Justice Department Routinely Fails to Prioritize Far-Right Violence

October 31, 2018

MEDIA CONTACT: Stephen Fee, stephen.fee@nyu.edu, 646 925 8720

The FBI and local law enforcement acted promptly to identify perpetrators in the string of violent attacks that convulsed the country this past week, surely saving lives. But the federal government has generally failed to prioritize racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and anti-immigrant violence, especially compared with attacks committed by Muslims. A new paper published by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law argues that the Justice Department has often overlooked the threat of far-right violence and has sufficient legal authority to treat these as acts of domestic terrorism.

“As the pipe bombs and the Pittsburgh and Lexington shootings make clear, the threat from far-right violence is very real and may be on the rise,” said the paper’s author Michael German, a former FBI special agent who successfully infiltrated far-right groups during his career. “Yet the Justice Department continues to under resource and under emphasize the threat to human life posed by far-right extremists. Instead, it aggressively and often overzealously surveils and investigates supposedly ‘radicalized’ individuals from minority communities who often have not attempted to commit violent acts. Their priorities are out of order.”

The paper finds that while thousands of FBI agents have been devoted to counterterrorism, the number of field agents assigned to domestic terrorism has averaged less than 330 in the most recent years for which data is available. Further, the Brennan Center report "Wrong Priorities on Fighting Terrorism" shows that even when the FBI looks to counter domestic terrorism, it often minimizes far-right violence while aggressively targeting minority activists and environmentalist movements that have presented a much lower danger.

“Just before the fatal 2017 Charlottesville rally, federal officials were warning of the non-existent ‘Black Identity Extremism’ movement as a serious threat,” said the Brennan Center’s German. “Not only were such claims predicated on a handful of unconnected acts, they diverted attention from the very real threat of white nationalists looking to incite violence in the heart of Virginia.”

Federal law enforcement officials have often claimed they lack the legal authority to prosecute white supremacists and right-wing extremists as domestic terrorists, calling for new laws to address “domestic terrorism.” But the Brennan Center’s latest study analyzes and identifies 57 “federal crimes of terrorism,” 51 of which can be applied to cases of domestic terrorism. It cautions that a new domestic terrorism law could be used to improperly surveil and encroach on the rights of groups already inappropriately in the FBI’s crosshairs.

“Some in federal law enforcement would like you to think they don’t have the authority to use terrorism laws to prosecute domestic right-wing violence, but our analysis shows nothing could be further from the truth,” said the Brennan Center’s German. “New legal authorities are unnecessary and would likely only heighten the discriminatory impact of investigations and prosecutions that violate civil rights of minority groups rather than targeting those who pose the real threat to human life.”