The Federal Bureau of Investigation earlier this year launched a nationwide operation targeting white supremacists and "militia/sovereign-citizen extremist groups," including a focus on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to memos sent from bureau headquarters to field offices.
The initiative, dubbed Operation Vigilant Eagle, was outlined in February, two months before a memo giving a similar warning was issued on April 7 by the Department of Homeland Security.
Disclosure of the DHS memo this week has sparked controversy among some conservatives and veterans groups. Appearing on television talk shows Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the assessment, but apologized to veterans who saw it as an accusation.
"This is an assessment of things just to be wary of, not to infringe on constitutional rights, certainly not to malign our veterans," she said on NBC's Today Show.
The documents outlining Operation Vigilant Eagle cite a surge in activity by such groups. The memos say the FBI's focus on veterans began as far back as December, during the final weeks of the Bush administration, when the bureau's domestic counterterrorism division formed a special joint working group with the Defense Department.
A Feb. 23 draft memo from FBI domestic counterterrorism leaders, obtained by The Wall Street Journal, cited an "increase in recruitment, threatening communications and weapons procurement by white supremacy extremist and militia/sovereign-citizen extremist groups."
The FBI said in the memo that its conclusion about a surge in such activities was based on confidential sources, undercover operations, reporting from other law-enforcement agencies and publicly available information. The memo said the main goal of the multipronged operation was to get a better handle on "the scope of this emerging threat." The operation also seeks to identify gaps in intelligence efforts surrounding these groups and their leaders.
The aim of the FBI's effort with the Defense Department, which was rolled into the Vigilant Eagle program, is to "share information regarding Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans whose involvement in white supremacy and/or militia sovereign citizen extremist groups poses a domestic terrorism threat," according to the Feb. 23 FBI memo.
Michael Ward, FBI deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, said in an interview Thursday that the portion of the operation focusing on the military related only to veterans who draw the attention of Defense Department officials for joining white-supremacist or other extremist groups.
"We're not doing an investigation into the military, we're not looking at former military members," he said. "It would have to be something they were concerned about, or someone they're concerned is involved" with extremist groups.
Mr. Ward said that the FBI's general counsel reviewed the operation before it began, "to make sure any tripwires we set do not violate any civil liberties."
Some Republican lawmakers, talk-show hosts and veterans groups complained this week after the internal DHS assessment cited the potential for the same extremists groups to target returning combat veterans for recruitment. The Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, also echoed the concerns.
The separate DHS assessment, leaked this week after being sent to law-enforcement agencies, said the "willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today." Veterans could draw special attention, the report said, because of their advanced training.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said Wednesday he was offended that veterans were characterized as potential domestic terrorists.
Amy Kudwa, a DHS spokeswoman, said Thursday the report was issued before an objection about one part of the document raised by the agency's civil-rights division was resolved. She called it a "breakdown of an internal process" that would be fixed.
The FBI documents show the bureau was working with investigators inside the nation's uniformed services "in an effort to identify those current or former soldiers who pose a domestic terrorism threat." The other agencies working with the FBI are the U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Division, the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
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