Friday News Roundup — February 22, 2019: Right-Wing Extremism in America; Intel Chiefs Release Threat Assessment; Space Force Unveiled; SCOTUS Rules on Asset Forfeiture; plus News You May Have Missed
Greetings from Washington, DC, where Congress is out of session and government closed due to Wednesday’s wintry mess. Still, the debate continues over President Trump’s national emergency declaration and the back-and-forth between Congress, the White House, and the courts. Many of the headlines also covered the latest developments in the Mueller investigation and the gag order issued for Roger Stone. Looking beyond that this week, the CSPC team covers a range of important issues: Dan looks at the threat of right-wing terrorism and the need for political leaders and law enforcement to address this threat; Michael covers the updated Worldwide Threat Assessment from the nation’s intelligence leaders; Joshua analyzes the latest updates and announcement on the creation of a Space Corps; Chris looks at how the Supreme Court has ruled on civil asset forfeiture; and we wrap, as always, with stories that you may have missed.
America Needs to Face Its Problem with Right-Wing Extremism
The arrest of should serve as a wake up call about the threat of right-wing domestic terrorism in the United States. Seized during Lt. Hasson’s arrest were 15 firearms, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and a cache of narcotics and human growth hormone. Lt. Hasson had also created a list of politicians and media personalities that he considered targeting. Interestingly, the news was broken not by the law enforcement agencies investigation Lt. Hasson, but by researchers of extremism and terrorism at George Washington University.
This wake up call comes in the aftermath of many other moments that should have served to demonstrate the crisis posed by right-wing groups, white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” and other individuals and groups motivated to violence by racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. The 2017 riot and fatal car attack in Charlottesville, the March 2018 bombings targeting African-Americans in Austin, the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the spate of pipe bombs sent to politicians and media figures in November 2018 should have all served as a warnings of the growing threat of homegrown far-right extremism.
However, by-and-large, the focus of government and law enforcement has remained on the terrorist threat posed by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. With the attention of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security focused on Islamic extremism, right-wing groups have thrived. Similar to ISIS-inspired attacks, these right-wing groups have thrived in internet forums and social media. Like Islamic extremism, right-wing ideologies increasingly span borders, with groups in the United States and Europe serving to inspire each other. In the case of LT Hasson, he cited the neo-Nazi, white nationalist manifesto of jailed Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik — who killed 77 in the 2011 bombing in Oslo and gun attack on the island of Utøya.
Our colleagues at the DC-think tank CSIS have analyzed the data around far-right extremism, finding that far-right terrorist attacks quadrupled in the United States from 2016 to 2017, and increased by 43% during the same timeframe in Europe. The Anti-Defamation League found that of the 387 extremist-related killings in the United States from 2008 to 2017, 71% were the victims of right-wing extremism, while 26% and 3% were the victims of Islamic terrorism or far-left extremism, respectively.
In November 2018, Janet Reitman of The New York Times Magazine looked at the growth of right-wing movements and the under-resourcing of law enforcement efforts to combat these groups. With a rapid outgrowth of these movements following the election of President Obama, measures by federal officials to better understand and address right-wing extremism were immediately countered by right-wing pundits and conservative media. Rather than trying to distance legitimate political conservatism from far-right extremism, these measures were used to inspire fear about the Obama administration using law enforcement to “target” conservatives. What was once the domain of conspiracy theorists obsessed with Ruby Ridge and Waco was inching ever closer to the “respectable” conservative media.
Tackling our own extremism problem will require facing some hard truths and our most admired institutions. In a separate case, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that at least 40 members of a neo-Nazi web forum were active duty members of the military. The vast majority of military members serve honorably and abhor hate-based ideologies, but there must be increased attention to radical right-wing ideology in the ranks. We need to look at our own cultural divisions and how issues of race, socio-economic status, and education contribute to the divides in our society and the inspiration of those who seek to kill. As our attitudes towards the culture wars of the past change, we see our society increasingly breaking apart on concepts of race and diversity, and such a trend will only inspire future radical movements. History warns us of what happens to societies where political violence becomes routine, and right and left feel that violence, rather than the ballot box, is the solution to political disagreement.
Political speech is protected, no matter how abhorrent the ideology, but the growing threat of right-wing extremism must be confronted by our leaders and all levels of law enforcement. When our political rhetoric is as heated as it is, neither side of the political aisle can look away from the threat of real violence.
Worldwide Threat Assessment Reflects Changing Realities
Late last month, the leaders of the United States Intelligence Community (IC) presented their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The assessment itself is a 42-page, unclassified report that represents the consensus of the agencies in the IC and provides an overview of the global geopolitical landscape and the threats posed to the United States’s security and leadership position. In addition, the leaders of several of the intelligence agencies, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the leaders of the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI, National Security Agency, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, testified before the Senate to answer questions about their views. Most of the press coverage of this event focused on the divergence between the IC’s collective assessment of the facts and President Trump’s personal view of the global landscape, but the document itself contains interesting nuggets about changes in the threat environment, especially when compared to last year’s document.
There were four broad areas of disagreement between the IC’s assessment and the president’s own views. On North Korea, the IC “continue[s] to observe activity inconsistent with full denuclearization” and believes that “North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival.” The president is far more optimistic that the diplomacy he is undertaking with Kim Jong-un will lead to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. The intelligence agencies “continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities … necessary to produce a nuclear device” and that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is working — because of work by the Europeans to keep Iran engaged — pushing the timeline for a possible breakout to a nuclear weapon “from a few months to about one year.” As a side note, the IC is not shy about calling out Iranian behavior, threatening neighbors with ballistic missiles, violating the Chemical Weapons Convention, and sponsoring terrorist groups around the world. It is only with regards to nuclear weapons development that the IC proclaims a view at odds with the president.
While the president and the IC agree that the Islamic State has suffered severe losses in terms of leadership and territory, the IC continues to view its presence in Iraq and Syria and network of supporters as a major threat, and argues that it will try to exploit regional tensions and state weakness to regain territory in the long term. Finally, on the U.S.-Mexico border, the president has argued loudly that “the current situation at the southern border … threatens core national security interests”. The intelligence community says nothing of the kind. There is no mention of a threat emanating from Mexico of any kind; no sense that migrant flows represent a national security threat to the United States; and an identification of China as the key source of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid at the center of the drug overdose crisis in the United States.
Leaving the political issues to one side, there are several changes from last year’s assessment that merit discussion. While it is easy to read too much into changes in a document that is created by consensus — especially when the document grows in length by 60% year over year — some of the changes are very interesting. Most notable is the top regional threat: “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s,” as they seek to undermine the U.S.-led liberal international order. Another remarkable change is new emphasis on “Online Influence Operations and Election Interference” and attempts by hostile actors — particularly Russia, but with mentions of China and Iran — to weaken institutions in democratic systems, undermine U.S. alliances, and shape policy outcomes. The 2019 version also adds “Violent Ethno-supremacist and Ultranationalist Groups” to the section on global terrorist threats, even though, fitting the remit of the intelligence community to look overseas, it only mentions European groups and grievances, to Dan’s point above.
It is not uncommon for the Intelligence Community to present information that does not fully accord with the president’s views. Especially after the debacle around pre-war assessments of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs, the IC has developed a very strong cultural aversion against “shading” their intelligence assessments to satisfy their political leadership. In the current political climate in which members of the IC’s rank and file have demonstrated a willingness to leak extremely sensitive information to the media, the IC leadership presumably felt strong pressure to avoid any sense of politicization. That probably explains Director Coats’s direct answers before the committee in contravention of the president’s stated views, which also probably explains why Coats has come under intense fire from the president and speculation from White House officials that he may be on the way out. Coats is among the last establishment Republicans with independent relationships on Capitol Hill in the Trump administration. If he is, in fact, soon to depart, tensions between the IC and White House will likely get even worse, to the detriment of our national security.
SPD-4 & the Space Force: Would You Like to Know More?
This week President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 4 (SPD-4) marking the latest development in the long running process of establishing a “Space Force”. Under the directive, the Department of Defense now has the official authorization to develop and submit the legislative proposal for the formation of the Space Force as a new component of the armed forces.
The latest Department of Defense proposal is markedly different than the vision of a stand-alone sixth branch of the armed services. Under the current draft plan, the Space Force will “initially be established within the Department of the Air Force” and operate under a relationship akin to the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy. The Space Force will have a “Under Secretary for Space” and a “Chief of Staff of the Space Force, who will be a senior military officer in the grade of General or Admiral, and who shall serve as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff”.
Under SPD-4, the Space Force should include “the uniformed and civilian personnel conducting and directly supporting space operations from all Department of Defense Armed Forces; assume responsibilities for all major military space acquisition programs; and create the appropriate career tracks for military and civilian space personnel across all relevant specialties, including operations, intelligence, engineering, science, acquisition, and cyber.”
The three priorities noted above address some of the key concerns that led to the initial discussion of a Space Force and, ironically, are markedly similar to the Space Corps concept floated two years ago. While the Space Corps idea had some support in Congress, it did not survive into the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Congress will need to review the Department of Defense’s proposal and amend the U.S. Code to create the Space Force.
This appears more likely, but not certain, at this stage. A leaner Space Force may be more palatable to Congress — a smaller organization within the Air Force would, in theory, require less overhead and a smaller budget — but the devil is in the details. Several House members who were vocally critical of the Space Force originally seem to be more favorably inclined to the new Space Force-lite model.
The Department of Defense now has to submit its legislative proposal. This could happen as soon as this week or as early as next week. Of course, there are many unclear elements of the Space Force proposal. For example, if the Space Force is to draw from both civilian and military personnel from all services, but live under the Air Force, is the Air Force responsible alone for budgetary considerations?
The Directive does not fully close the door on a future standalone service and it could well be that in the future history of the Department of the Space Force, SPD-4 will be seen as the foundational document.
Supreme Court Axes Excessive Fines
In the modern era, states have long abused the practice of seizing property utilized in the commission of a crime, often treating the profits of this practice as revenue to fund police departments. Local governments nationwide have seized billions of dollars in private property through this process, known as civil asset forfeiture, asserting that it is necessary to deprive criminal elements of assets that fuel their activities. In recent years, many have awoken to evidently flagrant abuses of this system, from John Oliver’s lampooning of the subject to libertarian Senator Rand Paul’s multiple attempts to reform it.
This week, however, the Supreme Court provided critics of legitimized police theft with a glimmer of hope with their unanimous decision in Timbs v. Indiana. In that case, the justices incorporated the Constitution’s protection against excessive fines to include a shield against state and local governments through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. While the Court has applied protections against cruel and unusual punishment to the states in the past, no mention had ever been made specifically of state-level monetary penalties. Tyson Timbs, an Indiana man whose property was seized by the state for a low-level drug offense, felt firsthand the reach of this abusive practice.
When considering the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788, the Virginia ratifying convention worried that Congress would be able to impose unreasonable punishments on the citizens of the states for minor offenses. A similar worry had prompted the English Parliament to incorporate an important proscription into the English Bill of Rights in 1689, which read: “…excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” To many Americans this may seem familiar, because the Virginia convention recommended its precise language be incorporated into the Constitution. When drafting the American Bill of Rights, James Madison changed “ought” to “shall” and produced the Eighth Amendment.
Although many focus narrowly on the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, a body of legislators concerned greatly with property rights such as the Congress of the early Republic also undoubtedly prized the Excessive Fines Clause. One major reason for the English adoption of the provision above was the tendency of the monarchy to seize property from political enemies for minor crimes to rob them of the means to speak out against the government, which was known well to the Founders. After the Civil War, legislators realized that limiting the Bill of Rights to congressional action allowed rampant transgressions by state governments, and therefore passed the Fourteenth Amendment to restrain their abuses of power.
This history brings us back to the case of Tyson Timbs. After being convicted of dealing in a controlled substance, Mr. Timbs was sentenced to one year of home detention, five years probation, and was ordered to pay a fine of $1,203. At the time of his arrest, police also seized Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover, which he had purchased with money willed to him by his deceased father. Notably, the maximum fine for Mr. Timbs’ crimes is $10,000, meaning that the value of the vehicle seized surpassed the maximum allowable penalty by $32,000. Although lower Indiana courts sided with Timbs in asserting that this seizure violated the Constitution’s protection against excessive fines, the Indiana Supreme Court later reversed their judgement, reasoning that the excessive fines clause is not applicable to state actions because it had never been incorporated.
The Supreme Court, led by Justice Ginsburg, disagreed. Applying the precedent set in MacDonald v. Chicago (2010), the Court decided that since protection against excessive fines has existed in the vast majority of American legal structures since the colonial era (and British structures since the signing of the Magna Carta), it applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Indiana also argued that an incorporated Excessive Fines Clause would not apply to state civil asset forfeiture practices, which was dismissed by Justice Ginsburg in citing Austin v. United States (1993), which struck down federal civil asset forfeiture practices. Although Justice Gorsuch and Justice Thomas opined that the proper incorporation vehicle is the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, they provided a strong reaffirmation of the overall reasoning and final judgement of Justice Ginsburg’s opinion.
As the first incorporation case since 2010, Timbs v. Indiana is a landmark case in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Even more historic is its potential correction of a wrong that has long plagued the citizenry of America. To law enforcement agencies that abuse their power to tread on property rights, a clear signal has been sent: beware.
Stories You May Have Missed
There are only 620 days left until the 2020 election, and the list of aspirant Democratic candidates now includes Marianne Williamson, a spiritual guru and counselor to Oprah Winfrey. In 2014, Mrs. Williamson ran for the House of Representatives 33rd Congressional District in California, and came in fourth. To those who point out that she has zero prior political experience, Williamson counters this with a now familiar anti-establishment retort: “Seasoned politicians took us into the Vietnam War and Iraq and the greatest income inequality since 1929.” If the Democratic Party is truly becoming more concerned with left-wing ideological purity, she, or other individuals once deemed unheard of for a presidential run, could become a Democratic clean-slate, Trumpian candidate that no one sees coming.
After Vice President Pence speech at the Munich Security Conference was poorly received, Joe Biden took to the podium to present an alternate vision of the U.S. in the world. Biden affirmed his support in NATO and his belief that America should not turn its back on allies and the rest of the world. Biden also called Trump’s immigration policy “an embarrassment.” Seen as a leader in the Democratic Party, a potential candidate for the 2020 Presidential Election, and an avatar for what used to be called the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, Biden went to Germany to attempt to reassure American allies and partners and try to convince them that the Trump era is an aberration rather than the new normal.
Since ascending to the presidency, Donald Trump has been a notable critic of American libel laws. This week, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made it known that he is of a similar opinion, except in more knowledgeable and complex terms than Trump. Justice Thomas concurred with the denial of certiorari in McKee v. Cosby, in which Katherine McKee sued Bill Cosby over a statement his lawyers made which called her dishonest. The Court denied certiorari with no comment, but Thomas used the opportunity to criticize the Court’s libel precedent established by New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, which made it substantially more difficult for public figures to litigate claims of defamation. In his opinion, the Bill of Rights (as originally understood) does not protect libellous people from lawsuits by public figures wishing to protect their reputation. This viewpoint contradicts what is perhaps the most crucial landmark case in the Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.
North Carolina’s 9th congressional district was rocked by allegations of illegal campaign activity during the 2018 election cycle by the election’s Republican candidate, Mark Harris. The matter centers specifically around the activity of McRae Dowless, a campaign operative hired by the Harris campaign. After losing a primary election for the same seat in 2016, Harris contracted Dowless. She is now accused of illegally handling absentee ballots, including filling in unmarked sections of submitted absentee ballots. It is unclear whether or not Harris knew of the illegal activity being conducted in his name, but his son has testified that he warned his father about the possibility of illegal tactics used by Dowless. In light of days of testimony on the case, Harris has called for the North Carolina Board of Elections to hold a new election for the seat, which they have now officially ordered.