we see dedicated efforts to coordinate and to build alliances globally. So you take a white supremacist extremist group domestically, they tend to want to develop relationships, whether it's for training, for tactics, for financing, for ideological support, and unfortunately, they like to travel to celebrate special events in their ideologies' history. We need to look at those international connections and consider whether we can designate them as foreign terrorist organizations and bring in some additional authorities to help counter those efforts. I also think we need to relook at the definitions. The FBI does a tremendous job, you know, as Chris Wray would say, policing criminality, not ideology. And they do that with other parts of the U.S. code without a pure domestic terrorism violation or criminal statute. That said it that should be looked at a new whether some of the material support types of concepts that we use for foreign terrorist organizations could be applied appropriately domestically without violating first amendment or other constitutional protections. So I do think there are some new tools and strategies and I agree with Fran's point that the tech platforms are doing more. Very good to see the hosting and secure internet security provider take down 8chan after the third consecutive manifesto was posted on 8chan supporting a white supremacist attack. That said, I think they can be more aggressive in policing themselves. And that's another fine line where we've got to have a open conversation and a new strategic approach, in my view.
NAWAZ: Thank you for that, Secretary McAleenan. I have a host of more questions I did not get to, I'll be following up with all of your offices. But at this time, I would like to invite members out there to join our conversation with their own questions. A quick reminder, this virtual meeting is on the record. So I'll now ask the CFR operator to please remind members how to join the question queue. And to go ahead and introduce our first questioner.
STAFF: We will take the first question from Carrie Bettinger-Lopez.
Q: Hi, thanks so much for this very important and timely conversation. I am really interested in many aspects of it. But one aspect that I wanted to invite you to speak about was the real connection between gender violence, domestic violence, misogyny, and white supremacy and mass shootings. I really think that, you know, gender violence and misogyny are critical foundations to white supremacy. They're not simply byproducts of it, which is oftentimes the narrative and how gender even gets covered in this space, if at all. I think many times people talk about misogyny as if it's a stepping stone to radicalization, but isn't inherently radical itself. And, you know, when we've seen several groups, Everytown and Moms Demand Action have created reports done a lot of research showing that, you know, the men behind the U.S. deadliest mass shootings have domestic violence in common, overwhelmingly. So I was wondering if you could talk about your thoughts on the gender lens here, both in terms of prevention and response. One particular area, I'd invite you if you have knowledge or interested in is this is the boyfriend loophole that exists when thinking about gun violence and the fact that in our federal laws people who are not living with or married to their abuser, are not able to get a restraining order against that person for preventing them from having a gun. So anyway, I'd love to hear any thoughts you'd have both on domestic and global ramifications of the gender dimension. Thank you.
NAWAZ: Thank you for that question who'd like to address that first? Let me open that to the panel.
MCALEENAN: I could start for the panel. First, it's a very good question. And I think it taps on what is very clearly a strain of certain types of white supremacist extremist groups, like the white power skinhead or some of the white nationalist groups, which really espouse a hyper masculine, hyper violent type of culture and ideology in their group. So I think it is a prevalent theme. And the connection, I think, between attackers and domestic violence is also a really important observation. If you look at the U.S. Secret Service's mass attacks and public spaces report, what it consistently shows year after year, is that the vast majority of individuals who became radicalized and chose violence, chose to conduct a mass attack, had something in their background that indicated they might be presenting a concern. Somebody had generally identified a violent streak, had generally presented that to police, to a school resource officer, to a mental health professional. And there was an opportunity for intervention and an opportunity to redirect an individual on pathway to violence off of that pathway. So I think providing that kind of information, the trainings that secret service does, that CISA does, to state and local authorities, to school resource officers, and really explaining that connection between domestic violence and eventual moves toward a more overt type of mass attack violence, I think is really important. So you can try to identify someone who's on that trajectory, and intervene and create an off ramp for them earlier. That's a big part of the DHS strategy.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Secretary McAleenan. Secretary Napolitano, anything you'd like to add?
NAPOLITANO: I made a comment earlier about reaching out to social scientists and to help us unpack this Gordian Knot of violence, and it can be viewed through a number of lenses, including obviously, the gender lens. And as Kevin said, I want to just back him up, looking for those early signs, so there can be early interventions, but those interventions have to be meaningful. It's not just having one conversation with somebody, you know, saying, you know, "hey, guy, you know, what's, what's going on?" It has to be programmatic and, and, and thorough and, and it takes time and it takes resources.
NAWAZ: Thank you for that, Madam Secretary. Operator, let's move on to the next question, please.
STAFF: We'll take our next question from Shaarik Zafar.
Q: Hi, this is Shaarik Zafar, formerly worked at the National Counterterrorism Center and Secretary Napolitano in your Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. It's really great to see you again. The question I have is that when it came to fighting international terrorism, countering violent extremism, emanating from groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda blame was often placed on communities, namely Muslim communities to do more. But I don't see that same type of blame or call with respect to right-wing and white nationalist extremism. Why do you think that is? And that's for anybody on the panel.
NAWAZ: Ms. Townsend, why don't we turn to you first on this?
TOWNSEND: This was something I can remember struggling with when we were in office and it seemed incredibly unfair to impose a burden on any particular community and President Bush twice visited the main mosque in Washington, DC, to try and dispel this myth that the community bore some black mark, some extra burden, right? You do want the entire community to take responsibility. And we tried to engage families, right. So it's not just the community around this person, it begins with the family. Right, the family will see the first signs before the community sees them. I agree with you. I don't think that there has been the same expectation placed on white communities that you saw post 9/11. I don't think that's fair. It'll be interesting to see with this acceleration over time. That's when you're more likely to see sort of a sense of public sense that, wait a minute, why are we continuing to see this and what more can be done? Who else can we engage? But this is to Janet's point, frankly. It's social scientists, it's those in your community, it's community health care workers. The first signs of—to the prior questioner—the first signs of abuse are typically teachers, healthcare workers, in your local hospitals, doctors, physicians. It requires a much more strategic approach and engagement, frankly, so that it's not, we're not just looking to the Muslim community or the white community, we're looking to the community where these people are living. We're looking to the families and those who deal with them every day, and are likely to see the first signs and give them an infrastructure in which they're comfortable, they are encouraged and they're comfortable, that they can report these signs that they find concerning that may be early indications of extremism.
NAWAZ: Secretary McAleenan, anything you'd like to add?
MCALEENAN: I would just note that the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties was one of the elements of DHS that has really pioneered the outreach to a variety of communities, including the Muslim-American community. And we have tried to combine the efforts of the targeted violence and terrorism prevention office with CRCL in this regard, including hiring some of the folks that helped really develop those community relationships in the first place to be regional leads, for instance, under the TVTP Office. So the kind of work you were doing back when Secretary Napolitano was leading the department is still being carried on and in critical ways now at DHS and so thank you for your service.
NAWAZ: Secretary Napolitano, if I can just follow up with you on that. To the questioner's point, would it help to address the threat were there to be targeted efforts going into Christian communities to say if you see something if you see behavior that worries you, please say something?
NAPOLITANO: The point is to identify the relevant community and the relevant community that could be helpful, and it does seem to me that it can be the neighborhood, the school, the church. But where is the most apt place for an effective intervention and where a community can help?
NAWAZ: Thank you for that. Operator, let's take the next question, please.
STAFF: We'll take our next question from Laura Holgate. Laura. As a reminder, please announce your affiliation.
Q: This is Laura Holgate. I'm a vice president for materials risk management at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and former special assistant for weapons of mass destruction terrorism at the White House. So it won't be a surprise to ask this group to reflect upon the radiological and nuclear terrorism components of the Breivik manifesto and the degree to which that manifesto is inspiring a white supremacist violence such as in Christchurch, and how does that potential for nuclear radiological, chemical biological attack connect with the violent extremism that we're seeing today?
NAWAZ: Secretary McAleenan, why don't you take that first.
MCALEENAN: Sure. Well, first, I think that the inspiration of manifesto to manifesto is a serious concern. And in the efforts among this ideological movement to lionize or sacralize people who commit acts of violence and hold them up as paragons and to have their thought cited and supported in subsequent manifestos, I think that trail needs to be looked at, and to Secretary Napolitano's point, finding the right community to intervene and sometimes it's going to be an online community to try to break into, so I would offer that. I think the best way to respond to the to the radiological nuclear part of your question for me is just to cite the latest publicly available threat assessment on these issues from DHS and really it downplayed the concern on radiological threats—not downplayed, but said it was less of a of a heightened issue—but that the nuclear concerns and potential proliferation of both materials and know how, especially when it's a, to your point, if there's a leader in that movement, who's highlighted it as a technique that should be pursued, that that is something to be aware of and concerned about. But one thing we didn't talk about at the outset, in terms of that timeline, is that the homeland security enterprise in the in the national counterterrorism community doesn't get to sort of stop focusing on older threats as they move to an emerging threat. We still have to maintain pressure on ISIS for establishing safe havens and trying to radicalize and inspire globally. We still have to prevent foreign terrorists from accessing the United States, we still have to look at nation-state sponsors of terrorism, especially with the most lethal means, like chem, bio or rad nuke. So those efforts have to continue and be sustained and that's something I think that we're going to have to watch carefully as DoD pivots to near competitors and really China-and Russia-focused efforts and away from the sort of special operations counterterrorism efforts, as the safe havens have diminished. So I think you raised a number of good points, both in terms of the ideological inspiration, and in terms of maintaining our focus across the board, even as we address a new and emerging concern.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Secretary McAleenan. Ms. Townsend, anything you'd like to add on this as a nuclear aspiration, if you will, with the growing white supremacist?
TOWNSEND: What worries me is I remember when bin Laden issued in the late 90s, the call for an attack in the United States and everybody sort of poo pooed that right? Because he issued this threat from a cave, bunch of guys over in Afghanistan. Most people couldn't find it on a map at the time. It seemed ridiculous. And it has the same sort of feel to it, the Breivik manifesto, right. The manifesto puts a mark on the wall for those who want to belong. There's a whole radicalization path for those in the white supremacist online community called red pilling where they learn the coded language, they begin to understand both the mainstream chat rooms, the social media, and the less mainstream—the 8Chans as Kevin referred to. I worry that the individual who's being radicalized in this globally connected community decides he wants to make a name for himself. They do publish and circulate each other's manifestos. And this is sort of a mark on the wall for others who want to belong, to aspire to, and it will remain out there and ought to be a serious concern to us in terms of combating this extremism problem.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Ms. Townsend. Operator, let's take another question, please.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Audrey Kurth Cronin.
Q: I'm Audrey Kurth Cronin at American University. Most domestic violent extremist attacks are prosecuted as hate crimes, murders, weapons violations, because there are more domestic legal tools and conviction is more likely. But this leads to a popular perception that, you know, we only call Muslim attackers terrorists. But we also have a problem that people on both the right and the left are unwilling to give domestic law enforcement that kind of enhanced power if you have increased legislation. So my question is, how specifically would additional domestic counterterrorism laws and statutes help reduce domestic violent extremism? And if it would, what types of laws or authorities would you prioritize?
NAWAZ: Secretary Napolitano, I'd love for you to take that question first, if you don't mind?
NAPOLITANO: Yeah, that's an interesting question. Because there are any number of existing state statutes or federal statutes depending on the circumstances of a particular act that can be used by investigators and prosecutors. And so I don't know whether adding another statute would do much to change the landscape. There has been talk about having a federal domestic terrorism statute. And I think that is an interesting idea. The question I have is, what would be the differential elements of proof that would need to be included in that and what would that mean in terms of sentencing above and beyond what you can get for prosecution for firearms violations or acts of violence under state law or things of that sort?
NAWAZ: Secretary McAleenan, if you'd like to weigh in, I just want to remind people to remember this conversation unfolding during the prosecution of Dylann Roof as well. And even back then, I think it was the Brennan Center for Justice that raised some concerns about additional statues because they were worried that they could be used for political purposes. It obviously not the end intended, but what would you say to the question?
MCALEENAN: Yeah, I would agree with Secretary Napolitano's points about needing to be very careful in how you define the different elements approved and the flexibility of the law in the potential for misuse that you just added in the question. I think all three are considerations, which probably are one of the reasons why after El Paso, the FBI and Department of Justice did not recommend a new statutory definition, even though that was in the conversation after El Paso. It was a combination of potential resources necessary for additional domestic terrorism investigations and potential statutory changes. And so far, none have been recommended. That said, I do think it's important to be able to speak clearly about the threats. And there is something, that's why we have hate crime statute, the origin of that criminality, and the ideology supporting it being hate, makes it a greater concern to civil society, and it has a special definition. So perhaps it's worth looking at the hate crime model for a potential domestic terrorism model that fits within our constitutional regime, but maybe adds a little bit of flexibility, charging, or some differential punishment options.
NAWAZ: Ms. Townsend, over to you as well, and to one of the questioner's original points, I think this is also about closing the perception gap that when there is a Muslim attacker, there's automatically a terrorism charge, whereas the bar is very different if it's a non-Muslim attacker. What would you say to that? Is a new law going to help?
TOWNSEND: No, I don't think so. I think there are two separate issues: it's how we talk about it and how we charged the crime. What I think you're hearing from Kevin and Janet, certainly what I would say is the reason you didn't see the FBI and the Justice Department recommend a domestic terrorism law is because they felt they had the necessary legal regime to be able to charge appropriately the crimes that had been committed. There's a separate question, rightly so about how we talk about it. One of the jobs I do is, for many years was an on-air analyst for CNN. I'm now a senior national security analyst for CBS. I will tell you that it's quite conscious and deliberate when we talk about attacks like these, we talk about them as domestic terrorism. That's what they are. Violence against a civilian population to advance a political ideology is terrorism. It doesn't matter what ethnicity or the perpetrator is. It's the purpose with which they execute the crime. And it certainly is terrorism. And I think we have to be more disciplined, frankly, in how we talk about the nature of these crimes. I don't think whether or not we have a domestic terrorism statute that we can charge is the thing that really makes the difference.
NAWAZ: Thank you for that, Ms. Townsend. Operator, I think we have time for a couple more questions.
STAFF: We'll take our next question from Ricardo Gibson.
Q: Thank you. I'm Ricardo Gibson, a former term member. My question recently, we saw law enforcement for a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan. It was reported by some news outlets that some of those perpetrators were linked to white supremacists or espouse white supremacy views. The plot seems to be a huge step from going from online rants on social media towards action. Do you all see a trend among these groups moving from online discussions toward action? And my second question is, are you all concerned that other groups like this will target other elected officials? Thank you.
NAWAZ: Secretary McAleenan, why don't you take that. You did recently pen an op-ed calling that plot not an anomaly making clear it wasn't. What would you say to that?
MCALEENAN: So I think the question is important because it highlights two distinctive ideologies that might have similar techniques. I think the facts will still be coming out and in terms of the FBI investigation on the specific ideological motivations of the individuals in the Michigan plot, whether they were, you know, white supremacist extremists motivated or more of an anti-government motivation. But unfortunately, there's a strain of both called accelerationism, that, you know, loosely organized, leaderless, but seeking to really precipitate a civil war that results in an overthrow of the system. For instance, the Boogaloo Bois have an anti-government kind of bring about a civil war, accelerationist philosophy, but not necessarily motivated by white supremacy or seeking a white nation afterwards. That said, if you look at some of the new groups like the base or the Atomwaffen Division, that's very clearly their motivation. So either way, belief that by committing acts of violence, you can precipitate an unraveling and an outright conflict between society and government, or elements of society and government. It is extreme concern. And I think you're right to highlight the connection between those goals of these two ideologies.
NAPOLITANO: I think the toxicity of this election environment has been an accelerant of its own to these types of activities. And just as recently as yesterday, the home of the Secretary of State of Michigan was surrounded by folks calling stop to steal, some of them armed with signs, but some of them armed with guns with her family and her four-year-old in the house. This is simply unacceptable in civil society and we need leaders of both parties at all levels, speaking out strongly against this.
NAWAZ: Just to add to that, and I'll pivot to Ms. Towsend here, we should also note that the Boogaloo Bois, the proud boys have been showing up in person that a lot of the reopen rallies during the pandemic as counter protesters to the Black Lives Matter marches. Is there a concern that coming out of this political period, this heated election cycle, this pandemic, that this will be an even bigger problem for the next administration to handle?
TOWNSEND: I absolutely think it's going to be at the top of the list for the new administration in terms of priorities, and with a real sense of urgency to handle it. I will tell you, I'm up here in New York, and the NYPD was training for—in the period leading up to the election—quite concerned that the white supremacist groups would try to antagonize Black Lives Matter and sort of invite them into a conflict, to looting, to rioting. And that that would be quite intentional, right? That sort of engagement between these opposing groups would be quite intentional and would cause damage and be the result in real crime and damage to property. That didn't happen. That's a real credit to the NYPD because they actually had intelligence indicating that there was planning going on for subjectivity. I give you that example because I really do think New York is not alone in this. I don't think that this is an isolated incident, to Kevin's point earlier. I think we're going to see more of this. And so I do think again, I go back to something I mentioned earlier, I think there's a need for a national strategy that brings in state and local officials so that you have a both vertical as we would say, and horizontal—vertical, state and local through federal horizontal across the federal government strategy that addresses these issues.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Ms. Townsend. Operator, let's have one more question, please.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Henry Willis.
Q: Thank you for this discussion. My question is that with the national security intelligence community's increasingly focused on the Pacific and the resurgence of great power competition, how do we keep our eyes and our resources focused on this terrorism threat that has an increasingly domestic focus?
NAWAZ: Secretary Napolitano, why don't you start?
NAPOLITANO: Well, the risk environment is always changing. And the task of the Department of Homeland Security, the task of the Department of Justice, the FBI, is to keep our collective eye on the ball, where terrorism of all forms is concerned, but particularly where domestic terrorism is concerned. Domestic terrorism doesn't implicate the Department of Defense. They're not involved. It doesn't implicate the CIA. They're not involved. It really relies on these domestic federal law enforcement agencies to maintain a sufficient focus and not to let domestic terrorism get lost in all of the other decisions that need to be made at the beginning of a new administration. I think all three of us have emphasized the need for a real reset on a real think, a real rethink and a revived national strategy where these domestic terrorist acts are concerned.
TOWNSEND: I think it's also worth adding here and I mentioned state and locals, but I think it's worth reminding sort of the members who are listening to the conversation. This is by and large, a state and local effort, right. The federal government brings resources expertise. We bring a strategy, we bring infrastructure. But when it comes right down to it, these crimes are committed in state and local communities and they have to be combated by state and local authorities with the support and expertise and hopefully grant money of the federal government. And so it really is a matter of making sure you're getting the training and the wherewithal down to the state locals who are really the first line of defense.
NAWAZ: Secretary McAleenan, anything you'd like to add?
MCALEENAN: I think those were two very good last words. But I could not agree more that support to state and locals is critical to the strategy. As you know, Henry's point, federal resources are increasingly challenged and, and big muscle movements, like DoD and IC budgets are focused on great power competition. But that doesn't mean that with good strategy and a good support network, we can't make real advances. Just one other note to highlight. You know, we've seen this with other types of terrorism in the past where it appears to be a lone wolf and the influence of organized groups are not as clearly visible. That said, I would just like to credit, again, the incredible work of the FBI, the JTTF working with state and local partners who helped identify some of the individuals, for instance, and the recent Michigan plot, the more organized it is, the more likely the FBI is going to be on top of it and prevent it in advance. So I think that's, that's worth noting as well.
NAWAZ: In the minute or so we have before we wrap this up, if I can just go around and ask each of you to speak directly to the incoming administration, what one or two things, what one sentence, what piece of advice would you give them? What they need to do as a concrete step to prioritize this in the next administration? Secretary McAleenan, I'll start with you.
MCALEENAN: Yeah, I'm going to echo my colleagues again and say elevate this to a White House priority. The incoming President-Elect and his team are going to have lots of priorities. But, dealing with domestic terrorism and its offshoots of extremism that are going to affect our country given the nature of the post-election environment, given the concerns about COVID, the concerns about shutdowns, it's got to be a first hundred days’ priority for the administration. Consider looking at some of the tools you use on designation for those international connections, work on the strategy with tech platforms. And at the DHS level, I'd recommend that the nominee and his team look at the foundation they now have that with the strategic framework and some of the offices and enhancements of resources, but see if they can re-enhance the CTE coordinator's role to wield that more effectively to support state and local communities.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Secretary McAleenan. Secretary Napolitano?
NAPOLITANO: I would echo that. I would say make sure that you have a homeland security advisor in the White House who has a direct report to the president. Empower that person and ask that person to use the convening power of the White House, both vertically with state and locals and horizontally with folks from across the United States to, as I've said, do a reset and a rethink of how we deal with this issue.
NAWAZ: Thank you, Madam Secretary. Ms. Townsend over to you.
TOWNSEND: I have to say I'm not going to add anything because this is very refreshing. There was a time when the secretaries of Homeland Security resented there being a homeland security advisor in the White House that worked across the interagency. To have two former secretaries saying we need to have one back in the White House is very gratifying.
NAWAZ: It's a good note for us to end on then. That is all the time we have for today. I want to thank all the members for joining today's virtual meeting. And of course, I'm very, very grateful to our panelists, Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Secretary Janet Napolitano, and of course, Ms. Fran Townsend for taking the time to be with us here today. Just a reminder, the video and the transcript for today's meeting will be posted on CFR's website. Once again. I am Amna Nawaz at the PBS NewsHour. Thank you so much for joining us. Please stay safe and be well.