by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Igor Volsky
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Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a report warning that the economic recession and the election of the first African-American president could mobilize right-wing extremist groups inside the United States to gain new recruits. To bolster their ranks, the groups may target veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the analysis. The report concluded that while the DHS "has no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence," right-wing extremists -- or movements that it defined as "primarily hate-oriented...and those that are mainly antigovernment" -- "are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda." This document, along with an earlier report on radicalized left-wing groups, was requested by the Bush administration after FBI Director Robert Mueller and other Bush appointees acknowledged the threat of right-wing extremism. One DHS official described the report as "nothing unusual." "This is the job of DHS, to assess what is happening in this country, with regard to homegrown terrorism, and determine whether it's an actual threat or not, and that's what these assessments do. ... These assessments are done all the time," the official said. But despite the nature of the report, conservative commentators are outraged, insisting that the document's characterization of "right-wing extremism" represents a direct attack on Republican loyalists, conservative ideology, and veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson went so far as to suggest that the report "shows somebody down in the bowels of that organization is either a convinced left winger or somebody whose sexual orientation is somewhat in question."
WHAT THE REPORT SAYS: According to the report, "the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn -- including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit -- could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities." Specifically, the report finds that "rightwing extremist groups' frustration over a perceived lack of government action on illegal immigration" and the government's "heightened interest in legislation for tighter firearms, may be invigorating rightwing extremist activity." The report also found that extremist groups may "attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat." In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the "number of hate groups operating in the United States continued to rise in 2008 and has grown by 54 percent since 2000 -- an increase fueled last year by immigration fears, a failing economy and the successful campaign of Barack Obama."
CONSERVATIVES PRETEND THEY ARE TARGETS: Most conservative commentators passionately argued that the report's description of right-wing extremists represented a politically-motivated attempt to "smear" conservatives. In a column published on FoxNews.com, Oliver North declared that his Christian faith and respect for the second amendment "makes me a 'right-wing extremist.'" Fox News host Neil Cavuto asserted that the report "more or less states the government considers you a terrorist threat if you oppose abortion, speak out against illegal immigration, or you are a returning war veteran." Sean Hannity announced that "if you disagree with that liberal path that President Obama's taken the country down, you may soon catch the attention of the Department of Homeland Security." Appearing on Hannity's Fox News show to rant about the report, RNC Chairman Michael Steele similarly declared that "to segment out Americans who dissent from this administration, to segment out conservatives in this country who have a different philosophy or view from this administration and labeling them as terrorists...to me is the height of insult." Rush Limbaugh claimed that the report portrayed "standard, ordinary, everyday conservatives as posing a bigger threat to this country than al Qaeda terrorists or genuine enemies of this country like Kim Jong Il," and Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, even "asked for a hearing into the matter," suggesting that the DHS should focus on the threat emanating from Muslims instead. The DHS report did not target "conservatives" or "Republican loyalists." Indeed, it's odd that conservatives would willingly group themselves and Republicans in with "rightwing extremist activity, specifically the white supremacist and militia movements" -- the actual focus of the DHS report.
CONSERVATIVES CLAIM OBAMA TARGETED VETERANS: Several conservatives also misrepresented the intelligence assessment as an attack on American veterans. The Obama administration is "specifically warning that veterans returning home from war, are to be feared -- that they could be right-wing extremists that want to launch terror attacks on America," Joe Scarborough argued on MSNBC's Morning Joe. House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) claimed that "to characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable. The Department of Homeland Security owes our veterans an apology." But the report actually argued that the danger isn't from veterans themselves, but from the efforts of right-wing extremists to "recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat." "The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today," the report concluded. And while Napolitano apologized to those who found the report offensive, she explained that "the report is not saying that veterans are extremists. Far from it. What it is saying is returning veterans are targets of right-wing extremist groups that are trying to recruit those to commit violent acts within the country. We want to do all we can to prevent that." In fact, as Media Matters pointed out, the report even "cited a 2008 FBI report -- authored during the Bush administration -- as evidence that 'some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups.'" The 2.2 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars also issued a statement clarifying that "the report should have been worded differently, but it made no blanket accusation that every soldier was capable of being a traitor like Benedict Arnold, or every veteran could be a lone wolf, homegrown terrorist like Timothy McVeigh. It was just an assessment about possibilities that could take place."