Watchdog finds DHS falls short in addressing domestic terrorism threat
The top watchdog at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) found that the DHS “could do more to address the threats of domestic terrorism.”
The revelations, in a new 29-page report, follow an uptick in mass shootings that have been shaking the country and prompting questions about the federal law enforcement response. Last month, a state grand jury indicted the alleged Buffalo mass shooter Payton Gendron on charges of domestic terrorism motivated by hate in addition to 10 counts of first-degree murder.
Here the biggest takeaways from the new DHS inspector general report:
DHS has no “long term approach” to countering domestic terrorism
The Department tasked with delivering intelligence and information about terrorist threats to the U.S. “has not established a governance body with staff dedicated to long-term oversight and coordination of its efforts to combat domestic terrorism,” according to the report.
In September 2019, DHS issued a strategic plan to tackle international and domestic terrorism, titled the Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence. But internal departmental data shows more than 70% of the “milestone actions” outlined were not completed on time.
DHS’ intelligence arm advisories “not timely enough”
According to the DHS Inspector General, both classified and public advisories issued by the Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis “may not be timely to help them take steps to protect themselves from threats.”
During the Bush administration, DHS stood up the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) to communicate terrorist threats to the public through bulletins and alerts.
Although overseen by DHS’ Counterterrorism Coordinator, the National Terrorism Advisory System has had no dedicated staff in place since 2017, according to the report.
DHS’ National Terrorism Advisory System did not issue any terrorism alerts from December 2015 – February 2022
While NTAS “bulletins” are intended to communicate critical terrorism information that… [is] not necessarily indicative of a specific threat against the United States,” NTAS “alerts” are designed to warn the public of “specific, credible” threats.
“The alert may include specific information about the nature of the threat, as well as steps that individuals and communities can take to protect themselves and help prevent, mitigate, or respond to the threat,” according to the department.
The department is responsible by law for issuing specific warnings to state and local governments and the private sector. But since December 2015, no NTAS alerts have been issued. In that same time frame, 17 bulletins included warnings about domestic terrorism, according to the report.
Still, the Inspector General pointed out that bulletins are routinely issued when the information is no longer actionable. “The bulletin issued on January 27, 2021, warned of a heightened threat environment across the United States following the presidential inauguration,” the Inspector General wrote. “DHS issued this bulletin weeks after the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.”
“Limited access” to information necessary to identify domestic terrorism threats
According to the OIG report, “the Department has limited access to the sources of information it needs to identify domestic terrorism threats.”
Officials in DHS’ intelligence arm – known as the Office of Intelligence and Analysis – told auditors they “cannot access some types of information that is not publicly available, such as private social media groups and encrypted messaging applications.”
This is a significant concern now, as more and more domestic extremist groups organize on encrypted or private messaging platforms. According to intelligence analysts, the department’s intelligence gathering is limited by authorities outlined in Executive Order 12333.
“Our review of nine I&A finished intelligence domestic terrorism products from July 1, 2020 through August 3, 2021, showed six of the products contained information that its partners could easily find on their own,” DHS’ Inspector General determined.
DHS Intelligence analysts lack access to FBI files that are not disseminated throughout the federal government, according to the report, while state and local entities “are not obligated to pass information onto federal authorities.” And unlike other U.S. intelligence officials, intelligence analysts at DHS do not have access to systems that grant officials the ability to browse the internet anonymously.
An “inconsistent” focus on domestic terrorism
According to the inspector general, “the Department’s priority and focus continued to be international terrorism until 2012.”
Although DHS first issued a domestic homeland security strategy in 2004, programs focused on training to counter domestic violent extremism by federal, state, and local stakeholders weren’t established until 2011. In 2016, the federal government first set up grant programs to address domestic violent extremism, with awards to state and local governments and nonprofit organizations.
The report also found that the department “has not consistently funded grants designed to help recipients combat domestic terrorism.” Guidance issued in 2018 as part of a DHS security and coordination plan only addressed domestic terrorism security for soft targets and crowded places. (That excludes hard targets such as the United States Capitol.)
Group dedicated to implementing DHS’ strategic plan to combat terrorism has no decision authority, no separate funding and no dedicated staff
As of December 2020, U.S. law tasked a “Counter Threats Advisory Board” with coordinating efforts related to DHS’ intelligence activities, policies, and information for countering threats, including counterterrorism threats. But the board only possesses authorization for two years (beginning in December 2020) with no guarantee that future laws will sustain it. According to the Inspector General, “the same authorizing statute prohibits additional funds to carry out its mission.”
In July 2021, DHS established an “action group” led by the advisory board to implement its Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence. But according to the Inspector General, that group “has no decision authority” and must seek approval from the advisory board for actions it takes to implement the framework. Further, the group has no dedicated staff charged with carrying out the implementation.
DHS does not compile national-level statistics on terrorism
“DHS could do more to compile, maintain, and track domestic terrorism information for future planning,” the inspector general noted.
Although DHS’ internal policy grants its Office of Intelligence and Analysis responsibility for releasing collected statistics to its partners, the agency “has not used the information to develop overall statistics on domestic terrorism that DHS and I&A partners could use to make informed decisions,” according to the inspector general. One intelligence analyst told auditors that DHS first used a “spreadsheet tracker” to brief federal, state, and local government partners on domestic terrorism incidents in March 2022.
DHS IG made six recommendations to the department
Among its recommendations, the IG proposed that the department’s counterterrorism coordinator lead a “needs assessment” to identify the staffing and budget deficits within DHS’ mission to counter domestic terrorism, including within the critically understaffed National Terrorism Advisory System.
The report also suggested that DHS’ Under Secretary of Intelligence and Analysis, should “immediately begin working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to ensure… appropriate access to FBI case information” and publish “national-level statistics” on domestic terrorism.
DHS “concurred” with all six of the inspector general’s suggestions
The Department agreed to complete the needs assessment by March 31, 2023 and said it would discuss “appropriate access to domestic terrorism case information” with FBI and the Justice Department by the end of the year.
In the department’s response, DHS Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans Robert Silvers also committed to developing national-level statistics on domestic terrorism by June of next year.
DHS spokesperson said the department “will work to implement” the inspector general’s suggestions and added that since last year, DHS has issued bulletins and other products to provide information to Americans about the terrorist threat environment and threats, including six National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) bulletins, which communicated information about threats and about “resources for how to stay safe during the heightened threat environment.”