White supremacists will remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States through 2021, according to Department of Homeland Security draft documents.
The most recent draft report predicts an “elevated threat environment at least through” early next year, concluding that some US-based violent extremists have capitalized on increased social and political tensions in 2020.
Although foreign terrorist organizations will continue to call for attacks on the US, the report says, they “probably will remain constrained in their ability to direct such plots over the next year.”
The threat assessment – which also warns of continued disinformation efforts by Russia – is especially notable as President Donald Trump has often employed race-baiting tactics in his quest for reelection and frequently downplayed the threat from white supremacists during his term in office. The Trump administration has portrayed Antifa and anarchists as a top threat to the US, with the President tweeting this summer that the US will designate Antifa as a terrorist organization.
The recently released draft reports, which were made public by Lawfare Editor in Chief Benjamin Wittes and first reported by Politico, assess a host of threats, including cyber, foreign influence and irregular migration.
All three drafts state that white supremacist extremists are the deadliest threat. However, the placement and language about white supremacy in three versions of the DHS draft documents differ slightly.
The earliest available version of the “State of the Homeland Threat Assessment 2020” drafts reads: “We judge that ideologically-motivated lone offenders and small groups will pose the greatest terrorist threat to the Homeland through 2021, with white supremacist extremists presenting the most lethal threat.”
The lead section on terror threats to the homeland is changed in the latter two drafts to replace “white supremacist extremists” with “Domestic Violent Extremists presenting the most persistent and lethal threat.”
The reports, however, all contain this language: “Among DVEs [Domestic Violent Extremists], we judge that white supremacist extremists (WSEs) will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland through 2021.”
Wittes published the documents because he wanted there to be a “benchmark about what the career folks at DHS actually assessed the threats to be against” the final product that is released by the department.
He told CNN that “the most striking thing is in this political atmosphere; they have said what they said” – that white supremacist violence is the threat they are most concerned about.
“I don’t want to criticize them when that language is there. That said it is somewhat different in the first draft than the subsequent two and I do think the nature of the change is notable as a reflection of the political pressure they are under,” he said.
CNN has reached out to DHS for comment. The final 2020 threat assessment has not been publicly released.
The 2020 draft report also finds that Russian state-affiliated actors will continue targeting US industry and all levels of government with “intrusive cyber espionage.” According to the draft, China and Russia are the most capable nation-state cyber adversaries, but Iran and North Korea also pose a threat to the US.
One of the report’s “key take-aways” is that “Russia probably will be the primary covert foreign influence actor and purveyor of disinformation and misinformation in the Homeland.”
Moscow’s primary aim is to undermine the US electoral process and weaken the United States. Some Kremlin-linked disinformation also might motivate acts of violence in the US, the draft report says.
Trump has regularly downplayed the threat of white supremacist violence during his presidency, most notably when he said there were some “fine people” among the extremists who sparked violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. He’s also called Blacks Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” and has regularly pushed narratives on Twitter that emphasize violence against White Americans as he seeks to curry support in the suburbs.
Officials in his administration, however, have warned against white supremacist extremism.
Last year, CNN reported that White House officials rebuffed efforts by their DHS colleagues for more than a year to make combating domestic terror threats, such as those from white supremacists, a greater priority as specifically spelled out in the National Counterterrorism Strategy.
Then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said last year White supremacist extremism is one of the most “potent ideologies” driving acts violence in the US, when he released the department’s counterterrorism strategy, outlining the ongoing threats from foreign terrorism and focusing on domestic terror threats, particularly white supremacism.
“In our modern age, the continued menace of racially based violent extremism, particularly white supremacist extremism, is an abhorrent affront to the nation, the struggle and unity of its diverse population,” he said in a speech at the Brookings Institution almost a year ago.
The threat assessment was prompted by a 2019 DHS counterterrorism strategy that called for annual reports to inform government officials and the public.