A former Department of Homeland Security official under President Trump told Yahoo News Friday that she is alarmed by the way the administration has ignored and even downplayed the growing threat posed by right-wing domestic terrorists, whom she said are “hands down” a far graver threat to American lives than left-wing protest groups such as antifa.
Elizabeth Neumann, a political appointee who recently stepped down as assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy at DHS, said she was disappointed by the portrayal by speakers at the Republican National Convention of lawless Democratic cities — even as nothing was said about extreme right-wing domestic terrorists and white supremacists.
“It is completely a sideshow to distract from the real threat and it’s extremely dangerous,” Neumann said on “Skullduggery,” a Yahoo News podcast, of the administration’s posture. “There are multiple arrests that the FBI has conducted in the last few months at these peaceful protests where you have right-wing extremists coming in trying to take advantage of the cover of the protests to carry out these violent acts and they are trying to start a race war. They’re very clear about their ideology and what they’re trying to do and we won't say it. We won’t call it like it is and that’s a problem.”
An expert on domestic terrorism, Neumann also worked on homeland security issues in the administration of George W. Bush administration. She said she is alarmed by the dramatic increase in white supremacist activity and the speed with which these groups have been able to win recruits.
Neumann said that shortly after she arrived at DHS, there was a spate of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. She and other officials began to look into the matter and soon determined that local law enforcement nationwide were reporting a growing number of anti-Semitic and white supremacy-related acts of vandalism. Then, in August 2017, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent. One person was killed and 35 were injured and Neumann said she realized then that the threat was even more serious than she had initially understood.
“It was front and center for all of us and shocking to America to see people so emboldened. They showed their face,” Neumann said. “They weren’t hiding in a white robe and hood. They were willing to show their face and speak this horrific hatred, and then to have the president not even condemn it.”
Neumann said that when she first heard Trump had said there were “very fine people” represented on both sides of the Charlottesville protests, she initially assumed the president had not been briefed fully and misspoke.
She said she assumed “he didn’t understand how obviously, blatantly this was a white supremacist thing.” But Neumann said she soon realized, with mounting horror, that the president knew exactly what he was saying. Neumann said she decided to try to “ignore the circus” and do her job as well as she could.
Neumann said she struggled with her decision to stay inside the administration after that, particularly given her strong opposition to seeing children separated from their parents at the border. But she felt that as a security professional she had a duty to keep working.
“The government is being held together by people who are trying to do the right thing, and if they were to all leave, the people who are left are not experienced, very young, don’t have a security background and their only litmus test is are you loyal to Trump?” Neumann said. “I’m sorry — that doesn't make you qualified.”
Neumann said that in 2017 and 2018 DHS officials asked the administration to accept the threat of domestic terror and invest accordingly but were rebuffed. Nonetheless, she said, DHS has found grant money to build a prevention system to try to better stop white supremacists from recruiting online with such ease. Neumann said white supremacists have successfully drawn on the playbook developed by ISIS to efficiently attract followers over the internet.
Radicalization, she said, happens astonishingly quickly — so quickly that law enforcement doesn't have ability to track all of the potential threats.
“It’s really hard to know which ones are really going to mobilize to that violence, so we designed a prevention capability that we’re now in the process of implementing across the country,” Neumann said. “We made progress because the counterterrorism community took this seriously and prioritized it despite the lack of support from the top.”
Neumann said she hopes the next administration will be more honest about the growing threat posed by extreme right-wing domestic terrorists. She said Americans need to debate whether to expand laws which allow those who support foreign terrorists to be applied to supporting homegrown terrorists.
“It makes it harder for the FBI to investigate when you don’t have that domestic terrorism designation capability,” she said. “We need to have an honest discussion with the American people about the nature of this threat. Quite frankly, if we would just be honest about it, it would reduce the ability for people to be recruited because I think a lot of people don’t appreciate what is happening when they are being recruited.”
Neumann said more Americans have been killed by white supremacists in the last four or five years than by “all of the other threats, including radical Islamic jihadist ideology, combined so if you’re just looking at how many people have died and you think that’s the threat that we want to spend our resources on preventing, it is the right-wing extremism. It is not antifa.”
Law enforcement needs more support and direction from the White House to get the domestic terror threat under control before it is too late, Neumann said.
“If you have the right tools and give it to law enforcement they have the ability to go after this threat and hopefully reduce some of these attacks,” she said. “But we haven’t had that dialogue yet because the president won’t even acknowledge there is a problem.”
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