At Homeland Security, Anti-Muslim Activist Katharine Gorka Maintained Ties With Islamophobes

Gorka worked on CVE programs, which have faced increased allegations of anti-Muslim bias under Trump, FOIA documents show.

The US Department of Homeland Security building building is seen in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security building is seen in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019. Photo: Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty Images

In October 2018, Clare Lopez, a far-right activist and longtime top figure at the anti-Muslim group Center for Security Policy, wrote to a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security expecting a receptive audience. After all, the recipient of the email was Katharine Gorka, a former senior adviser in the Department’s Office of Policy, whose tenure in President Donald Trump’s DHS was itself controversial, in light of her past comments about Islam.

Lopez’s email echoed a widespread far-right conspiracy theory about Muslim Americans: that national Muslim advocacy organizations, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, are secretly fronts for overseeing terrorist organizations. Lopez was writing to urge the largest federal law enforcement organization in the country to act on the unfounded theory.

“HAMAS is a designated FTO” — Foreign Terrorist Organization — “& CAIR is its US branch … but members of Congress openly support it, even are featured as keynote speakers at its events,” Lopez wrote. She warned about CAIR and another American-Muslim group: “We need to understand that this is a domestic insurgency aimed at destruction & replacement of the US Constitution – please let me know how I can help.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Center for Security and Policy, where Lopez worked at the time, as a “conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement.” It is unclear if Lopez, who was a vice president with the group, remains at the Center of Security Policy; the group no longer appears in many of her public biographies. (Lopez did not respond to repeated inquiries and the Center for Security Policy declined to comment.) But her LinkedIn page lists the center as a current affiliation, describing her role as that of a “thought leader” and “project manager” in the “counterjihad movement.”

“We were concerned when she joined the administration. What we found is a large number of meetings proving our hypothesis.”

Lopez’s message was obtained by the Washington-based group American Oversight this month as part of a public records request into Gorka’s role at DHS. Founded in 2017, lawyers from American Oversight filed suit for her calendars and external communications last year. The agency began releasing documents earlier this year and shared a recently released collection with The Intercept.

Because of her record of anti-Muslim comments, Gorka’s roles with the Trump administration — she was an early appointee to the transition team for the Department of Homeland Security — raised alarm bells among Muslim advocacy groups in the U.S. While it’s not clear from the FOIA documents whether Gorka ever responded to Lopez’s October appeal, the email was one among many in the trove that American Oversight says confirmed the worst fears: that Gorka’s appointment could have emboldened far-right and anti-Muslim voices to see an ally in Trump’s DHS.

Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director and a former lawyer for the State Department under President Barack Obama, told The Intercept by phone that the group filed the lawsuit to find out what role Gorka had in DHS’s policy process and to see whether she was in touch with outside voices on the far-right.

“Katharine Gorka comes from an ecosystem of anti-immigrant, anti-Islam organizations and personalities,” Evers said. “We were concerned when she joined the administration that she would bring that network in, and enhance its influence with the power of the United States government. What we found is a large number of meetings proving our hypothesis.”

In a statement to The Intercept, CAIR Director of Government Affairs Robert McCaw said, “These messages confirm what we already knew — Katharine Gorka is an anti-Muslim bigot and conspiracy theorist who openly collaborates with other far-right extremists. Ms. Gorka never had any business serving in the federal government.”

A former writer for the far-right website Breitbart, Gorka had used various platforms to air anti-Muslim views in the past. In a 2015 interview, she proposed “shutting down the radical mosques.” She had also suggested that the news network Al Jazeera — a frequent boogeyman of the Islamophobic far right — should not be allowed to broadcast in the United States.

Though it is unclear if Gorka ever responsed to Lopez’s October email, Lopez had indeed maintained a relationship with a sympathetic ally in the highest levels of government.

According to the FOIA documents, Gorka and Lopez ran into each other earlier in August 2018, when Gorka’s husband Sebastian — a former Trump White House official and bombastic right-wing personality — gave a foreign policy address at the think tank Westminster Institute, where Katharine Gorka formerly served as executive director. Lopez wrote to Gorka the next day and shared her private Protonmail address. “Great to see you … last night at Westminster, Katie – looking forward to following up w/you,” Lopez wrote.

After more than two years as a senior policy adviser at DHS, Gorka became press secretary for the department’s Customs and Border Protection last June. Two months later, she left the Trump administration and now works at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. Unlike her husband, Sebastian, who has been a vocal presence on right-wing media defending the president, Katharine Gorka, who goes by Katie, is a more understated presence. Her caution extends to what she puts in government email.

The FOIA documents paint a picture of Trump’s DHS as heavily influenced by political appointees like Gorka.

Calendars and emails, however, which were obtained through American Oversight’s FOIA request, largely confirm previous news reports that she was an influential, behind-the-scenes presence on terrorism policy and had a hand in shaping DHS’s approach to “countering violent extremism” programs.

The FOIA documents paint a picture of Trump’s DHS as heavily influenced by political appointees like Gorka, and the revelations come at a time when DHS stands accused of politicizing intelligence to benefit Trump. Last week, the House Intelligence Committee released a whistleblower complaint from Brian Murphy, the former head of DHS’s intelligence division, who told the committee that senior leadership had pressured him to inflate the threat of left-wing violence, while downplaying that from white supremacy and Russian election interference.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, DHS moved to shift the focus of its “countering violent extremism” grant program. CVE, as the policy area is known, purports to espouse a community-based terrorism prevention effort aimed at preventing all forms of extremist violence in the U.S. Even under President Barack Obama, the effort was criticized for singling out American Muslims for suspicion. As a result, CVE programs grew to be controversial for targeting Muslim American communities for surveillance.

Under Trump, the program appeared to go one step further — and criticisms deepened, not least because of the involvement of officials like Gorka.

In 2017, then-DHS Secretary John Kelly altered the distribution of about $10 million in CVE grant money previously allocated to community organizations by the outgoing Obama administration. Among the groups cut were Life After Hate, a nonprofit aimed at de-radicalizing white supremacists. News reports, including a profile in BuzzFeed News later that year, linked Gorka to the decision.

The calendars obtained by American Oversight confirm that much of Gorka’s work in 2017 focused on policy around CVE. Her calendars list a first “CVE grant discussion” on January 24, 2017 — four days after Trump’s inauguration — and continued to list her as a participant in more than 10 meetings or discussions on CVE between then and the end of March 2017.

Gorka’s calendars show that, throughout the year, she was invited to participate in meetings, discussions, and phone calls on CVE programs, including discussing partnerships with other DHS agencies. For example, her calendar shows one October 2017 meeting between staff from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Office of Citizenship “to explore partnering on developing CVE programs for children of immigrants.” It’s unclear if anything came of the meeting.

Gorka’s calendar also lists a February 2017 discussion on “CVE grants and Sanctuary Cities.” Again, it’s unclear if anything came of the meeting, but the Trump administration would later fight a court battle over whether the Department of Justice can withhold law enforcement grants from sanctuary cities.

The calendars show Gorka also had a hand in other terrorism prevention initiatives at DHS. In late 2017, she was invited to participate in a meeting on “DHS Screening and use of publicly available information” — possibly a reference to a later policy change by the Trump administration to start screening the social media pages for refugee and asylum seekers.

Gorka was so central to terrorism policy at DHS that, after Kelly left in November 2017, Gorka was one of the officials tasked with coordinating between different DHS offices.

Gorka was so central to terrorism policy at DHS that, after Kelly left to become Trump’s chief of staff in November 2017, she was one of the officials tasked with coordinating between different DHS offices to develop a briefing on terrorism prevention for the incoming secretary.

While at DHS, Gorka also frequently corresponded with various people at her soon to be employer, the Heritage Foundation, where she is listed as having a number of meetings during her tenure in public office. One frequent confidant was Robin Simcox, then a terrorism researcher at the think tank who authored a report called “The Asylum-Terror Nexus: How Europe Should Respond,” which it pushes a similar line to the justifications given by Trump and other anti-immigration activists to the U.S.’s asylum program. (Simcox, who frequently shared his published works with Gorka’s official government email address, did not respond to a request for comment made to the U.K.’s Counter Extremism Group, where he is the director.)

Gorka also used her work email to confide in Heritage scholars, including about her plans after leaving DHS. In June 2018, more than a year before she left the agency, Gorka emailed James Carafano, a national security expert at the think tank, asking to talk about “terrorism prevention and life after DHS.” (A spokesperson for Heritage declined to comment for this story.)

Eighteen months later, she would become Carafano’s colleague, when, according to a LinkedIn page, she formally joined Heritage.

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