On Tuesday, during a House subcommittee hearing, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., described a death threat she and fellow Muslim Rep. Ilhan Omar had received in the mail. “A good Muslim is a dead one,” the letter had read. The hearing, called “Confronting White Supremacy: Adequacy of the Federal Response,” featured the FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Michael McGarrity. Tlaib wondered why threats like the one against her and Omar don’t qualify as domestic terrorism. “We get so many of them, and I keep asking, ‘What happens? What happens to these individuals?’” She asked McGarrity, “How is that not enough to fall under domestic terrorism?”
In the U.S., there is no criminal charge specifically for “domestic terrorism.” For example, white supremacist James Fields Jr., who killed Heather Heyer with his Dodge Challenger at the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was described as a domestic terrorist; even racist then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the attack met the definition of “domestic terrorism.” Yet he was convicted for hate crimes, not on terror charges.
Instead of being a legal category, “domestic terrorism” is used by federal law enforcement as a framework to organize and describe cases and investigations. But thanks to a recent shift in how the FBI classifies its domestic terror categories, the answer to Tlaib’s urgent question, “what happens” to white supremacist threats, writ large, is all the harder to discover.
Over the last decade, the FBI classified domestic terrorism cases using 11 categories, including a specific grouping for white supremacists. At the end of April, the FBI and Justice Department revealed to Senate Judiciary Committee staffers that a new classification system was now in place, employing only four categories: racially motivated violent extremism; anti-government and anti-authority extremism; animal rights and environmental extremism; and abortion extremism.
The “racially motivated” category is the most problematic one. Under an administration that has made a point of drawing false equivalences between deadly white supremacist violence and anti-racist dissent, the FBI’s category collapse is as unsurprising as it is disconcerting.
The new nomenclature reflects the Trump administration’s ideological commitment to enabling white supremacists.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, between 2009 and 2018, white supremacist and far-right extremists were responsible for 73 percent of extremist murders in the U.S. Yet the distinct and deadly threat of white supremacist violence is now unnamed and merely folded into the too-broad “racially motivated extremism” category. That category folds in “black identity extremism” — an FBI category conjured in 2017 to make the unsubstantiated claim that black organizers fighting against racist police executions were a national security threat.
The new nomenclature reflects the Trump administration’s ideological commitment to enabling white supremacists. But the new classifications are more than semantic: They render it impossible for the public, or even elected officials, to know whether the FBI is dedicating resources to investigating the very real threat of white supremacist terror or if those resources are going toward the harassment of Black Lives Matter and civil rights activists. Only the former use of government time and money would be justified, but both cases would fall under “racially motivated extremism.”
Earlier this month, the FBI’s inability to distinguish white supremacist, far-right terror cases in its data was made clear during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing. During his testimony, McGarrity, the same FBI official questioned this week by Tlaib, was asked by House members how many current domestic investigations were targeting white supremacists. He couldn’t answer with any specificity, save to say that 50 percent of current investigations related to the “racially motivated” category and that the “majority” of these involved white supremacists. Another 40 percent of investigations, he said, related to “anti-government” extremism, without delineating whether targets were right- or left-wing groups. So, while we can know that 90 percent of current domestic FBI investigations involve supposedly “racially motivated” or “anti-government” cases, we can’t know to what extent the agency is abusing these “terror” categories to persecute anti-racist activism and civil rights struggle — as federal law enforcement has historically done.
“The FBI knows who it is investigating, but the public does not, and lawmakers tasked with oversight of powerful intelligence agencies aren’t able to check for abuse because of this purposeful obfuscation by the Bureau,” Sandy Fulton, government relations director of the advocacy group Free Press, told The Intercept via email. “Black protesters seeking justice in the face of institutional and official racism are not the same as white supremacists planning attacks on innocent people. The FBI should know the difference and be more fully accountable to the people it serves and the Constitution it’s sworn to uphold.”
It would be unempirical at best to expect the FBI to end its historic practice of persecuting black dissent. Meanwhile, as the New York Times Magazine highlighted in a lengthy report last November, federal law enforcement has willfully ignored the growth of white supremacist extremism in the last decade, including suppressing findings in a 2009 report on the right-wing radicalization of veterans. As I noted at the time, white supremacy has not only been a blind spot for policing; U.S. law enforcement doesn’t do enough about violent racists because as an institution, it itself is violently racist and contains white supremacists in its ranks. The new categories give the FBI further cover for the same bad practices.
“This new category inappropriately combines incidents involving white supremacists and so-called ‘Black identity extremists,’ a fabricated term based on a faulty assessment of a small number of isolated incidents.”
In a May letter to Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray, six Democratic senators, including Sens. Dick Durbin, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, rightly expressed concern about the new “racially motivated extremism” classification. “This new category,” they wrote, “inappropriately combines incidents involving white supremacists and so-called ‘Black identity extremists,’ a fabricated term based on a faulty assessment of a small number of isolated incidents.” By the same token, the new “anti-government and anti-authority extremism” category makes no differentiation between far-right militias or left-wing radicals, the former constituting a rising deadly threat and the latter having been responsible for no deaths in the U.S. in over 20 years. It’s worth noting, too, that while “animal rights and environmental extremism” remains a category in the FBI’s terror taxonomy, no human or animal life has ever been lost in the U.S. because of militant animal rights and environmental activism.
“The re-categorization is a significant tell,” said Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI agent. “Rather than be upfront about their methods and their use of the significant resources allocated to them by Congress, they chose to obscure this information.” As German told The Intercept, Congress has demanded greater transparency and more information about the FBI’s handling of white supremacist terror threats for well over six months.
In late March, following the massacre at two mosques in New Zealand by a white supremacist, Durbin reintroduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act with the specific aim of forcing federal agencies to be more transparent and accountable with regards to addressing white supremacist extremism. While Durbin’s bill has not yet passed and is by no means the answer to the festering scourge of American white supremacist violence, the Justice Department and FBI’s move toward even greater obfuscation is all the more disturbing as a response. As Free Press’s Fulton put it, “Lumping ‘white-supremacist’ terrorism into the broader and more vague category of ‘racially motivated’ terrorism allows the FBI to hide the fact that it’s not putting enough resources into investigating the rising threat of violent racism in the United States.”