Right-wing Extremism Seen Rising

April 16, 2009|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -The economic downturn and the election of the nation's first black president are contributing to a resurgence among right-wing extremist groups that had been on the wane since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment distributed to state and local authorities last week.

The report, produced by the Department of Homeland Security, has triggered a backlash among conservatives because it also raised the specter that disgruntled veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might "boost the capabilities of extremists ... to carry out violence."

The assessment notes that Homeland Security officials have seen no evidence that such groups are planning fresh attacks inside the United States. But it is the first high-level U.S. intelligence report to call attention to an array of recent domestic developments as potential harbingers of terrorist violence.

Among the other factors noted in the report are prospects for new gun-control and immigration legislation, as well as resentment over the rising economic influence of countries including China, India and Russia.

But the assessment focuses most of its attention on animosity toward President Barack Obama and anxiety fueled by the recession.

"The economic downturn and the election of the first African-American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment," the report warns in the first of a series of key findings.

Overall, the document describes an economic and political climate that has "similarities to the 1990s when right-wing extremism experienced a resurgence fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers."

The unclassified report was not released publicly but was distributed widely among law enforcement agencies across the country before it surfaced online this week. It was produced by the intelligence and analysis branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

Though it covers an array of issues, the assessment has drawn fire from conservatives over a judgment that focuses on the violence potential of returning U.S. soldiers.

"The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today," the report said.

The assessment notes the case of Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 after being convicted of a bombing that killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City 14 years ago this month. McVeigh was a decorated veteran of the Gulf War who was accused of plotting the bombing in retaliation for government clashes with a religious sect at Waco, Texas, and rural anti-government militias.

The Homeland Security report notes a 2008 FBI report that found evidence that some soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq had joined extremist groups. The prospect that someone trained in military methods might carry out independent attacks or help form terrorist cells is described as "the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States."

Veterans groups have expressed dismay at the report's language and accused the Department of Homeland Security of political bias.

"To continue to use McVeigh as an example of the stereotypical 'disgruntled military veteran' is as unfair as using Osama bin Laden as the sole example of Islam," said David K. Rehbein, the national commander of the American Legion in a letter sent Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, also criticized the report, saying its depiction of veterans is "offensive and unacceptable."

Responding to the criticism, Napolitano said at an event in El Paso, Texas, that she regretted that the report left the impression that the department was singling out ex-soldiers as a threat to the nation.

Napolitano, who as a U.S. attorney was involved in the case against McVeigh, said that the department honors veterans and employs thousands of them, but defended the report as part of an continuing effort to warn of emerging domestic threats.

"We don't have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group," said Napolitano, who noted that she was involved in the prosecution of McVeigh. "We must protect the country from terrorism, whether foreign or homegrown."

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