Most obviously, the fact that this bulletin was released underscores that the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 might have been only the beginning of what we face. As The Post’s write-up notes, the bulletin doesn’t indicate awareness of a specific threat, but it’s still unusual for such a bulletin to be released about domestic extremists.
But something else in here is additionally telling about the difficulties we face. The wording in the bulletin underscores how complex it will be for the government to warn the public, and act on the threat, while also avoiding the further radicalization of certain types of domestic extremists.
Notably, the bulletin says one of the potential inspirations of future violence is “perceived grievances fueled by false narratives.”
What are these false narratives? The bulletin doesn’t say.
But Elizabeth Neumann, a former Homeland Security official during the Trump administration who became a critic of the former president, told me this is very likely a reference to lies about the election’s legitimacy.
“I have no doubt that this is at least one of the false narratives that they’re talking about,” Neumann told me.
Here’s the key language from the bulletin, which also offers the public a range of advice on how to be prepared and how to spot signs of pending violence:
Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.
The omission of a description of these false narratives is surely not an accident. As I reported recently, a confidential intelligence bulletin that was released after Jan. 6 but before President Biden took office — and was distributed to state and local law enforcement — was much more explicit.
That bulletin warned that “domestic violence extremists” were likely to be incited to further acts in part by “amplified perceptions of fraud surrounding the outcome of the general election.”
Obviously, those “perceptions” were actively fed by President Donald Trump for months, and many Republicans still refuse to unambiguously declare that the election’s outcome was legitimate.
Neumann notes that it would be much more politically charged for the Biden administration to state explicitly right now that the “false narratives” that might inspire future violence are in part Republican-fueled lies about the election’s outcome.
Indeed, Neumann points out that there may be good reasons for the omission, at least for now. The White House has announced that law enforcement and intelligence officials will undertake a comprehensive review of the domestic violent extremism threat.
“They’re probably erring on the side of caution before they take the next step in accurately characterizing the threat,” Neumann said.
Neumann pointed out that major conservative voices and Republican lawmakers are already (falsely) blasting Biden for supposedly using the domestic extremist threat to tar ordinary Republicans and conservatives.
When Biden declared in his inaugural speech that national unity and democracy are threatened by rising forces of racism, nativism, political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism, some Republicans and right-wing media figures immediately pretended he was talking about them.
Neumann noted that the omission of any characterization of those “false narratives” probably reflects a desire to avoid giving those voices more ammunition to make that claim.
“You don’t want to exacerbate that,” Neumann told me. “We already have a disinformation problem on the right and you don’t want to feed that machine.”
Which might actually be reasonable. With the new administration preparing to focus on domestic extremist activity, doing this right will mean taking extraordinary care not to overreach and/or radicalize people further.
This means intelligence and law enforcement absolutely cannot in any way be used to denigrate or target legitimate political activity. Such overreach is a serious danger with a long history in the United States, and we need to guard against it strenuously.
What this latest bulletin hints at is how incredibly complex and difficult getting this balance right is going to be.