WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security is beginning to address white supremacist terrorism as a primary security threat, breaking with a decade of flagging attention after bigoted mass shooters from New Zealand to Texas took the lives of nearly 100 people in the last six months.
In a little-noticed strategy document published last month to guide law enforcement on emerging threats and in recent public appearances by Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, the department is trying to project a new vigilance about violent white nationalism, beating back criticism that the agency has spent a decade playing down the issue.
“I would like to take this opportunity to be direct and unambiguous in addressing a major issue of our time. In our modern age, the continuation of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation,” Mr. McAleenan said during an address last month, describing white nationalism as one of the most dangerous threats to the United States.
The department’s new stance contrasts that of President Trump, who has repeatedly dismissed white supremacy as an insignificant fringe movement. But beyond words and documents, many officials trying to combat the threat throughout the country remain skeptical that the full weight of federal law enforcement is finally being used to give bigoted domestic terrorism the attention it deserves.
Mike Sena, who manages one of 79 information-gathering “fusion centers” across the country partially funded by the Department of Homeland Security, said he has witnessed the rise of hate speech and white supremacist terrorism on the internet — and the reluctance of some in local law enforcement to pursue it.
“If it’s ISIS, they’re jumping to it and saying, ‘I got this,’” said Mr. Sena, the president of the National Fusion Center Association. “But if it’s not, they say, ‘What do I have to do with this?’”
Local police officials in turn hope the belated admission by the Homeland Security Department will lead the agency to share more and richer information on the threat.
Mr. Sena said the department’s moves are a good sign. “This is a huge affirmation for what we’ve been trying to do the last 18 years,” he said.
The department’s new public stance is a break with the skepticism that has been rooted within the federal government for years and that Mr. Trump has openly expressed — most prominently, after the fatal white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., and the deadly rampage at two mosques in New Zealand. (He did denounce white supremacy after the mass shooting this summer in El Paso.)
While the Islamic State and Al Qaeda can still inspire homegrown terrorism in the United States, the “Strategic Framework For Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence” asserts that the leadership at Homeland Security must adapt to the rise of domestic terrorism. The department will invest in counter-messaging campaigns and engage the private sector to combat hateful rhetoric online, according to the report.
Highlighting domestic terrorism is a major shift for a Homeland Security Department that has been accused of underplaying the threat in the aftermath of the department’s 2009 report that warned that economic dislocation and the election of a black president could fuel right-wing extremism and identified newly discharged service members as potential recruits. The political backlash was fierce, and the report was withdrawn.
An earlier recognition of the white supremacist threat could have been felt in communities across the country, according to Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst for the department who wrote the 2009 report. Such a decision by the department, he said, might have led to trainings for local police departments to scout indicators of potential threats, undercover operations focused on the white nationalist movement and additional investment into organizations that reach out to those who have shown signs of committing violent acts.
Instead “the backlash to my report created a chilling effect across government at all levels,” Mr. Johnson said. “Everyone was kind of afraid or hesitant or didn’t even want to look at this issue.”
Even as the threat shifted from foreign-born terrorist cells to those inspired by racist propaganda on the internet, the department cut resources for programs that former officials say were tasked with analyzing the emerging threat and supporting outreach organizations.
The Department of Homeland Security does not take the lead in terrorism investigations. The agency’s role is rather to analyze data, inform local law enforcement agencies of emerging threats and issue grants to local law enforcement to combat terrorism. The fusion centers are key to its information sharing.
Under the current administration, former and current homeland security officials have expressed concern that the agency formed to combat terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been relegated largely to enforce Mr. Trump’s restrictive immigration agenda.
“You would think D.H.S. is really just the department of the southwest border,” said Janet Napolitano, a former homeland security secretary under President Barack Obama. “The responsibilities are so much broader than that, and they include both foreign terrorism and also now domestic terrorism.”
Current department leaders acknowledge an exclusive focus on immigration will not keep the country safe.
“Border security cannot stop violence originating from within America,” the department’s new mission report states.
The domestic terrorism threat has grown clearer as Homeland Security’s capacity to address it has atrophied. Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, told Congress in July that the bureau had arrested as many domestic terrorists as foreign terrorists this year and many of them were white supremacists.
The department’s mission report also highlights recent attacks committed by white supremacists, including mass shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., the Christchurch mosque massacre in New Zealand and the deadly shooting at a Walmart in El Paso.
It remains unclear how the Department of Homeland Security will translate its recognition of the threat into action to combat it. Agency officials said they will release an implementation plan in the coming months, and Mr. McAleenan has committed to making it public. But law enforcement officials say simply identifying the threats in an official terrorism report was needed — and overdue.
After Ms. Napolitano rescinded the 2009 report on right-wing extremism, Obama administration officials feared legitimizing white supremacists’ views with more attention. Under the Trump administration, the office tasked with paying out grants and coordinating local police departments to prevent threats has shriveled.
That office, which has been renamed multiple times, went from a budget of more than $20 million in the Obama administration to less than $3 million, according to the House Appropriations Committee and former homeland security officials. A department official said the $20 million figure was mostly grants and other funds that were not part of the program’s core budget.
A midyear budget request by Mr. McAleenan earlier this year was held up by Democrats who worried the administration would use the added resources to target Muslims.
Mr. Johnson, who tried to sound the alarm in 2009, said the new agency document gave him a “glimmer of hope.”
“Better late than never, but we’ve had a threat that’s been around for 10 years, and if we acknowledged this and my report was released, we would be much more ahead on strategies,” he said.
In addition to clearly identifying white nationalism as a pressing threat, the department also warns of the rise of “targeted violence” by those who do not display a clear motivation or hatred for a particular group of people.
The report highlights how hateful posts on the internet, including those that are part of disinformation campaigns by foreign states, have incited violent acts in the United States. Officials said they hope the report cements a resolve in police agencies to better investigate leads issued by fusion centers, even if they do not yet meet the definition of probable cause or do not fall into the traditional definition of terrorism.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which represents the police departments that would be on the receiving end of the information gathered by the Homeland Security Department, said calling out domestic terrorism merely brings the department and its fusion centers to the current reality.
“What’s evolved is a recognition that it doesn’t matter if somebody is ideologically driven or just targeting people. We need to know who they are,” Mr. Wexler said. “The challenge in a democracy is the First Amendment. People say things on the internet.”
Law enforcement officials said the Homeland Security Department now needs to give police departments more latitude with grants often seen as restricted to combating foreign-born terrorism.
Some police officials have requested additional federal investment in research to identify warning signs of potential attackers and organizations that conduct outreach to those who may espouse hateful views — no easy task for investigators who must weigh First Amendment rights with public safety.
While officials remained skeptical that the Trump administration would truly invest in combating the new threat, Mr. Sena is optimistic.
“This gives us the ability to look at the threats across America,” he said. “It’s not just finding the terrorist with the pipe bombs and two end caps, the guy espousing Al Qaeda rhetoric.”