Ignored warnings of a premature DHS anti-fascist

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In 1936, a fascist general named Francisco Franco staged an uprising against a democratically elected progressive government in Spain. Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany aided Franco. This was the opening battle of World War II. 

Leftists from around the world volunteered to fight for the republic. The American volunteers formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

When members of the brigade returned home, they were viewed with suspicion and blacklisted. They lost their passports and were under surveillance. The U.S. government labeled them as “premature anti-fascists.”

In a sense, Daryl Johnson could be considered a “premature anti-fascist.” Hired in the George W. Bush administration, he was a senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence analyst in the 2000s. He’s a conservative Mormon. In April 2009, he led a team that authored an internal report warning about increasing dangers of violent right-wing extremism in the United States.

The report said the election of the first African-American president, combined with Great Recession economic anxieties, could fuel a rise in far-right violence. It went on to say, “right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.” 

Johnson based his conclusion on 15 years of experience studying domestic terrorist groups — crucially white supremacists and neo-Nazis. “Leading up to this report … we received numerous accolades from law enforcement, intelligence officials, talking about the great work we were doing in the fight against domestic terrorism,” he told Democracy Now in 2012. 

The report provoked an uproar from Republican lawmakers, veterans’ groups, right-wing radio hosts and Fox News commentators. At the time of its release, House Minority Leader John Boehner said the report focused on “about two-thirds of Americans who might go to church, who may have served in the military, who may be involved in community activities… I just don’t understand how our government can look at the American people and say, ‘You’re all potential terrorist threats.’” 

Johnson responded on Democracy Now, “That’s a gross misrepresentation of what was said in the report.” He said the critics took things out of context and that right-wingers were engaging in a deliberate “political manuever” to attack the Obama administration.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized to veterans’ groups for the line in the report saying that far-right groups may try to attract veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Johnson’s small team of domestic terrorism analysts who had produced the report was disbanded, and they were reassigned to study Muslim extremism. By the next year, Johnson was pushed out of the DHS altogether.

In 2019, he told The Guardian that if the report’s warnings had been heeded, “There would be fewer extremists, and fewer attacks, because by now, 10 years removed from the warning, we would have mature programs.”

However, he said, “the political fiasco surrounding the report created a chilling effect in the law enforcement and intelligence community. It indicated that this topic is radioactive and you better stay away from it. If you pursue it, there’s going to be hell to pay: That was the message. People did lose their jobs. Good analysts were harassed and retaliated against. People saw what happened to me and my team. They knew that if it happened to Daryl, the Eagle Scout Mormon goody-two-shoes, it could happen to them.”

Now we are dealing with the aftermath of the far-right insurrection attacking the U.S. Capitol and attempting to reverse the outcome of a free and fair election.

Johnson was recently interviewed by Sahil Kapur of NBC News. Kapur noted that Johnson’s 2009 report cited themes of the far right that are associated with Trump’s platform such as “stoking fear of immigrants, warning that guns will be taken away, talking about a new world order in which U.S. sovereignty is trampled.”

Johnson replied that Trump has “been the major contributor to stoking the fears and spreading lies and disinformation and promoting conspiracy theories. So he’s definitely poured a lot of fuel on this fire. This fire was already raging when he came into the office, and he just took it to a whole new level.”

Johnson disagreed with those who say that the insurrection is a final chapter for a dying movement.

He said, “This is ushering in a new phase of violence and hostility… According to (the far right), they want a civil war. So that would be a final chapter. Having a bunch of massive terrorist attacks and chaos in the streets and political leaders being assassinated. That’s kind of the phase we’re moving into right now.” 

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly. 

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