Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized Thursday for references to the potential recruitment of military veterans by extremists that appeared in a recent assessment of the threat of domestic right-wing groups. But was her mea culpa really necessary?
The verdict is mixed. What isn't in question is the conservative firestorm that, fairly or not, has greeted the leaked memo.
The document, which makes no references to conservatives, outlined for law enforcement officials nationwide the economic and political conditions that could drive a resurgence of activity in far corners of right-wing extremism.
A similar assessment of left-wing extremist threats, from ecoterrorism to animal liberation organizations, was issued in February.
For analysts like Brian Jackson, associate director of the Rand Corp.'s Homeland Security Program, the DHS assessment was run-of-the-mill.
"This sort of intelligence product is relatively common output for intelligence analysts focused on trying to pay attention to how threats are evolving over time," Jackson said.
"It's a routine sort of assessment that didn't strike me as that different from what we've seen before," he said.
The memo's warning about groups whose ideology includes racist elements was not unexpected given that President Obama is the nation's first black president, he said. Nor was the reference to the potential for trained military veterans to be sought out and recruited by violent domestic groups, no matter what their leanings.
"Fortunately, one of the things that constrains the terrorism threat is that the groups have to develop the capabilities to cause harm," Jackson said. "If they can recruit people already well-trained and experienced, that's obviously attractive to them."
The assessment, prepared by the DHS's Extremism and Radicalization Branch, noted that analysts had "no specific information" that violent plots are in the planning stage.
But it warned that conditions including the economic downturn, President Obama's breaking the White House color barrier, illegal immigration, and fears about potential expanded gun restrictions have created an environment conducive to a resurgence of right-wing radical groups.
The analysts asserted that conditions are similar to those of the 1990s after the election of Democratic President Bill Clinton. In 1995, disaffected Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh committed the nation's most deadly act of domestic terrorism when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
American Legion National Commander David Rehbein has criticized the report as politically biased and as unfairly besmirching veterans by singling out McVeigh.
K. Jack Riley, the associate director of Rand's National Security Research Division, has written extensively about domestic terrorism and preparedness. He is among the analysts who don't believe the DHS assessment was politically motivated but who found its execution somewhat ham-handed and incomplete.
"All indications are, at this point, that returning veterans are unfortunately turning the guns on themselves," Riley said, noting the increase in suicides and other self-damaging behavior associated with combat trauma.
The report, he says, appears to unconvincingly conflate experience with firearms and military training with an attraction to paramilitary activity.
Riley also said the DHS assessment missed the mark on the notion of a potential right-wing spike in violence inspired by economic conditions.
"That kind of activity can just as easily be motivated on the left as well as the right," he said, pointing out the recent protests surrounding the G-20 meeting in Europe and the violence that beset the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle.
While saying during an interview on Fox News that her intent was not to "offend or castigate all veterans," Napolitano defended the threat assessment.
In a statement she said: "Let me be clear: we monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States. We don't have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence."
Bravo, say those who make it their business to track violent hate groups.
"This is a perfectly normal thing for DHS to be doing," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long monitored left- and right-wing violent extremists.
"That DHS is being pilloried by conservatives and veterans is frankly ludicrous," he said. "The report merely points out the obvious."
Potok, however, took one exception to the assessment: Its contention that tough economic conditions now echo those of the 1990s is just plain wrong, he says.
"The recession ended in 1991," he said. But warnings about right-wing anger over potential gun restrictions, nonwhite immigration and the ascent of Obama are not to be ignored, he says.
"This is a relatively benign document that gives a quite accurate assessment of what's going on out there," Potok said. "Claims of it being an attack on conservatives or veterans are silly paranoia or political propaganda."