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Internal Review Finds Four Recent Cases of Domestic Violent Extremist Activity in DHS Workforce

Working group advises that the department "explore expanding the use of publicly available information, including social media" to spot extremism.

An internal review of the Department of Homeland Security workforce found four cases of domestic violent extremist activity since fiscal year 2019 — data that could be higher because of “challenges with identifying, categorizing, and tracking” information specifically related to extremism allegations.

The report also recommended information-sharing between departments to identify the best ways to use employees’ publicly available information, “including social media checks, beyond the scope of personnel security vetting to identify and investigate violent extremist activity within the DHS workforce.”

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed the department in April 2021 to “immediately begin a review of how to best prevent, detect, and respond to domestic violent extremism threats within DHS.” A working group was established the next month to study and come up with solutions to detect, identify and combat potential internal extremist activity.

At the outset, the working group issued a department-wide data call “to assess and analyze the scope of potential threats related to domestic violent extremism across DHS” since FY 2019. In the group’s report released Friday, the working group reported that the data call was hindered by the department’s practice of not classifying domestic violent extremism allegations as a misconduct subcategory but lumped them into other categories such as workplace violence. The investigating authority for such allegations also varied, from internal investigations at the different DHS components to the DHS Office of Inspector General.

“Other gaps that limited our ability to collect and validate data included (1) the lack of an official definition of ‘domestic violent extremist;’ (2) guidance as to what constitutes violent extremist activity, or an established list of behaviors that may be indicators of violent extremism; (3) the lack of a centralized, interoperable DHS-wide investigative case management system; and (4) lack of standardized reporting and information sharing mechanisms for investigating allegations of violent extremist activity,” the report added.

In the data call, DHS headquarters and components were asked to provide “anonymized data for the number and results of investigations, insight into how the allegation was initially discovered, the disposition, and other investigative data points.” The data call categorized each of the allegations as racially or ethnically motivated domestic violent extremism, animal rights/environmental-related domestic violent extremism, abortion-related domestic violent extremism, anti-government/antiauthority domestic violent extremism, and all other domestic terrorism-related threats

This process surfaced 35 allegations of potential domestic violent extremist activity between FY 2019 and the third quarter of FY 2021. The U.S. Coast Guard was not included in the working group’s review as incidents there are addressed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and were included in the Defense Department’s own extremism review.

“Upon further review of the allegations, the working group identified four incidents that involved active participation or support for violent extremist activity over the covered period,” the report said. “The other 31 allegations were either unsubstantiated as being related to domestic violent extremism or found to be miscategorized in the data call responses.” The report does not go into detail about the circumstances of the four substantiated cases.

“Because of the challenges with identifying, categorizing, and tracking this information, it is possible that the data call resulted in an under-reporting of the number of allegations made and investigations conducted,” it added. “Future efforts to educate the workforce and provide clear guidance about what constitutes violent extremist activity and how to report it, along with other recommendations in this report, will help ensure that future data calls are more reliable.”

The working group issued 15 recommendations intended to “establish baseline policies and guidance” for identifying and responding to potential future cases of domestic violent extremist activity within the department, “promote employee awareness, enhance methods to identify and address violent extremist activity, foster an integrated approach, and ensure the protection of privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.”

“Clarity and consistency as to what constitutes violent extremist activity in the context of DHS employment will help support employee awareness and ongoing efforts to address related activities,” the report said, advising that the department also “adopt an approved list of behaviors that may be indicators of domestic violent extremism, in collaboration with DHS partners and stakeholders, which will best position DHS to prevent, detect, and respond to potential threats related to domestic violent extremism internal to the Department.”

The working group drafted a comprehensive DHS Directive, in coordination with several DHS components, to serve as a foundational document on how to identify and respond to violent extremist activity within the department. The group also “identified 62 courses and 21 books available through DHS learning management systems that may be updated to incorporate domestic violent extremism examples and guidance.”

The working group developed the “Domestic Violent Extremism Awareness Discussion Guide for Department Leaders” to help “inform employees of their obligations to refrain from violent extremist activity and the existing reporting requirements… leadership will be able to reference examples of what is considered protected speech, employee standards of conduct, case studies of violent extremist activity, frequently asked questions, and additional resources and references.”

Specialized training was also recommended for positions such as background investigators, CRCL inquiry officials, and DHS Insider Threat Program personnel to identify, evaluate, and respond to threats more effectively and “engage with individuals who may be displaying early indicators of extremist behavior or may be radicalizing to violence.”

“One of the most effective methods of preventing domestic violent extremists from entering the DHS workforce is to discourage individuals engaging in violent extremist activities from applying to the Department in the first place,” the report noted. “Clearly articulating the Department’s position on violent extremist activity in its recruiting, hiring announcements, and other human capital activity is critical in this regard.”

The working group also recommended a single reporting mechanism within the department dedicated to potential extremism activity and additional funding for the DHS Insider Threat Program.

The report advises that the department “explore expanding the use of publicly available information, including social media, beyond personnel security vetting, to identify or investigate potential violent extremist activity within the DHS workforce.”

“Studies and pilots have suggested that certain online activity may represent behavior of potential concern to national security and could be useful in assessing an individual’s trustworthiness, judgment, or reliability,” the report continued. “PAEI, including social media checks, have proven to be of limited value as stand-alone sources of information. However, when coupled with and corroborated by other data and investigative follow-up, the use of PAEI can be a powerful tool in preventing and detecting domestic violent extremism-related threats… it is critical that any study or implementation of social media collection is pursued deliberately to protect the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of all individuals.”

The DHS Insider Threat Executive Steering Committee should facilitate the implementation of the working group’s final recommendations and coordinate any related actions, the report said.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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