An 88-year-old Maryland man with a long history of ties to white supremacist groups is the suspect in Wednesday's fatal shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, two law enforcement officials told CNN.
Experts say there are an estimated 926 hate groups operating in America right now. Back in May, the Department of Homeland Security reported that hate crimes were on the rise and that some of that was likely fueled by the election of a black president.
Now the question is being raised yet again – how serious is the threat of domestic terrorism here at home? Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Thursday.
Kiran Chetry: This suspect is an 88-year-old man. He had been in prison for a prior armed kidnapping. He tried to kidnap some members of the Federal Reserve in 1981. But then he seemed to be off the radar for decades. How do you increase the odds of being able to flag whether someone is prone to violence again in the future?
Frances Townsend: The “lone wolf” represents the single-most difficult problem for law enforcement. Of course, the FBI has joint terrorism task forces across the country; over a hundred of them. Each of those has got a domestic terrorism component to it. They infiltrate these domestic terror groups. They talk to people. They surveil them. They watch the Web sites and the rhetoric. We did see an up-tick during the primaries before the actual general election. We were worried about the up-tick in violent rhetoric of these supremacist groups.
But it's very difficult, if somebody is not sort of affiliated with one of those groups or not really active in them, to track the “lone wolf.” As you say, Kiran, this guy doesn't fit what you would imagine the supremacist would look like or be like when he walks into the museum yesterday with a rifle at 88-years-old, a former veteran himself. It's very disturbing. That's why you really have to give the security guards credit. They reacted so quickly and saved the lives of many people inside visiting that museum, especially children.
Chetry: But unfortunately the security guard, Stephen Johns, did not make it and that's really the tragedy in the situation. In May, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was criticized for a report that raised concern about security risks from a group of returning veterans. You were in this office as well. How do you determine where you target your resources? And who eventually goes from just having some viewpoints that are extreme, which is allowed, to acting on them?
Townsend: Well, of course, the First Amendment of our Constitution allows people to say hateful things. And what you're looking for is the tipping point when they're actually going to take action against it. You're looking for things that might push them over the edge. Do they have weapons? Do they have access to weapons? Is there a plan? Are they talking about or trying to inspire others to actually act on their hateful thoughts.
But this is much more art than science, Kiran, so it's very, very difficult. That's why the FBI invests a good deal of resources in this. Again, when you're talking about limited resources, we have to remember foreign terrorists have killed thousands of Americans. These [domestic plots] tend to be isolated incidents with limited impact, although they do involve the loss of life. That said – the FBI spends resources on both. But of course you have to set priorities.
Chetry: Do you take issue with or do you agree with this estimation that there are nearly a thousand of these hate groups operating in the country right now?
Townsend: Not only do I think that's right, but I think what you'll find is with the use of the Internet these people can find like-minded people with like-minded hateful thoughts and it's sort of self-reinforcing of these sorts of awful things. And they can find people to share their ideas with and spread their ideas. So you know, in that way the Internet has actually aided these groups and led to a proliferation of them.
Chetry: It's also possibly helped with tracking, though, correct? Being able to track and keep track?
Townsend: That’s correct.