By Carrie Johnson and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 12, 2009
The FBI was "aware" of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting suspect and his history of hateful writings about religious and ethnic minorities, but authorities had not opened a criminal investigation of him before Wednesday's deadly attack, officials said yesterday.
The case of James W. von Brunn, who had a decades-old felony conviction for storming the Federal Reserve headquarters in a bid to kidnap board members and propagate his views against blacks and Jews, underscores the challenge that a rising tide of Web-based white supremacists poses to law enforcement, which walks a fine line between policing potential violence and respecting free speech, experts say.
Authorities including the Department of Homeland Security and police in New York and Los Angeles asked for help from Jewish leaders and maintained heightened patrols yesterday around synagogues and universities. In an e-mail alert to state and local agencies Wednesday after von Brunn allegedly shot and killed a Holocaust museum guard, Homeland Security and the FBI wrote that "this appears to be an isolated incident" involving a lone suspect that appeared to have no connection to terrorism. In a statement yesterday, the FBI called the shooting a case of "domestic terrorism," and Homeland Security said the earlier statement was premature.
In the past three months, lone men said to have political motivations have been arrested in shootings at a Little Rock armed services recruiting station, in a Kansas church attended by an abortion provider and against police in Pennsylvania -- attacks that killed five people and raised questions about the danger posed by domestic radicals.
Joseph Persichini Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office, told reporters gathered yesterday outside the gray museum wrapped in yellow police tape that "law enforcement's challenge every day is to balance the civil liberties of the United States citizen against the need to investigate activities that might lead to criminal conduct. No matter how offensive to some, we are keenly aware expressing views is not a crime and the protection afforded under the Constitution cannot be compromised."
Elsewhere in Washington, activists and advocates for Jewish causes mostly praised the quick response Wednesday afternoon of agencies including the FBI, the D.C. police, the U.S. Park Police, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
David C. Friedman, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, visited the museum yesterday to check in with friends and said he felt "overwhelmed" and "protected" by the police presence. Many of the lawmen who fanned out across the site were known to Friedman, who 10 years ago launched a training program there for local police and federal agents.
"All law enforcement in this day and age has to be a compromise," Friedman said. "We don't have an ocean separating us from the extremists who represent the kind of hatred unleashed yesterday. They live among us. They can pick their time for the most part, not having to worry about whether they have documentation. . . . People like von Brunn were not apparently acting in a way that would cause them to be the subject of a criminal investigation."
The shooting resounded within Justice Department headquarters. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had been scheduled to attend a play with his wife, Sharon Malone, at the Holocaust museum on Wednesday evening. Another senior official, criminal division chief Lanny A. Breuer, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, once served on the museum's board of directors.
Law enforcement agencies last year stepped up efforts to track domestic extremists, a drive that intensified after the election of the first black president and the widening of economic troubles that can present recruiting opportunities for militia groups.
Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has written widely about hate crimes, said the white supremacist movement has changed in profound ways since the 1990s. Charismatic leaders of the largest groups have gone to prison or died in recent years, producing more lone wolves and splinter cells that recruit new members using the Internet.
"It has become more difficult for the FBI and other federal agents who want to infiltrate these groups or even keep an eye on them," Levin said.
Former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff, who joined the board of the Holocaust museum in January, likened von Brunn to the assailants at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Virginia Tech in 2007 -- "cases of individuals pursuing their own political agenda, no matter how disturbed they are" -- in contrast with domestic groups across the political spectrum who pose a terrorist threat.
If von Brunn acted alone, Chertoff said, "we certainly need to make sure we deal with it from a security standpoint, but it's not the same thing as talking about international terrorism on the other end of the scale. These are all security issues, but it's important to . . . treat them as separate kinds of problems."
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate contributed to this report.