In the view of the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence wing, anger over the election of Donald Trump, reflected in protests across the country, is a driving force in “domestic terrorist violence,” according to an unclassified report obtained by The Intercept.
The conclusions, laid out in a February 21 report prepared by the North Carolina Information Sharing and Analysis Center and DHS’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis, come amid a series of controversial post-election efforts by Republican lawmakers to criminalize protest.
Focused on North Carolina, the six-page document “was written in response to a spike in violence and criminal acts — including an arson attack — targeting political party offices and staff that occurred prior to of [sic] and immediately following the election” and sets out to provide “an overall threat forecast for the first half of 2017 concerning like activities in the state.”
“In the lead up to and immediately following the 2016 election, North Carolina experienced incidents that included the targeting of political campaign offices and government organizations,” the report notes, which “highlight their attractiveness as targets for domestic terrorists and various cyber actors seeking to advance political aims and/or influence government operations.”
Based largely on open source reporting and law enforcement assessments, the report focuses on a handful of incidents in late October in which GOP offices were targeted with “low level physical violence,” including with BB guns and, in the most serious incident, Molotov cocktails. Though property was damaged in the latter incident, nobody was injured. The report notes that the words “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” were spray-painted on a building adjacent to the burned GOP office — the report does not mention the “Black Lives Don’t Matter and Neither Does Your Votes” graffiti that appeared on a wall in Durham, North Carolina, weeks later, however, nor the Democratic office in Carrboro, North Carolina, that was tagged with the words “Death to Capitalism.”
One individual was arrested on federal terrorism charges during the period of heightened activity for allegedly leaving a bomb threat on a GOP answering machine in the county of Henderson.
The report also highlights three incidents of “malicious cyber activity targeting public sector — particularly government — entities in the last half of 2016” that “may have been politically-motivated.” In one incident, “a criminal hacker defaced a North Carolina law enforcement website by gaining access and posting pro-Turkey messaging.” In another, “a criminal hacker group” tried and failed to steal government records. In the third and final example cited in the report, a so-called distributed denial of service attack “significantly degraded” a city website’s “functionality and impacted connectivity.”
Overall, the law enforcement and intelligence analysts in North Carolina expect that the vandalism allegedly motivated by Trump’s election “will likely decrease through the first half of 2017 as compared to the last half of 2016,” basing its conclusion on “the lack of threat reporting and the completion of the Presidential election and the near completion of political transitions in federal and state governments which may have served as a drivng [sic] catalyst for the violence.”
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program at NYU’s law school, said it was important to analyze the report and its conclusions for what they are: the work-product of one of the nation’s many law enforcement “fusion centers,” which he said tend to “measure their effectiveness by how many reports they publish.”
A former undercover FBI agent who infiltrated violent domestic organizations, German said the report failed on numerous fronts to achieve its intended purpose of providing information that could help law enforcement stop or solve crimes.
“It claims to provide ‘situational awareness,’ but what information does it actually provide about the situation?” German explained in an email to The Intercept. “It doesn’t purport to quantify the number or type of attacks that made up the supposed ‘spike’ in election-related incidents, and it doesn’t qualitatively describe them either. It isn’t clear whether the examples summarized are the only cases, or the most serious cases, or just a handful of cases the analyst chose at random to summarize for this report.”
What’s more, German pointed out, “that election-related violence might go down after the election is over is tautological.”
While the report predicts a decrease in the kinds of incidents seen in North Carolina last year, it also includes a section on the perspective of DHS’s intelligence wing, which links national protests over Trump’s election to domestic terrorism.
“DHS assesses that anger over the results of the 2016 Presidential election continues to be a driver of domestic terrorist violence throughout the United States — as evidenced by rioting in Portland, Oregon, following the election and violence and destruction of property in Washington during the inauguration,” the report says.
The early November eruption in Portland, cited in the footnotes of the report, was officially described as a riot by local police, who used flash bang grenades and tear gas to respond to property damage, which law enforcement officials characterized as “extensive criminal and dangerous behavior.” The widely reported inauguration day protests in Washington, D.C., which took place a day before the historic women’s march on the Capitol, also featured property damage and a hard-edged police response, culminating in more than 200 arrests — including a number of working journalists — most of whom were hit with federal rioting charges.
Trump has lashed out against those protesting him — whether they destroy property or not — as illegitimate and/or paid agitators. Following the protests in Portland he tweeted, “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”
The message has apparently resonated. Since Trump’s election, Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states have introduced bills aimed at cracking down on protests. Decried by civil liberties advocates as the criminalization of dissent, the recent legislation has included efforts to provide legal protections to drivers who hit protesters with their cars and proposals to use racketeering laws in order to seize the property of any individual who attends a peaceful protest that turns violent.
In the case of North Carolina specifically, DHS agreed “that the campaign cycle likely was a driving influence of the rash of incidents” last year, but “cannot discount the possibility that some such individuals could be spurred to violence against a variety of political targets in the state in the coming year.” The report adds that there are “other factors or occurrences that could foment further criminal acts and violence against political entities in North Carolina.”
Examples of other factors noted in the assessment include “negative publicity surrounding perceived political scandal involving North Carolina political entities”; “passage of new state or federal legislation that is unpopular with violent extremists — such as legislation concerning: abortion rights, LGBT rights, environmental concerns, gun control, or federal health insurance”; “perceived success in violent activity during the 2017 Presidential inauguration that energized local and regional violent extremists”; and “negative publicity surrounding voter registration in North Carolina during the previous 2016 presidential election.”
The report’s forecast for 2017 does not address reported rises in Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic violence, harassment, and vandalism, which some experts have attributed to the president’s right-wing base feeling emboldened by his rhetoric and success. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, such incidents spiked after Trump’s election, and while they have decreased in recent weeks, the organization says they remain above pre-election levels. North Carolina in particular was among the 18 states hit in a string bomb threats targeting dozens of Jewish community centers and schools across the country this week. The FBI, meanwhile, has reported a rise in hate crimes in the state in recent years, and in 2015 the infamous murder of three young Muslims by a white neighbor in Chapel Hill sparked an emotional nationwide debate on the subject.
The Intercept contacted DHS for clarification on the agency’s views regarding domestic terrorism and anger over Trump’s election but did not receive a response.
“The issue of what is counted as political violence and what isn’t, this is a longstanding problem,” German, the former FBI agent, said. “Law enforcement agencies have long tended to view vandalism, civil disobedience, or even just protest against government institutions as more serious than actual violence against marginalized populations. That’s why crimes against government property are ‘terrorism’ but crimes against minorities are ‘hate crimes’ at best and ignored at worst.”
“For example, the report calls private property destruction in D.C. and Portland after the election ‘domestic terrorism,’ which vastly overstates the charges levied in those incidents,” German said. “For a fusion center to amplify disorderly conduct, vandalism, or civil disobedience into terrorism is inappropriate, factually wrong, and potentially misleading to law enforcement.”