DHS won't answer questions about staff, funding for office to fight domestic terror

Former DHS officials who previously worked on terrorism prevention worry the new office lacks the funding and staff to be effective.
Image: Dept. Of Homeland Security HQ As Congress' Spending Plan Funds Agency Only Through February
The Department of Homeland Security has declined to answer questions about a new anti-terror program, fueling concerns among former-DHS officials about its effectiveness.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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By Laura Strickler and Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — In the wake of the weekend attack on a San Diego-area synagogue, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended the Trump administration's often-criticized response to domestic terrorism.

When Kristen Welker of NBC News asked why the administration had defunded or disbanded some efforts to combat white nationalism, Sanders said, "There are a number of programs that still exist, both at [the Department of Homeland Security] and in the Department of Justice and other place throughout the administration. To pretend that the president is anything but outraged or heartbroken over these incidents is a total mischaracterization."

DHS, however, has declined to answer questions about the funding and staffing of one of the anti-terror programs Sanders is apparently referring to, fueling concerns among ex-DHS officials about its effectiveness.

Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced the establishment of the Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Protection on April 19, the 24th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which was planned and executed by right-wing domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

The new office, which rebrands an Obama-era initiative, will address both domestic and international terror, and aims to prevent "acts of targeted violence such as racially motivated violence" among other attacks, according to a statement from McAleenan posted on the DHS website.

But DHS declined to specify how many staff members or how much money the new office will have.

Instead, a DHS spokesperson told NBC News: "The new Office will use existing federal personnel within the Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships (OTPP) and leverage existing personnel within the Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans. We will work within the standard budget processes and will work with OMB and lawmakers to identify any future funding needs."

Former DHS officials told NBC News they worry the new office won't have money or personnel to be effective.

Former DHS official Brette Steele, who left the agency in January, welcomed the expanded focus from DHS, which could include efforts to prevent school shootings as well as hate crimes. She says it could also include incidents like the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, and the Las Vegas massacre in 2017, where the motives of the attackers were unclear.

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But Steele says she is concerned that the DHS announcement lacks details.

"We do not know yet whether there will be any additional staff or resources committed to this broader mission," she said. "Staff and resources are drastically reduced, they have gone from 16 to seven [full-time employees], from $9 million to $0 in contracts."

A former senior DHS official who did not want to be identified called the new office "very half-baked," criticizing it for having "no transparency on budget or on who will run it." The person said that "it doesn't appear to be any functionally different than what it was. It is reintroducing, they are doing nothing different that I can tell."

Former DHS official George Selim, now a senior VP at the Anti-Defamation League, said: "Federal law enforcement agencies need to increase their focus and resources on ways to prevent ideologically motivated crimes, not just assess them. As ADL has documented, over the past decade more than 70 percent of extremist-related murders and homicides were committed by right-wing extremists."

DHS says the office will include grants, community awareness and law enforcement awareness briefings, threat assessments, information sharing, and reporting of tips and leads.

DHS says the new office is in line with the White House's National Strategy for Counterterrorism, announced in a strategy document released last October.

But the document is largely focused on countering radical Islamist terrorism and devotes less attention to the rise in domestic terrorism, including threats from the right and left such as: "racially motivated extremism, animal rights extremism, environmental extremism, sovereign citizen extremism, and militia extremism."

Bill Braniff, who runs the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, notes that the rise in domestic terrorism that DHS acknowledges is for the most part among far-right groups. Said Braniff, "In the past three years, we have seen a relative uptick in violent far-right extremist activity compared to the years immediately prior, combined with a relative decrease in Muslim extremist activity since 2014 that puts the increase of violent far-right extremism in sharp relief."

Braniff still called the announcement of the OTPP "a positive step."

"It is very important for DHS and the interagency more broadly to focus on violence prevention, no matter the 'source' of the violence," Braniff said.

Disbanded or restructured?

The Trump administration has been criticized for its response to domestic terrorism.

Earlier this month, the Daily Beast reported that DHS had disbanded a team of intelligence analysts who focused on domestic terrorism, and that officials said the number of DHS reports about white supremacists and domestic terror had dropped.

A branch of the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis that focused on domestic terror was eliminated and its analysts reassigned, according to the Daily Beast. The Trump administration told CBS News the team had been "restructured" and disputed the idea that DHS had decreased its emphasis on domestic terror.

NBC News reported in October 2018 that in the last days of the Obama administration, DHS awarded $10 million to more than two dozen groups around the country to counter violent extremism of all kinds, including right-wing extremism.

The funding was put on hold after President Donald Trump took office. When the funds were finally distributed six months later, some of the original grant recipients received even bigger grants than the Obama administration had awarded. But at least four grants were canceled, including one worth $400,000 that had been awarded to Life After Hate, an organization that specifically fights white supremacist ideology.

To date, the Trump administration has not renewed the grant program.

Chuck Leek, a former white supremacist from San Diego who used to work with Life After Hate, told NBC News he was disappointed that the new office that DHS announced this month to fight terror, OTPP, did not explicitly call out white nationalism. "I would prefer to see more specificity in what types of extremism they believe their efforts should be focused on, and not leave it so open to interpretation of whomever is in charge," he said.