It has been more than three years since a conservative campaign waged in the media and in the capital hounded a decorated analyst named Daryl Johnson out of his job at the Department of Homeland Security. That campaign, sparked by a leaked report Johnson authored on the increased threat of right-wing domestic terrorism, was an early and telling flashpoint in the Obama administration's fraught relationship with the right. There is a neat political symmetry, then, in Johnson's return to Washington this week in the waning months of the president's term.
On Wednesday, Johnson will speak to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the topic of "Hate Crimes and the Threat of Domestic Extremism," delivering the same warning that made him a prominent right-wing whipping boy during the early days of the Tea Party. In a sad reminder of Johnson's vindication, a survivor of last month's Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting will join him on the panel.
If Johnson's exchange with elected officials this week does not involve some sort of apology or contrition, it should. Following the release of his report, DHS slashed staff assigned to studying domestic terrorism unrelated to Islam, which Johnson says led to his own resignation. The years since this inelegant end to Johnson's public service career are pockmarked with acts of non-Islamic domestic violence -- violence defined by the exact characteristics listed in Johnson's report.
That April 2009 report, written under the imprimatur of DHS' Department of Intelligence and Analysis and running nine bullet-point pages, was brief but sober. Using recent history as his guide, Johnson argued that the sharp economic downturn triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, in combination with the election of the country's first black president and intensifying debates over immigration, gun control, and abortion, all set the stage for an uptick in violent right-wing extremism. Citing the growth of the militia movement in the 1990s that culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (until 9/11 the worst act of terrorism committed on U.S. soil) he implied that the agency's near all-absorbing focus on al Qaeda and Islamic terror was misplaced.
Leak of the report to the notorious birther website WorldNetDaily produced what appeared to be a well-coordinated furor on the right. Newt Gingrich called for Johnson's firing. Rep. Peter King called for hearings on Obama's DHS. Leading conservative senators penned letters of protest. And the conservative media responded as if martial law had been declared on July 4.
In retrospect, the timing of the media attack on Johnson looks significant. His report, entitled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment", was leaked in early April of 2009, when the Tea Party movement was in boost phase. The contents of Johnson's warning did not concern non-violent activism around taxation or policy issues, as even a cursory reading made clear. But a conservative funhouse-mirror version of the report was a perfect match for the Tea Party scene's persecution complex and band-of-rebels self-image, in which ordinary Americans were being forced to organize in defense of the last shreds of American freedom.
Leading right-wing media figures grasped this. They hyped and excoriated the DHS report as a sign of the Obama administration's master plan to smear and repress his conservative opposition. Although Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is the only proper name mentioned in the report, and although DHS had previously issued reports on violent leftwing extremism, T-shirts and signs proudly proclaiming "domestic terrorist" soon emerged as staples of the Tea Party scene.
The agency quickly crumpled before the onslaught; Johnson's budget was slashed, his competence publicly questioned, his study rescinded and disavowed. But history has been damning of the crude and politically motivated distortions of Johnson's conservative critics, not to mention his bosses at DHS. The last three years, if not the last three months, have borne out Johnson's warning in blood. August began with the Sikh temple shooting, allegedly perpetrated by an Army veteran with reported ties to neo-Nazi groups, and ended with the roundup of a murderous militia group organizing on Georgia's Fort Stewart Army base. The group, called FEAR (Forever Enduring Always Ready), had allegedly stockpiled assault weapons and bomb materials and was planning to assassinate the president.
Those are just two recent headlines to which Johnson might refer in his testimony this week. But he has a depressing number of examples from which to draw. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of radical right-wing groups holding extreme anti-government ideology has increased during the last four years eightfold -- from 150 to more than 1,200. The same period has seen more homegrown right-wing terrorism attacks on U.S. soil than acts committed in the name of Jihadi ideology, according to the SPLC. Many of the groups responsible for these acts have cameos in Johnson's new book, Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored.
For its part, DHS says it has the resources it needs to examine right-wing extremist groups. "The Department of Homeland Security protects our country from all threats, whether foreign or homegrown, and we know that violent extremism is neither constrained by international borders, nor limited to any single ideology" says DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler. "As such, DHS continues to work with its state, local, tribal, territorial and partners to prevent violence that is motivated by any extreme ideological beliefs. This includes training law enforcement to recognize behaviors and other indicators associated with violent criminal activity as well as briefings, products, case studies, and information sharing on violent extremist threats."
Johnson tells Media Matters he believes that the rescinding of his report and the eventual gutting of his unit would not have taken place were it not for the sustained and screeching attack by the conservative media. "After the leak, MSNBC, CBS, CNN and ABC reported on the actual contents and were pretty objective," says Johnson. "But then you had Fox News, which just went crazy. They picked up on a segment by [San Diego talk show host] Roger Hedgecock that took things totally out of context. And then Michelle Malkin got in there. The conservative media just blatantly lied, said I was trying to make terrorists of every veteran. None of them tried to contact me directly."
Johnson's report was dated April 7, 2009. On April 13, Hedgecock published it online in a WorldNetDaily piece that claimed the assessment indicated that "under Obama, 'Homeland Security' has become an instrument of oppression of opposing points of view."
Within a day a conservative clown-car pulled up to the curb, out of which emerged a seemingly unending stream of usual suspects. On Fox News, Sean Hannity led the charge, suggesting over the course of multiple interviews -- with Michael Steele, James Dobson, and Oliver North -- that the report was not really concerned with stopping the next Timothy McVeigh, but rather tracking "people who have pro-life bumper stickers." Fox's Neil Cavuto claimed that the report targeted any conservative who held thoughts critical of the president's policies. Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, and Fox Business also played their parts.
Much of the right's ignorant ire was directed at Johnson's warning that returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan could be targeted for extremist recruitment. Overwhelmed by the right-wing noise and smoke was the fact that the Bush administration's FBI issued its own warning about extremists and the military, noting that more than 200 individuals identified in white supremacist extremism cases from October 2001 to May 2008 had confirmed or claimed military service. This key piece of background was often missing from mainstream coverage of the right-wing freak-out.
Johnson's former unit has yet to recover from the onslaught. Before the conservative backlash, he managed a team of seven. Johnson says the agency "retaliated" against him by decimating his budget and staff. He and his colleagues were humiliated when agency chiefs conceded under oath that their report showed a lack of "concern for privacy, civil rights and civil liberties" of Americans. "They basically made life miserable for me," says Johnson, who resigned in 2010.
"There are currently between one and two officers responsible for analyzing the threat of non-Islamic domestic extremism," Johnson tells Media Matters. "Groups like the SPLC and the ADL have more people studying this threat than the entire federal government."
When the Tea Party version of his work began gaining traction, Johnson says he went to his superiors and asked them to speak up in his defense. He was told not to get involved. "At no point did the DHS public affairs office do anything to refute any of this stuff [coming out of the conservative media]," says Johnson. "They just rolled over."
For his accurate portrayal of a changing right-wing extremist threat landscape, Johnson remains an enemy on the right. "I've been told by [Sen. Dick Durbin's] staffers that the Republicans on the [Judiciary] Committee offered pushback to me testifying on Wednesday," says Johnson. "I suspect Tom Coburn in particular doesn't want me there. He knows I'll argue for more resources." In 2009, Coburn was among seven Republican senators who wrote a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano protesting Johnson's report.
Part of the reason his work was so easily misrepresented, says Johnson, is the media's poor job of reporting on right-wing terror post-9/11. "The national media in April 2009 had until then devoted very little to no coverage of some of the incidents that led up to my report," he says. "They covered the Poplawski police shootings in Pittsburgh a little bit. But the bombing in Woodburn, Oregon that killed two police officers, perpetrated by anti-government father-son team, got no coverage. The neo-Nazi shooting spree in Massachusetts got a little bit. Then we had the arson of a black church the day after the election. But there was little context even when incidents were reported. We had a media focused almost exclusively on the al Qaeda and Muslim homegrown extremist threat."
Johnson says the media has since improved its performance reporting on right-wing violence. "More reporters now know to look at the big themes," he says. "They know to look for ideology, for prior military experience, for connections to groups or movements. The media is starting to zero in on some of these points that I raised more than three years ago."
While this may constitute progress, it is progress of a depressing sort. It's the government's job to understand these threats before they materialize and become media stories. By throwing Daryl Johnson's unit under the conservative clown-car, and refusing to devote resources equal to the problem, the Department of Homeland Security may have made it more likely the media will have more opportunities to show it has read and remembered the report DHS still wants to forget.