A former CIA analyst turned Democratic congresswoman is urging the country’s top national security officials to increase US intelligence gathering on foreign White supremacist groups so they can be designated as terrorist organizations.
Applying that designation would expand US law enforcement’s ability to pursue Americans domestically who have contacts with foreign groups such as neo-Nazi organizations based in Europe.
Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan sent letters to FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director William Burns on Friday asking them to “prioritize resources” directed toward foreign White supremacist groups.
The fear among some US national security officials is that these foreign groups could inspire American White supremacists, and potentially provide them with training and resources to carry out violent attacks on the US.
Slotkin’s letters, reviewed by CNN, were sent just days after President Joe Biden said “White supremacy is terrorism” during his joint address to Congress.
Before the US government can officially label a foreign entity as a terrorist organization, it has to meet a certain threshold of evidence to back up its case. And right now it is not collecting enough intelligence on these groups to do so.
That’s a particular concern for Slotkin, who served three tours in Iraq as an analyst with the CIA.
“My biggest fear is an increase in the sophistication and frequency of lone wolf White supremacist terrorist attacks in the US,” Slotkin told CNN. “It is much easier to go after Americans who provide material support to a group like al Qaeda and ISIS than it is to go after, right now, Americans who are doing the same engagement, that material support, to White supremacist terrorist groups in Europe.”
CNN has reached out to the FBI and the CIA for comment.
Slotkin’s letters Friday to the FBI and CIA follow a similar one she sent to the State Department several weeks ago, in which she suggested more than a dozen groups should be considered for the terrorist designation – including European neo-Nazi groups such as Nordic Resistance Movement and the National Action Group.
In its response to Slotkin, the State Department explained that a major holdup in its efforts to label these groups as terrorist organizations is a dearth of “sufficient credible information that meets standards for designation.”
The January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol involved many American White supremacists and added urgency to the issue.
“After January 6 I just don’t think it is possible to ignore that there are small numbers of people who climb that ladder of escalation and go from viewing terrible things online to actually threatening or inciting violence and carrying out violence,” Slotkin told CNN.
Two former counterterrorism officials, including one senior official, said that the intelligence community broadly has not been focused on the threat from foreign White supremacist groups in recent years.
The former senior official said State Department officials focused on designating these groups for possible sanctions are likely pushing for more intelligence-gathering in this space – but that there are limited resources for spying on White supremacist groups.
“Getting the IC to devote more resources to this is going to be tough,” this person said. “It was already scarce when the bandwidth was getting sucked up by Hezbollah, ISIS and AQ. Now collection on White supremacist terrorists is not only competing against those threats, it’s competing against China.”
The US first designated a foreign White supremacist group – the Russian Imperial Movement – as Specially Designated Global Terrorists in April 2020, during the Trump administration. Since then there have been no other groups added to the list. But in a congressional hearing Thursday, a top State Department official told lawmakers that the department is “close in a couple of cases.”
That official – acting Coordinator for the Bureau of Counterterrorism John Godfrey – noted that the Specially Designated Global Terrorists designation authorities were broadened in 2019 but also reiterated that it can be difficult to reach the legal thresholds to make such determinations.
These White supremacist groups often do not have clear command and control or leadership structures, which direct and coordinate attacks. That makes it hard for the US to prove that the group has engaged in terrorist activity, which is defined as having the capacity and the intent to carry out terrorist activity, Godfrey explained on Thursday.
CNN’s Katie Bo Williams, Jennifer Hansler and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.