Why Can’t Anyone Agree On The Definition Of ‘Domestic Terrorism’?

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Zalubowsk

Police investigate the attack at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood

After last month’s attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado left three people dead and nine more wounded, information about the suspect’s anti-abortion ideology quickly emerged. According to recent reports, the man arrested in the killings, Robert Dear, asked for directions to the clinic on the day of the shooting and told investigators, “No more baby parts” in the aftermath of the attack.

Despite evidence to the contrary, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) said on ABC’s This Week that he did not believe the shootings constituted terrorism. “It’s, I think, a mental health crisis. I don’t think it would fall under quite the definition of domestic terrorism,” he said, though he noted he would “leave that to the Justice Department to make that determination.”

Others, including Planned Parenthood, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers (R), and even former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) took the opposite view, calling it “domestic terrorism” and “absolutely abominable.”

The attack came just two days after NARAL Pro-Choice America and more than 100 other organizations and providers wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice to ask that anti-abortion violence be officially treated as domestic terrorism. They noted that the legal definition of domestic terrorism includes any criminal act dangerous to human life that is “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” — a definition that seems to very clearly include the Colorado Springs shooting.

Less than a week later, the death toll in Colorado Springs was eclipsed by yet another mass shooting — this time by an American-born man who reportedly claims to be Muslim and his Pakistani-born wife. Within days, the FBI announced that this case was being handled as a terrorism case. On Sunday, President Obama delivered a national address from the Oval Office outlining “steps that we can take together to defeat the terrorist threat,” focusing almost exclusively on ISIS-related terrorism.

But should a radical anti-abortion extremist’s attacks also be officially classified as acts of domestic terrorism? And why does it matter? ThinkProgress reached out to abortion rights advocates, national security experts, and academics who study anti-abortion violence and asked them these questions. Their answers revealed an opaque governmental process for handling a growing trend of threats, arsons, bombings, and shootings targeting women’s health clinics and doctors.

Administrative Caution

2009 report

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In 2009, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) produced an assessment titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which warned that the combination of the nation’s economic downturn and the recent inauguration of the first African American president of the United States could “present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.” It specifically noted that this extremism could include “groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”

Conservatives were not pleased. Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice denounced the inclusion of anti-abortion extremists, asking, “Why would the Department of Homeland Security single out groups like pro-life supporters when they should be focusing on identifying and apprehending the real terrorists — like al-Qaeda — groups that have vowed to destroy America?” The Liberty Counsel defiantly distributed “Right-Wing Extremist” cards to its supporters. Then-House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) demanded to know why DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano “has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”

The report was soon withdrawn and the team that created it was reportedlyeffectively eviscerated.”

Daryl Johnson, who was lead analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security from 2004 to 2010 and the primary author of the report, told ThinkProgress that the federal government, for the past several years, has been hesitant to label acts of domestic terrorism as such. “There seems to be a disconnect as to what constitutes terrorism within government, particularly if it’s of the non-Muslim variety,” he said. And while there is a lot of attention given by the public and the media to the ISIS threat, “to date we have had very few incidents of ISIS-related terrorism in the United States, compared to all of the incidents related to terrorist plotting we’ve had this year.”

Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, echoed this view. “Until recently, under the Obama administration there had been a real reluctance to brand almost anything that looks like domestic terrorism as domestic terrorism,” she said. But Beirich pointed to two recent developments that could signal a shift within the federal government: In June 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder revived a long-dormant domestic terrorism task force (created after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing but lapsed after September 11, 2001) and in October, Assistant Attorney General John Carlin announced a newly created Domestic Terrorism Counsel position to coordinate domestic terrorism cases and prevention.

Lack Of Transparency

No official report

CREDIT: AP/Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

In 2011, a Huffington Post report raised concerns that the National Counterterrorism Center had released a database of terrorist attacks globally, between 2004 and 2010, that appeared to omit most anti-abortion-related attacks over that time.

But the official determination of whether an incident is “domestic terrorism” is made by the FBI, Johnson explained, and that information is not always released to the public. “The ‘Terrorism in the United States’ report that used to come out annually has not existed since 2005,” so there’s no official U.S. government document or report annually to let the public know what the FBI deems as terrorism,” he said. “That’s what’s led to a lot of the confusion today.”

“By calling it terrorism, you are not only alerting the public to an issue, but for statistical purposes, it gives us a data point to analyze the current and future threat,” Johnson observed. In 2012 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s constitution subcommittee, Johnson urged that his annual report be revived.

The Department of Justice did not respond to numerous ThinkProgress inquiries about its determination process.

Sasha Bruce, senior vice president of campaigns and strategy for NARAL, told ThinkProgress that the campaign to urge DOJ to officially classify attacks on abortion providers as acts of domestic terrorism is rooted in a desire for transparency. “Our push is not with the assumption that they are doing the wrong thing,” she said. “It’s that we don’t know that they’re doing the right thing. So many investigations happen behind closed doors, we’re asking that they give public assurance that they’re doing the right thing… we’re just asking for an indication that they are considering domestic terrorism [as they investigate attacks like Colorado Springs].”

Kathy Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said that while the FBI may not be classifying these incidents as domestic terrorism, the number of attacks has been disturbingly high and increasing.

“We’re living in a time where more than half of providers are experiencing real threats: doctors being featured on WANTED posters, clinic staffs being stalked in their homes, callers threatening to blow the clinic up or kill a person,” Spillar explained. “These threats often end in acts of violence.”

Her organization’s National Clinic Access Project tracks threats against clinics that provide abortion. It found that almost one in five clinics experienced severe violence last year — a largely unchanged statistic since the late 1990s. Recently, the number of clinics impacted by threats and intimidation has climbed from 26.6 percent in 2010 to 51.9 percent in 2014.

Why It Matters: The Practical And The Political

Clinic stats

CREDIT: AP/Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

While Spillar says we need “aggressive enforcement and clear statements by public officials that abortion is legal and should not be the target of extremists who commit violence and go on suicide missions to do it,” she is not certain that doing that necessarily requires classifying those acts as terrorism.

But David S. Cohen, a professor of law at Drexel University, told ThinkProgress that while the Department of Justice under President Obama has been working diligently to prosecute clinic violence, the terrorism designation could still help them do the job even better. If a clinic attack is officially classified as domestic terrorism, he noted, “it can be treated different by the federal government and more resources might be available.” In addition to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which handles abortion clinic attacks, the designation would mean that the domestic terrorism unit would also become involved. And that could bring “an additional way of thinking about it, tracking, and understanding of information,” he added.

NARAL’s Bruce agreed, noting that the divisions have different resources and expertise. “The people who work in domestic terrorism have different expertise than those who work on Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act charges every day,” she said. “Are they applicable? Perhaps. Given how prevalent [these attacks] are and the fact that they are increasing, we’d look to them for as many [types of expertise] as possible.”

Alesha E. Doan, who chairs the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Kansas, pointed to another reason why calling it domestic terrorism matters: framing.

“The importance to framing [anti-abortion attacks] as political violence, acts of violence that exist in the political conversation, has material outcomes in terms of policy,” she said. “Traditionally, in the last four decades, these acts of violence have largely been framed [by abortion opponents as] a mentally disturbed individual, a lone wolf,” she added, though these violent extremists exist within the anti-abortion movement.

According to Doan, seeing the attacks as part of that broader context “would place a focus on the language, the inflammatory rhetoric that our politicians and political actors use.” That gives the anti-abortion activists and their political supporters “a very large political stake in discounting this violence as just random violence. And really, there’s nothing random about it.”

Bruce noted that, regardless of whether it’s called terrorism, it is important that an attack like the one that took place in Colorado Springs is not dismissed as a lone-wolf attack unrelated to the “hate-filled rhetoric” that preceded it.

“[Abortion-rights opponents are] going out of their way to say the pro-choice movement is trying to tie this to the anti-abortion movement coming out of the right,” she said, “which we are, because we think this it is connected and they are going out of their way to say that it’s not.”

“We’re not saying everybody is a murderer. But they are connected, you don’t get to align yourself with [those who say] it’s justifiable to kill abortion doctors — and then say acts like this aren’t connected to you.”