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Over the past few days, I’ve been watching the images of the insurrection at the Capitol change. They were always shocking, but as more video has trickled out, and more internet detectives have started identifying perpetrators, the story of what exactly took place has just gotten darker. On Wednesday, some of the people who broke into Congress looked like gleeful internet trolls brought to life. By Sunday, there was video of one of these men beating a police officer with an American flag. I’ve seen more and more pictures of rioters in tactical gear—bulletproof vests, reinforced gloves, guns in open holsters. One of them earned the nickname “zip-tie guy” online. Daryl Johnson, who used to work at the Department of Homeland Security, was struck by that image. “That really hit me because it showed that some people came prepared to potentially take hostages,” he said. “If that is proven true, that is very concerning and shows the dangerous intent of these groups.”
I wanted to talk to Johnson for Monday’s episode of What Next because in some ways he predicted this. Not the details, but the coming wave of anti-government sentiment and where it might lead. Back in 2009, a report he wrote about the risks of right-wing extremism was leaked to conservative media. It was the beginning of the end of his career at Homeland Security. But with each passing year, Johnson’s work seems more prescient. Below you’ll find a partial transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: This week you went back online to see what the groups you used to monitor are saying. What did you see?
Daryl Johnson: The fact that Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed as she breached the window—she’s starting to turn out to be a martyr figure for these groups. And I’m afraid that they’re going to use her death as a recruitment and radicalization tool to mobilize others toward violence.
Some experts have talked about it as a mass radicalization. And I wonder if you’d agree with that.
Absolutely. All of this misinformation that’s out there definitely radicalizes people. And even the Capitol rally itself was a radicalization moment for these people. This is not an isolated event. It’s not the end of the show, so to speak. This is the beginning of the new revolution of these people. So we need to be looking at it as something that’s going to propel radicalization and mobilization toward violence for years into the future. This event is not the culmination of a decade’s worth of right-wing extremism and then suddenly it’s going to die out now because they did this.
You worked at DHS for a while. And I’m curious if you could compare and contrast how D.C. might have prepared for similar events in the past.
We can do a comparison with just what we saw over the summer with the Black Lives Matter protests. There were a lot more resources devoted to defending government buildings. There were much more aggressive tactics used against those protesters. But also, law enforcement can be somewhat biased toward the far-right in underestimating the threat that they pose, because in the past they haven’t really had this confrontational attitude toward authorities at these rallies. The police are there to protect the far-right at the rallies. So that complacency and bias set in and gave them a false sense of security when it came to this rally.
I’m glad you said “bias” because we saw the officers taking selfies with the people inside the Capitol. You saw them moving barriers aside, which could potentially be done for safety, but at the same time, it looked terrible. It was very strange.
And we even had law enforcement officers from across the country come to this rally and participate as insurgents, basically. So now all of them are being looked at for their role in seeing if they committed any criminal acts. We actually had law enforcement officers that participated in the rioting.
I wonder how you think about dealing with that moving forward. You’ve seen reports from a number of police departments of this bubbling extremism and white supremacy within them. But of course, they’re all local departments. And I’m wondering if you think about how we root that out. Are there things the federal government can do to incentivize that? Because it doesn’t seem like there’s been priority placed on getting rid of the bad actors.
It’s been known for a long time that there are sympathizers and even members of these extremist groups within the military and law enforcement communities. For a long time, departments across the country had hid behind the First Amendment protection of free speech. And the departments a lot of times make these excuses that these people have a constitutional right to behave that way or to adhere to these abhorrent belief systems. But it’s now time to reexamine that, because we realize that when these people belong to these extremist groups or embrace these radical beliefs, it really calls into question their ability to perform the law enforcement functions that they’ve been empowered with in an equitable, honorable manner. And so we need to be looking at people that have expressed these types of beliefs and start taking administrative action against them. It’s not a criminal act to hate, but it does call into question the trustworthiness of these people.
It’s interesting because you saw some of the rioters get fired right away. One of the guys showed up with his work tag on, and he was fired within 24 hours of that image going out. But then when you talk about a police officer, they’re often represented by a police union. And many of these police unions came out and endorsed President Donald Trump.
There are police officers belonging to the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters and other extremist groups, and a lot of internal affairs representatives responded, Well, there’s nothing we can really do about that. My response to that is you have somebody that’s taken an oath to an organization that is looking to subvert our government, so they’re a potential insider threat. You need to look at them from a counterintelligence standpoint. Are they leaking sensitive information to these groups about what the police capabilities are in that community or what’s the physical security layout of the police department? So there’s a lot of different concerns related to these extremist individuals that have been put in these positions of authority that we really need to start taking seriously.
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I’m wondering about the language you use for what happened on Wednesday, because there’s been an evolution in that as time has gone on. It sounds like you’re calling it an insurrection, a riot, sedition?
I think all of those terms are appropriate. Insurrection is probably the one that stands out to me because it went beyond rioting, because the purpose and intent was to take over the Capitol of the United States and to stop this Electoral College process.
Many reporters have talked about the crowd at the event that preceded the invasion of the Capitol, how it was kind of diverse. There were families there. People brought their dogs. And I wonder if you want to talk about the value for more extreme elements to mix with this crowd that has the appearance of being more normal and whether that’s part of what you see changing at this moment.
We’ve seen that for protest activities on both the far-left and far-right. You’ve got these radical elements that will use the cover of the protest activity to push forward their more violent agendas. Once the violence started happening Wednesday at the Capitol, there were people that were leaving once they saw what was going on. Those are the peaceful, law-abiding people. But still, they adhere to conspiracy theories. They walked away today and obeyed the law. But tomorrow they could commit a criminal act because of these conspiracy theories and disinformation that they’re getting through these different political echo chambers on the internet.
If we’re at this beginning point of the next stage, it’s also a point where people can make a choice. I’ve been struck by folks who’ve been monitoring online extremism over the weekend saying that there’s been a splintering in the groups that have supported the president. Some people are looking at what happened at the Capitol and saying, I do not want to be part of that. And other people are wishing the president had pushed harder. As a former law enforcement agent, do you see this as a unique moment of possibility where the right people could get in there and prevent bad things from happening next?
I think this Capitol siege that we had last week is going to have a similar effect that we had in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It’s a wake-up call for our legislators and for the police. We’re going to have a lot more resources and laws being passed and people leaving the movement because they saw the violence that happened last week.
We saw similar things happen in Oklahoma City, where people in these movements had kind of a conscience and were shocked by what happened and actually left the white supremacy, anti-government movement. But it still took years. This wasn’t something that happened within a few weeks or months.
So what does that tell you about what we should do now? We saw the arrests over the weekend of a number of these rioters around the country. There’s been discussion of the 25th Amendment. There’s been discussion of a second impeachment. How do you think about the value of punishing the president and his supporters?
Well, those are more symbolic acts. I like to look at things that actually make an impact, like passing a domestic terrorism statute that delineates authorities and responsibilities between federal agencies and empowers them. Things like implementing programs in our schools, just like our anti-gang and anti-drug campaigns, something to counter extremism in our schools. People need to be more aware and vigilant of the others who are radicalizing and mobilizing toward violence and report that type of suspicious activity. We need to have the private sector policing the social media content more and working hand in hand with law enforcement to identify those users who are radicalizing and mobilizing toward violence and terrorism. So there’s a lot of things we need to be doing. It’s not just censoring the president. But definitely the business communities as well as our legislators definitely need to call him out for what he’s done and also call this act terrorism and do so in the future when we have other violent, ideologically motivated attacks.
Can we talk about what happens this week, next week, because there is this online chatter suggesting that extremists are mobilizing once again around this coming weekend to take action in D.C., but also in states. How should we be preparing for that now?
As Michigan and Idaho have learned, as well as the state Capitol in Oregon, as well as what happened last week in the U.S. Capitol, we need to take this chatter seriously. And resources and physical security measures need to be put in place to mitigate the threat.
You sound like you’re naturally worried and apprehensive about what’s going on. When do you think you’re going to be letting your guard down about what’s happened in D.C.?
I’ll let my guard down when I see this genie put back in the bottle—less plotting, less attacks, lower turnout to these rallies. But more importantly, when I start seeing the federal government and state and local governments taking this threat seriously, and we see more arrests and preventions being made.
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