Drawing from the forthcoming Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report, "Protecting the Protectors: Preventing and Mitigating Domestic Violent Extremism in the Military, Veterans and Law Enforcement Communities," Carrie Cordero joined the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Annual Conference on October 15, 2022 in Dallas, Texas to give a keynote address on key findings for how law enforcement, homeland security and military leaders and policymakers can counter efforts by domestic violent extremist groups to recruit from their professional communities.
Remarks as Prepared
Thank you to the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the State Association of Chiefs of Police for the invitation to join you here today, and to Chief James Hicks for the warm welcome.
I am honored to be here to share some observations about the current national security and homeland security threat environment. In addition, I’d like to share with you some information about work that my colleagues and I at the Center for a New American Security have been doing this year. Earlier this year, in partnership with my colleague Kate Kuzminski, who leads our military, veterans and society program, we launched a project on the issue of how to prevent the influence and reach of some of the domestic violent organizations here in the U.S. into the law enforcement, military and veterans communities.
Based on conversations I’ve had with current and former law enforcement leaders over the course of the past year, I know that for some of you this will be an issue with which you are familiar. For others, the very suggestion that these groups have a reach into your professional community may be new, or even startling.
So I want to acknowledge up front that for some, this is a hard issue to talk about, and even can be hard to hear about.
By way of introduction, the Center for a New American Security is a research and policy organization based in Washington, D.C. We are a non-profit, bipartisan—and we construe that to include Republicans, Democrats and Independents—organization focused on developing national security policies that are in the best interests of the United States and the safety and security of her citizens, not partisan or political interests. We conduct research and develop policy recommendations across a range of national security issues; from the war in Ukraine, to threats to the supply chain and high technologies, to the intersection of national security and economics, to improving the health and resources available to veterans, and to homeland security.
National and Homeland Security Threat Environment
My own grounding is as a 9/11-era operational counterterrorism lawyer: I worked for the U.S. Justice Department on investigations related to al Qaeda and its progeny. When it comes to national security threats today as compared to back then, 2022 is most definitely not 2001. The threats of that prior era have not disappeared; instead, threats to security and safety and health the country faces today have compounded.
Today, long term threats from abroad to U.S. national security come from nation states like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, from the rise and increasing influence of authoritarian leaders around the globe, and from the accompanying challenges to U.S. economic and technological security. Russia’s war on Ukraine has demonstrated that nation state aggression in one part of the world quickly can affect international strategic alliances, the security of allies, the degradation of the rule of law, international supply chain, global food security and even increase the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. Non-state actors such as international terrorist organizations and transnational criminal organizations, and violent flare ups in different regions of the world, all impact U.S. security interests and those of our allies and partners.1
In addition, when I look at the domestic security picture, I would add to those I just mentioned:
- foreign cyber aggression and criminal cyber events such as harmful ransomware,
- extreme weather events,
- pervasive violence facilitated by gun proliferation,
- law enforcement challenges presented by irregular migration, and
- domestic violent extremism.
Focusing on this last issue more acutely, the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, issued by the Biden administration in June 2021, identifies at least three main drivers of domestic terrorism.2 These include:
- racially or ethnically motivated extremism,
- anti-government or anti-authority motivated extremism, or
- lone actors or small groups with mixed ideologies.3
Sometimes the ideologies of these types of groups or individuals are internally inconsistent or not even part of a coherent message or philosophy.
Several domestic violent extremist organizations have increased in prominence in recent years. These include the groups known as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, leaders and members of both which have been charged in separate cases with seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The groups known as Three Percenters and Boogaloo Boys are anti-government groups. All of these groups are assessed to adhere to loose ideologies that involve strains of anti-government sentiment, white supremacy and willingness or have actually engaged in violence.
Anti-government and anti-authority sentiment directly counters the oath and activities of service in the military and law enforcement. Moreover, law enforcement including federal agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have primary responsibilities for countering and responding to domestic terrorism within the United States. And state and local law enforcement are critical partners in that effort in identifying, disrupting and responding to domestic terrorism plots or events.
The Reach of DVEs into the LE/Mil/V Professional Communities
Earlier this year, my colleagues and I at the Center for a New American Security got a group together for a conversation that included former law enforcement chiefs and executives at the federal, state and local level, as well as academic and research experts on law enforcement and defense personnel management.
From this group of experts, we repeatedly got the same piece of advice, they told us that in conversations with members of the law enforcement community, we should not begin the conversation by referencing the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
But here’s the thing, if it were not for these events, we wouldn’t be talking about the issue of domestic violent extremist groups targeting law enforcement and military service members and veterans for recruitment. I probably wouldn’t have been invited to
speak with you today.
Because it was not foreign terrorists but domestic terrorists and insurgents who threatened the constitutional order and the personal safety of members and staff of the U.S. Congress.
Five police officers who served at the Capitol that day died in connection with the attack: one officer, Brian Sicknick, died the next day after being attacked by the mob. Four additional officers died from suicide: two within days of the attack, and two, months later. A Senate report has attributed those deaths to the attack.4 Approximately 150 officers from the Metropolitan Police Department and Capitol police were injured.
Here are some numbers on charges related to January 6th:
- As of this week, 890 individuals have been charged with actions taken in connection with the January 6th attack.
- According to research published by National Public Radio (NPR),5 at least 14% of these charged individuals appear to have connections with the military or law enforcement.
- Of the individuals that were charged, twelve were former law enforcement officers; five individuals were current police officers at the time.
- About 93 individuals who have been charged had U.S. military experience.
- Thirteen individuals charged were active duty military at the time.
- One individual charged was serving federal law enforcement at the time of the attack.
- Of those who have pleaded guilty or been convicted so far, about 68 were former law enforcement or military (9%).
More broadly, according to Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss of American University, who studies domestic extremist groups, veterans are responsible for 10 percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots that have occurred in the country since 2015, even though they only comprise about 6 percent of the U.S. population. Of course, in comparison to the overall numbers of law enforcement and military personnel across the country, these represent only a tiny fraction.
So, given these numbers, we have to ask the question: is this a real problem, or isn’t it? And if it is, then what are we supposed to do about it?
Let’s start with the “is this even a problem”? question:
Questions remain in the public discourse, within senior leadership, and among members of Congress: is domestic violent extremism within the military, veteran, and law enforcement communities even a problem?
Is the attention being paid to identifying, preventing, and punishing offenders proportional to their representation within these communities?
Members of the military and law enforcement communities hold distinct authorities and responsibilities within American society. Members of both professions swear an oath and are expected to abide by a self-regulating professional ethic. American society further holds those who previously served in these professions—veterans of the military and law enforcement communities—to certain expectations regarding their role in civic life and personal conduct as citizens.
Further, the active solicitation of military- or law-enforcement skillsets by these groups merits attention. Members of the military and law enforcement are uniquely proficient in lethal skillsets, and so their recruitment by these groups is alarming. These domestic violent extremist groups seek to gain such expertise in two ways: by recruiting those who are serving or who have served, and by infiltrating the military and law enforcement “to gain tactical training and access to weapons and explosives.”6
Additionally, groups seek the credibility associated by their professionalism and discipline.7 The rise in visibility of service members, veterans, and law enforcement officers who have engaged in domestic violent extremism in recent years therefore breaks with the social contract between members of the professions and the society they swear to protect.
The rise in visibility of service members, veterans, and law enforcement officers who have engaged in domestic violent extremism in recent years therefore breaks with the social contract between members of the professions and the society they swear to protect.
To varying degrees, the U.S. Department of Defense and law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels have reviewed screening, management, and post-service transition processes to address the presence of extremist ideologies and behaviors within their ranks. However, these efforts have often been reactionary, sporadic and inconsistent.
These organizations and communities lack a common understanding of the problem, and, to the extent the organizations have a responsibility to address it, what do about it. So, if we can acknowledge that the law enforcement, military and veterans communities can’t stick our heads in the sand about this issue, then the next question is, what to do about it.
Here the conversation gets even harder:
There is little consensus, either in Washington or in leadership circles throughout the country, about how best to address this issue. Efforts within the Executive Branch (particularly within the Department of Defense last year) to address domestic violent extremism within the military have been met with pushback from some members of Congress, and the pushback came from members of both political parties. The Defense Department held a department-wide stand-down in early 2021, and revised its internal policies. In a Senate report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act, the majority of members of the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to include the following language:
“The committee believes that the vast majority of servicemembers serve with honor and distinction, and that the narrative surrounding systemic extremism in the military besmirches the men and women in uniform. The committee believes that when extremist activity does in fact occur that it must be dealt with swiftly and appropriately; however, the case incident rate does not warrant a department-wide effort on the issue.”8
On the law enforcement side, the structure of the law enforcement community is highly decentralized. There has been no standard approach developed amongst federal law enforcement agencies, let alone at the local state or tribal levels. As a result, our research team endeavors to move the public debate forward by proposing a set of recommendations intended to assist these communities in developing efforts to prevent and mitigate against DVE.
We plan to publish these recommendations next month and they will be geared toward protecting those who protect the country. Our report’s recommendations will be based on following premises: First, we emphasize it is critical for these communities—law enforcement and military—to be informed and digest that they are being targeted by domestic violent extremist groups.
Second, our research indicates that the best opportunity to mitigate against this threat is probably at the screening and recruitment phase before somebody on-boards.
Third, the developing research community models of information and inoculation against extremist content—particularly that which is online—are likely to be more effective than traditional bureaucratic training programs or modules.
In short, we don’t think talking at, talking down to, or mandating that all personnel “click through boxes” in standard bureaucratic online training modules is going to be the best use of time, resources or energy. We also doubt that these types of approaches will be effective.
Our report will include recommendations for military and law enforcement leaders. Among these proposals, I’d like to share with you a few areas where we think it is worthwhile for law enforcement leaders to focus your efforts, in particular:
At the recruitment and screening phase, we think recruitment and screening presents the best opportunity for weeding out individuals with domestic violent extremist activities or affiliations. This means that even in the current environment where we know that recruitment is heavily strained and difficult, selection should remain competitive, and standards for recruitment and hiring should be maintained.
It also means that even in difficult budget and staffing environments, robust screening and background investigations should not be areas that are cut or scaled back. We also will recommend that it is time to retire a number of the formal mechanisms that pave the way for the military to law enforcement recruitment pipeline. One way to prevent the reach of these groups is to ensure that those in military service who are affiliated or sympathetic to such activities do not leave military service and join law enforcement.
This recommendation is relevant to modern policing far beyond the scope of the violent extremism issue. Repeatedly throughout our research year, from current law enforcement officers, to retired police chiefs, to current federal law enforcement senior executives, we heard that the 20th century model that created strong incentives and bureaucratic pathways from military service directly to law enforcement service is outdated.
While some skills are transferrable, 21st century law enforcement and policing often demand different skill sets than military training and service provides. Although knowledge of and training with weapons, the ability to operate in a hierarchical environment and commitment to public service are all common attributes, today’s investigative law enforcement and on the ground policing demand more varied education, training and interpersonal skills than decades ago. The same old recruitment practices that rely on substantial veterans’ preference, recruitment materials that hype the paramilitary nature of law enforcement activities and informal practices that limit the recruitment of individuals with educational and professional experiences outside military service need to be reformed.
At the in-service phase: We intend to recommend that countering-DVE programs should be incorporated into existing law enforcement in-service training programs. Because it is still a relatively rare occurrence in terms of raw numbers, and because the topic itself can be polarizing, we recommend against the creation of specific training and programs devoted to countering DVE within the ranks, and instead that it be included among a topic of training that otherwise focuses on security, insider threat training, professional expectations and professional ethics.
Post-service is another area where we think our recommendations are relevant far beyond the narrow issue of countering violent extremism among the ranks:
There is a need for broader attention to creating new post-service networks and resources for retired and former law enforcement personnel. A common theme that emerged from our research year was that there are very little to no formal resources available to retired and former law enforcement officers when their public service ends, either at the federal or local level. At the federal level, greater attention amongst the major law enforcement departments should be given to providing transition assistance—both professional and personal—to retiring law enforcement personnel.
While we are stopping short of recommending a “VA for law enforcement” we do think there is a need for additional offboarding training programs, community-based networks, and continuing wellness programs (including both physical and mental health) available to retired and former law enforcement officers.
Attention to post service transition, should be viewed in the context of improving the quality of life of law enforcement officers and making law enforcement an attractive profession for a new generation of the workforce.
I want to thank you deeply for the opportunity to be with you today. Thank you for the work you do and for your leadership. A career in law enforcement is not just a career, it’s a life, and it’s full of sacrifices for yourselves and your families. Thanks for making them day in and day out.
- https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/ATA-2022-Unclassified-Report.pdfii ↩
- National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, June 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/National-Strategy-for-Countering-Domestic-Terrorism.pdf ↩
- https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/05/us/politics/jan-6-capitol-deaths.htmlv ↩
- https://www.npr.org/2021/02/09/965472049/the-capitol-siege-the-arrested-and-their-stories#database ↩
- House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, p. 9 ↩
- House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Report on Domestic Violent Extremist Groups and the Recruitment of Veterans, October 13, 2021, p. 7, https://veterans.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Extremism%20Report.pdf. ↩
- Senate Armed Services Committee, Report to Accompany S. [Waiting on bill number as Senate debates], July 19, 2022, pp. 232-233, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/fy23_ndaa_bill_report.pdf. ↩
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