News Roundup: Investigating the Administration’s Response to Domestic Terrorism

According to numerous analyses and official reports, recent years have seen a significant rise in violent right-wing extremism in the United States. After the attacks in El Paso and Dayton last weekend, the FBI said that it “remains concerned that U.S.-based domestic violent extremists could become inspired by these and previous high-profile attacks to engage in similar acts of violence.”

But instead of devoting more resources to combating domestic terrorism, the Trump administration has cut funding for its Countering Violent Extremism program and redirected resources to fighting Islamist terrorism. And according to CNN, the White House rebuffed efforts by DHS officials to make domestic terrorism a higher priority in the National Counterterrorism Strategy. American Oversight has been investigating the administration’s response to domestic terrorism and acts of violence, and this week sued Homeland Security for records related to a political appointee with ties to far-right national security groups.

The lawsuit seeks the calendars of Katharine Gorka, press secretary at Customs and Border Protection, as well as her communications with key outside groups. Gorka previously served as a policy adviser at Homeland Security, where she reportedly advised the department to cut Countering Violent Extremism program grants for certain groups working against right-wing radicalism. She and her husband, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka, have numerous ties to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups, and our lawsuit aims to shed light on the influence those ties may have had on federal policy.

The past week saw a number of news stories about the administration’s counterterrorism priorities. On Thursday, Yahoo News reported on a document that had been prepared by New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security Preparedness and shared with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, which found that alleged white supremacists were responsible for all race-based domestic terrorism in 2018 — but the Justice Department had refused to share that data with Congress. And according to leaked FBI documents, the agency ranks “black identity extremists” as bigger threats than white supremacists.

Also this week, Rolling Stone reported on a confusing — and concerning — response to one of our domestic terrorism-related Freedom of Information Act requests, which we had filed back in January. The request had sought information about how many analysts were working on non-Islamist domestic terrorism threats, but the department responded with a report on “suspected environmental rights extremists” and a cover letter that made little sense. The letter said that the department’s document production was “a collaboration of thirteen analysis worked on domestic terrorism threats” and that it could neither confirm nor deny that any relevant records existed. You can see the documents we received here.

Here’s what else we’ve been working on this week:

Cuccinelli’s Perks: According to Politico, Ken Cuccinelli, the “outspoken immigration hard-liner” who in June was named by President Donald Trump as the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), “has become one of the president’s top lieutenants.” Cuccinelli reportedly “enjoys a direct pipeline to Trump” and the president has even designated him to be one of 10 officials who gets a government-funded car to drive him to work from his Virginia home. We want to know what sort of perks Cuccinelli is getting thanks to his close relationship with the president.

Stephen Miller’s Allies: We’ve been investigating the influence that White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller has exercised across the Trump administration, and this week expanded that investigation to include other officials close to him who share his anti-immigration stance. Former State Department official and Miller aide John Zadrozny recently joined USCIS to work under Cuccinelli, and during a recent White House meeting he and Andrew Veprek, another State Department official, reportedly pressed for the refugee admissions cap to be slashed to zero next year. We’ve filed FOIA requests for their communications with outside entities, and have also asked for communications between top DHS officials and Miller aide Robert Gabriel Jr.

Treatment of Transgender Detainees: Earlier this month, a group of inmates at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement has housed transgender women detainees since 2017, called for an independent investigation of the facility’s conditions, alleging failure to provide proper health care and daily verbal and psychological abuse. Cibola is the same facility where a transgender asylum-seeker died from HIV-related complications and dehydration. American Oversight is continuing its investigation of the treatment of transgender and other vulnerable individuals in ICE and DHS custody, filing a new FOIA request for photos, videos or audio recordings of Cibola taken by employees or inspectors.

Fisher Industries: The Washington Post reported in May on the president’s efforts to steer a border wall construction contract to a North Dakota-based firm headed by one of his most vocal supporters. Tommy Fisher, the CEO of Fisher Industries, is a Republican donor and frequent guest on Fox News, and We Build the Wall — the crowd-funded effort to use private money for the border wall — has been working with Fisher Industries to build a section of fencing in New Mexico. We’ve asked Homeland Security and the Army Corps of Engineers for communications that officials had with Fisher Industries, or with the White House about Fisher and We Build the Wall.

We (Illegally) Build the Wall: The nonprofit that has raised $23 million to build the border wall is now under criminal investigation in Florida, where it is registered. The details of the investigation are unclear, but according to Buzzfeed News, there have been concerns about the organization having fundraised for board members, including Kris Kobach, and accusations of building without permits. We’ve been investigating whether there has been any coordination between We Build the Wall and the federal government.

Interior Department FOIA Processing: In late 2018, the Department of the Interior proposed changes to its FOIA processing rules that would allow it to refuse certain requests or delay responding. The Environmental Protection Agency followed a few months later with its own FOIA rule that would give political appointees the ability to issue final determinations on releasing documents. This week, The Hill reported that Interior officials had contacted the FBI and the EPA when it was developing its controversial policy, seeking information about the agencies’ slow rate of response. In response to our and other watchdog groups’ request, Interior’s inspector general is investigating the agency’s changes.

Tom Barrack, Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth: Longtime Trump friend and real-estate developer Tom Barrack was in the news last week for his business ties to Saudi Arabia — and for his efforts in a plan to sell U.S. nuclear technology to the kingdom. This week, we’re suing the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Finance Agency for records related to his influence on federal housing policy, as well as that of two other real-estate developers, Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth. All three men have held positions close to the government without holding any official government titles.