ASPEN, Colorado—Every summer for a decade, some of the nation’s top national security leaders have been gathering at the bucolic Aspen Institute to talk shop, discussing everything from nuclear proliferation to NATO to space wars. You name it, they’ve talked about it—with one glaring exception: white supremacist violence.
This weekend, for the first time, the group of National Security wonks focused on the often-overlooked threat, which is both growing and deadly.
Talking about white supremacist terrorism makes many people in the national security space uncomfortable, and for a host of reasons. Department of Homeland Security officials say it’s the FBI’s problem, and they recently disbanded a domestic terror intelligence unit. Trump administration officials, meanwhile, are loath to zero in on groups the president once described as “very fine people.” And Congress, which can barely pass legislation to keep the government’s lights on, has proved basically ineffectual in the face of the threat.
And the threat is significant. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists murdered 50 people in America last year. Since 1970, domestic terrorists have only been more deadly in 3 other years. And Democrats on the House Committee on Homeland Security now say white supremacist terror appears to be a bigger threat than foreign terrorism.
For the first time this year, Aspen treated white supremacist terrorism the same way as other terrorism: with a panel of experts (moderated by The Daily Beast contributor Kim Dozier). An Aspen spokesperson confirmed it was the first time the security forum addressed white supremacism.
“We often ended up bucketing international and domestic terrorism into two separate buckets,” said panelist Nick Rasmussen, who formerly helmed the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). “One of the things I hope you leave here today with is maybe some sense that that may not be the right way to think about it.”
Rasmussen said that during his time in government, when dealt with terrorist threats at the highest levels, he couldn’t remember having a single conversation about hate-based domestic terrorism, including hate inspired by white supremacy.
“I feel a little bit sheepish and almost embarrassed about that,” he said.
“American communities are more threatened by other forms of terrorism today than the kind of terrorism that I made my business for the last 17 years,” he added.
Rasmussen has a deeper understanding than most of the way that bucketing process works: As the former NCTC chief, he headed an arm of the Intelligence Community set up after the September 11 attacks that focuses exclusively on international terrorism. Constitutional protections bar national security officials from using many of the tools they target on foreigners against American citizens. But as domestic terrorists kill more and more Americans, there’s a growing sense that the federal government needs to do more.
“Make no mistake,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of ADL and a panelist, “whatever you want to call it, white supremacy is a global terror threat and it needs to be treated as such.”
Farah Pandith, another panelist and the author of a book on domestic extremism called How We Win, has spent years on this. During the Obama administration, she was a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC), a group of experts from outside government who advise the Homeland Security Secretary. Pandith helmed an effort to put together a detailed report on how DHS and other federal entities––including the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services––could work with state and local governments and the private sector to fight and prevent domestic terrorism. HSAC released the report in June 2016, and some Congressional Republicans promptly blasted it for alleged political correctness. Pandith told The Daily Beast that none of its recommendations have been implemented.
“We have been lazy on hate,” she said.
But if Aspen is a reliable indicator of the temperature of the national security space, that may be changing.