New revelations about the FBI’s classification system for domestic terrorism investigations raise questions about why the government is unable or unwilling to shed greater light on white supremacist violence. They also cast doubt on whether the FBI has truly abandoned the concept of “Black Identity Extremism.”
The FBI uses a classification system to organize case files according to the type of criminal activity being investigated. These records provide a sense of the FBI’s prioritization of different types of criminal activity over which it has jurisdiction, as well as the nature and extent of the threat posed by those activities. In the decade since the Department of Homeland Security released, and later under pressure withdrew, a report warning about the threat of white supremacist violence, the topic has become a major concern of policymakers, the media, and impacted communities alike. Amid a surge of white supremacist attacks and a reported increase in hate crime, many have questioned whether the Trump administration has done enough to counteract the scourge of white supremacist violence.
As a result, we have seen a push for the release of federal data, such as the FBI’s investigative records, that would help elucidate both the threat posed by white supremacist violence and the federal government’s response to that threat. In spite, or perhaps in light, of this push for data, the Trump administration has reportedly changed its approach to classifying domestic terrorism investigations. For years, the FBI has used a specific alphanumeric code to designate domestic terrorism investigations involving white supremacist violence. But in May 2019, it was reported that the FBI replaced the investigative classification for white supremacist violence with a broader category that encompasses different forms of “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism.”
A group of Democratic senators viewed this as an attempt by the administration to “obfuscate the white supremacist threat,” and blamed the reclassification for the FBI’s inability to produce specific data related to that threat.
According to official documents leaked to the press last month, however, the truth is more complicated. Although the FBI has grouped white supremacist violence within the broader concept of “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism,” the Bureau’s investigative classifications still distinguish between “White Racially Motivated Violent Extremism” and so-called “Black Racially Motivated Violent Extremism.” The latter was formerly known as “Black Identity Extremism,” and before that, “Black Separatist Extremism.”
Based on the leaked documents, and in apparent contradiction with congressional testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray, this reclassification seems to have had little more than a nominal impact on the Bureau’s counterterrorism operations. In fact, both investigative classifications have retained their respective alphanumeric codes: “266N” for White Racially Motivated Violent Extremism; and “266K” for Black Racially Motivated Violent Extremism.
These revelations suggest two things: the FBI should be able to produce specific data on its investigations into white supremacist violence; and the federal government still sees what it once called “Black Identity Extremism” as a domestic terror threat.
At a July 23 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Cory Booker pressed Wray for more information regarding the Bureau’s approach to investigating domestic terrorism. In particular, the senators questioned the FBI’s reported elimination of a discrete investigative classification for cases involving white supremacist violence. According to a May 2 letter from Durbin, Booker, and five other Democrats on the committee, the FBI retired its “White Supremacist Extremism” classification in favor of a broader, more equivocal label known as “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism.”
In their letter, the senators decried the reclassification, noting that officials from the Department of Justice and the FBI who initially briefed committee staff about the name shift could not produce specific data on white supremacist violence. Instead, they could only provide information corresponding to the broader category. The senators suggested that the resulting ambiguity was intentional.
“The Trump Administration,” they wrote, “has shifted its approach to tracking domestic terrorism incidents to obfuscate the white supremacist threat.” The letter also criticized the new category for “inappropriately combin[ing] incidents involving white supremacists and so-called ‘Black identity extremists,’” which the senators described as “a fabricated term based on a faulty assessment of a small number of isolated incidents.”
The use of this term has been the subject of intense scrutiny from members of Congress, particularly Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who has drawn a line between what she called an “absurd designation” and the FBI’s historic targeting of black civil rights activists. Relatedly, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has compared the reclassification to the FBI’s now-defunct “Anti-Abortion Extremism” designation. Raskin suggested that the FBI changed the classification to “Abortion Extremism” to “disguise the nature of the real threat to women’s health care clinics and doctors and nurses who work there.”
During the July 23 hearing, Director Wray was unable to provide specific data on the nature and scope of the white supremacist threat, but said that a majority of the domestic terrorism cases the FBI had investigated at that point in 2019 were “motivated by some version of, what you might call, white supremacist violence.”
The senators were not satisfied with this response. Five days after an armed white supremacist, allegedly looking to target Mexicans, killed 22 people and injured dozens more at a shopping center in El Paso, Texas, they sent a letter addressed to Wray and Attorney General William Barr. In the August 8 letter, the senators doubled down on their concerns regarding the reclassification, and attributed Wray’s imprecision to the administration’s “decision to eliminate the specific designation for white supremacist incidents.” As a reminder, this is the same explanation that officials reportedly provided during the aforementioned committee staff briefing last spring.
But FBI documents that were revealed last month complicate the narrative, as it turns out that a discrete investigative classification for white supremacist violence still exists. According to leaked “threat guidance” documents obtained exclusively by The Young Turks, a progressive news site, although the FBI has implemented its new category for “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism,” the investigative classification system continues to distinguish between “White Racially Motivated Violent Extremists” and “Black Racially Motivated Violent Extremists.” While the documents include materials dating back to fiscal year 2018, this particular revelation comes from threat guidance for FY2020, which begins next month.
The implications here are twofold. First, the FBI should be able to provide the senators, not to mention the general public, with specific data on federal domestic terrorism investigations involving white supremacist violence. Second, although the FBI has abandoned its use of the term “Black Identity Extremism” to describe a purported domestic terror threat that many have criticized as a false predicate for targeting black racial justice activists, the underlying premise of that category continues to inform the FBI’s counterterrorism operations.
According to the leaked documents, motivations for “Black Racially Motivated Violent Extremists” include the desire to establish “autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States,” or even create “physical or psychological separation.” Based on this language, rather than disavowing the underlying framework that so many found objectionable about the “Black Identity Extremism” designation, the FBI seems to have broadened its scope under the new classification.
Both revelations cast a shadow over Wray’s testimony during the July 23 hearing, where he told members of the committee that the elimination of terms like “White Supremacist Extremism” and “Black Identity Extremism” was part of a reorganization of the FBI’s domestic terrorism threat categorizations. “That terminology went away as part of this racially motivated violent extremism category,” he said, referring to “Black Identity Extremism.” As the leaked documents seem to suggest, however, the FBI continues to track its domestic terrorism investigations as it has in the past, only now with even less transparency.
We do not need to speculate about the FBI’s intentions behind the reclassification to understand its effect. Publicity and confusion surrounding the “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism” category have obscured the FBI’s efforts not only to counteract the threat of white supremacist violence, but also to further entrench the framework that underpinned the “Black Identity Extremist” designation.
Assuming the leaked documents indeed reflect the FBI’s current approach to classifying domestic terrorism investigations, the Bureau’s investigative records will shine a light on both efforts. Members of Congress should continue their dogged oversight of the federal response to white supremacist violence and demand transparency from the relevant agencies, including the FBI. But the records alone will not suffice. These latest revelations demand an explanation.
Image: FBI agents check vehicles outside the Wal-Mart where a shooting left 20 people dead in El Paso, Texas, on August 4, 2019. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images