Politics & Policy

DHS Wants to Know What You’re Thinking

The Obama administration defines extremism down.

For eight years, we’ve been treated to hysterical rhetoric from Democrats, including Barack Obama, about the scourge of “domestic spying.” Now that the Obama administration is openly calling for domestic spying — the real thing, not the smear used against President Bush — they’re suddenly silent.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in coordination with the FBI, has issued an intelligence assessment on what it calls “Rightwing Extremism.” It is appalling. The nakedly political document announces itself as a “federal effort to influence domestic public opinion.” It proceeds, in what it acknowledges is the absence of any “specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence,” to speculate that “rightwing” political views might “drive” such violence — violence, it further surmises, that might be abetted by military veterans returning home after putting their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for good measure, in violation of both FBI guidelines and congressional statutes, the Obama administration promises scrutiny of ordinary Americans’ political views, speech, and assembly.

The word “rightwing” appears repeatedly in the assessment, which was issued by the same DHS component (the “Extremism and Radicalization Branch”) that, a year ago, suggested purging the terms “jihadist” and “Islamofascist” from our lexicon for fear of insulting moderate Muslims. And what exactly is “rightwing”? According to Obama’s DHS, it refers to groups that are “primarily hate-oriented” on ethnic grounds (perhaps DHS hasn’t heard of the National Socialist party) and those that are violently anti-government because of economic and social grievances (ACORN and “direct action” ring a bell?). Rightwing” also covers a militia movement expressing “frustration that the ‘revolution’ never materialized.”

In short, the government uses the term as a caricature of the Right: noxious, non-conservative views thoughtlessly labeled “rightwing extremism” to smear actual conservative values as a purported societal threat. As the report absurdly elaborates:

Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.

The insinuation: If you think the federal government has gotten too big, if you believe that the Tenth Amendment (“the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”) is still part of the Constitution, if you are concerned about unborn life, or if you want the immigration laws of the United States enforced, you are a terrorist waiting to happen. If you are resistant to immersion in the global community because of “the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers,” you are a potential subversive. If you are concerned that the government might interfere with your right to legally purchase and possess firearms, you are on the federal radar.

We on the Right are deeply concerned — more concerned, historically, than our opposite numbers — about threats to civil society. Ordered liberty requires order. When there is a domestic terrorist threat, regardless of the taxonomy of its motivational forces, government must be vigilant.

But several qualifiers are worth bearing in mind. First, as the Supreme Court observed in its 1972 Keith case, the law of the United States recognizes that foreign threats, such as that presented by al-Qaeda, call for more expansive executive authority in intelligence-gathering and other countermeasures than do potential domestic insurrections involving American citizens, whose rights of privacy and dissent are protected by the Constitution. Second, the stepped-up surveillance against radical Islam in 2001 followed sneak attacks that claimed more American lives than Pearl Harbor and capped a series of atrocities stretching back several years — and which, according to its perpetrators, were only part of a coming onslaught. Third, by contrast, there is no domestic terror threat at this time — DHS admits as much, and its expressed fear that such a threat may materialize is rank guesswork: “rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits,” the bad economy “could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists,” and so on.

That is no basis on which to hound American citizens, much less to smear conservative convictions as “drivers” of terrorism. Yet DHS concludes by promising to train Big Brother’s probing eye on “rightwing” politics. The agency, we’re told, “will be working with its state and local partners over the next several months to ascertain with greater regional specificity the rise in rightwing extremist activity in the United States, with a particular emphasis on the political, economic, and social factors that drive rightwing extremist radicalization.”

In the absence of criminal activity, investigations targeting First Amendment–protected beliefs, speech, association, and political activity would constitute an abuse of power. FBI guidelines counsel:

In its efforts to anticipate or prevent crime, the FBI must at times initiate investigations in advance of criminal conduct. It is important that such investigations not be based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment or on the lawful exercise of any other rights secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

Moreover, in the Patriot Act, FISA, and other statutes, Congress has expressly provided that investigations of Americans are not to be “conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

The DHS intelligence assessment is a betrayal of these values, and a frightening indication that those trusted to wield power in defense of our Constitution are unfamiliar with what the Constitution stands for.

President Obama should repudiate the DHS report and see to it that those responsible walk the plank — including DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, who has acknowledged being briefed on the assessment before it was released. If he won’t act, the Democratic Congress — so full-throated in its condemnation of “domestic spying” — should take a timeout from its partisan witch-hunts and find out who is really calling for putting Americans under surveillance.

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