Posted on January 22, 2021

Can U.S. Spy Agencies Stop White Terror?

Jeff Stein, Daily Beast, January 18, 2021

{snip} Last week, America’s security agencies were again caught flat footed when another kind of militant wave, this time pro-Trump fanatics, stormed and trashed the citadel of American democracy, nearly executing what al-Qaeda had failed to do, destroy the U.S. Capitol.

Democrats in Congress are teeing up another round of investigations and commissions to get to the bottom of the January 6 insurrection, which will almost certainly revisit the thorny question of whether the U.S. needs an independent counter-subversion agency to infiltrate and neutralize armed domestic extremists, who are now threatening more attacks on or around the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Already, a bill has been introduced to empower federal law enforcement to better monitor and stop domestic extremist violence.

“It is not enough to just condemn hate, we need to equip law enforcement with the tools needed to identify threats and prevent violent acts of domestic terrorism,” said its sponsor, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL). “The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act improves coordination between our federal agencies and makes sure they are focused on the most serious domestic threats,” he said.


It’s deja vu all over again. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, blue ribbon commissions stumbled all over each other to find out what went wrong, with all of them coming to more or less the same conclusions: U.S. intelligence was awash in reports on al-Qaeda, but “too often failed…to appreciate its collective significance in terms of a probable terrorist attack,” as the joint report of the House and Senate intelligence committees put it.

Then there was the 9/11 Commission, which discovered that, among many intelligence lapses, the CIA had actually withheld crucial information from the FBI about the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S.

All find echoes in the events surrounding January 6. None dare say “wake-up call” or “lessons learned”—there’s been far too many of them over the decades. But one response to the 9/11 tragedy may well get renewed attention after the Capitol assault—especially if armed white nationalists are successful in carrying out more attacks in the coming days and weeks: The call for a secret police.

In 2003, the bipartisan Gilmore Commission, led by a former Virginia Republican governor, concluded that the U.S. needed a new domestic intelligence agency along the lines of Britain’s secretive MI5, “to collect, assess and disseminate domestic intelligence.” It didn’t get too far, but the idea has never entirely lost it appeal, either.

In 2008, a study by the RAND Corp. think tank said the best of a number of alternatives was to set up “an autonomous service within an existing agency,” probably the FBI.

The FBI, under Director Robert S. Mueller III, beat back challenges to the bureau’s authority and promised to do more and better. And it did. But years later, with revelations that the FBI and Capitol Police overlooked widespread extremist social media traffic and fumbled intelligence reports on plans by pro-Trump forces to invade the Capitol, the verdict is still out on whether the bureau is fully up to the task.

“They resisted it,” John Parachini, director of RAND’s Intelligence Policy Center, recalled of reform efforts after 9/11. “When we did our study back 10 years or so ago, they were very nervous about what we were going to say,” he told SpyTalk. “And they followed up with everybody we were interviewing.” The bureau will “very aggressively” resist any new attempts to dilute its authority, he predicted.

And it should, says James Clapper, who was director of national intelligence during the Barack Obama administration.

“Whenever something goes wrong, the knee-jerk Beltway reaction is, ‘Let’s reorganize,’” Clapper told SpyTalk, “when more often than not, that’s not the problem.”


Timothy Gill, a highly decorated FBI senior liaison officer to the CIA from 2003 to 2013, says the creation of an American version of Britain’s MI5 is “long past due,” whether inside or independent of the FBI, because [the bureau “needs to become more of a domestic intelligence agency and not a federal law enforcement entity.” The FBI has a culture problem that prevents it from fully embracing the nitty-gritty work of intelligence gathering, analysis and sharing, at least when it comes to domestic terrorism, which the FBI (along with DHS) has labelled the greatest threat to national security, he says.


Bubba Boys

For years, local police and the FBI just couldn’t recognize crazy-talking, highly armed white men as a systematic, potential terrorism threat. Some were in their own ranks. A 2006 FBI study found considerable sympathy for white supremacists in local and state police, but ignored it. “Law enforcement’s inability to reckon with the far right is a problem that goes back generations in this country,” veteran investigative reporter Janet Reitman wrote two years ago in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. U.S. law enforcement failed to see the threat of white nationalism, and now they don’t know how to stop it. Several former and present law enforcement and military personnel joined the march on the Capitol, at President Trump’s instigation. He was impeached for that on January 13.

Undergirding resistance to any new authority to combat white nationalist terrorist threats, of course, are widespread fears that Washington could end up creating an American Gestapo, a secret police at the beck and call of a future president.

“I think there’s a real danger in creating an intelligence agency that has a kind of roving warrant to conduct surveillance over individuals without a focus on criminal activity,” Georgetown Law Professor David Cole, a civil liberties specialist, told the PBS Frontline show in 2015, when the debate over creating an American MI5 was cresting.

“If what we’re concerned about is terrorism, it’s a crime,” Cole added. “It seems to me that if the FBI is charged with investigating crime and the FBI focuses on people who may be engaged in crime, may be conspiring to engage in crime, might have evidence of criminal activity—all of which terrorism fits into — that they ought to be able to do that job.”

Hoover’s Ghost

Parachini, now RAND’s senior international and defense researcher, says the resistance is partly a hangover from the half-century long tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, when FBI counterintelligence agents regularly broke the law in pursuit of real and imagined anarchists, communists and antiwar activists and the director himself tried to blackmail civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. into committing suicide.


The answer may be elusive right now—especially under a cloud of more and widespread white nationalist attacks. But when the blood and dust clear, there will be no shortage of experts, officials and commissions to offer their opinions on how best to prevent yet another calamity, yet another “intelligence failure,” yet another failure to communicate.