A Department of Homeland Security agency’s intelligence report about the Atlanta protest movement “Stop Cop City” lifted a sentence nearly verbatim from an article published on a far-right news website a day earlier.
The December 16, 2022, report from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Office for Bombing Prevention describes protesters opposed to razing a forest for a massive new police facility as “militants” comprising a “violent far-left occupation” — phrasings identical to an article written by right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo.
“Five militants, part of the violent far-left occupation, were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism and other felony charges,” said the CISA report, referring to protests against the construction of the police facility, dubbed “Cop City” by its opponents.
A day earlier, the Post Millennial, a conservative news outlet founded by Ngo that has faced criticism for its partisan bent and misleading stories on subjects like Covid-19, ran a story with the same sentence, with small cosmetic changes. “Five militants part of a violent far-left occupation in south Atlanta were arrested on Tuesday and charged with domestic terrorism and other felony charges,” Ngo’s original reads. (Neither CISA nor Ngo immediately responded to a request for comment.)
The DHS report came a month before one protester encamped at the proposed Cop City site was killed in a hail of police gunfire — a massive escalation in what has become an ongoing crackdown against the movement.
The term “militants” used by federal agents in December reflects the escalation: a catchall for targets of the U.S.’s so-called global war on terror, the buzzword not typically used to describe domestic actors. That it has filtered into DHS reporting on protest movements is reflective of the new focus on domestic terrorism, particularly after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
In March, prosecutors began hitting anti-Cop City protesters with domestic terrorism charges for alleged attacks with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Since then, the trend of terror allegations has continued, ensnaring a growing group of actors in the movement, with more than 40 now facing terror charges. When administrators of a bail fund for protesters were charged with money laundering last week, Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said they had “facilitated and encouraged domestic terrorism.”
“The nature of the law enforcement response to the Stop Cop City protests, and the prosecutions of protesters and their supporters highlights how broad domestic terrorism laws are used as a political cudgel rather than a mechanism to improve public safety,” Mike German, a former FBI special agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Intercept.
The CISA report was posted to the Technical Resource for Incident Prevention, or TRIPwire, a resource sharing portal for “expert intelligence analysis” in order to raise “awareness of evolving Improvised Explosive Device (IED) tactics,” according to its website. In March, activists involved in the movement were accused of using Molotov cocktails — which are not listed in a DHS document defining the term — but there does not appear to be any record of IED allegations before the December CISA report.
On Monday, Atlanta City Council will vote on the budget for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, the law enforcement training facility at the center of the controversy. The facility is expected to take up over 85 acres, replete with a mock city for “urban police training.” Cop City, expected to cost $90 million, was announced in 2021 by then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Since then, protesters have taken up camp in the forest where the facility would be built, in an effort to block its construction.
On March 5, following the alleged Molotov attack against police, Georgia authorities charged 23 protesters with domestic terrorism. The terror enhancement of the charges have prompted criticism from civil liberties groups.
“Unfortunately, we have seen law enforcement across the country treating environmental activists and racial justice protesters as terrorists, despite the lack of deadly violence associated with this activism,” said German.
The focus on domestic terrorism has been shared by leaders of both parties. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump vowed to designate “antifa” as a terrorist organization. President Joe Biden, in his first full day in office, directed his national security team to conduct a 100-day, comprehensive review of U.S. government efforts to address domestic terrorism — described by the White House as “the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today.”
Since then, charges against participants in the January 6 attack have caused domestic terror prosecutions to increase sharply.
“Unfortunately, we have seen law enforcement across the country treating environmental activists and racial justice protesters as terrorists, despite the lack of deadly violence associated with this activism.”
In 2022, House Democrats passed a bill, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would have created new offices designed to focus on domestic terrorism specifically, in DHS, the FBI, and the Justice Department. By a vote of 47-47, Senate Republicans blocked the legislation.
The Atlanta protesters are being prosecuted under the same domestic terrorism law that was expanded after Dylann Roof murdered nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. While the law originally only applied to criminal acts intended to kill at least 10 people, the Georgia legislature expanded the law to include property crimes intending to intimidate or coerce the government — of which the Atlanta protesters stand accused.
As for the CISA report, though it cribbed Any Ngo, German said it made for a limited resource because of the complete lack of citations.
“This type of intelligence reporting is of dubious utility because it doesn’t contain enough detail for law enforcement to assess the credibility of the information provided so they can develop a proper response,” German told The Intercept. “It includes no citations so it doesn’t even provide an avenue for law enforcement to follow up for more information or link events to understand a larger pattern.”
German added, “There doesn’t appear to be any attempt to put these three events in context so police officials could determine whether the events are part of some larger issue of law enforcement concern.”
Update: June 6, 2023
This story has been updated to include a PDF version of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency intelligence report. After publication of this story, the Department of Homeland Security blocked access to the report in its public-facing document portal.