As election looms, U.S. authorities seek to separate bluster from threats

Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke and Ned Parker
·7 min read

By Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke and Ned Parker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When former special agent Tom O'Connor held a training session for new recruits this month at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Virginia headquarters, he turned to a key example to underscore the threat of domestic extremist attacks: the October 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The shooting, which killed 11 worshippers making it the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history, came a little more than a week before congressional elections.

The fact that the alleged gunman was not known to police serves as a stark reminder of the difficulties facing U.S. law enforcement agencies around next Tuesday’s general election when Republican President Donald Trump will seek to fend off Democratic challenger Joe Biden, former law enforcement officials said.

Law enforcement, which has warned of potential violence around the Nov. 3 vote, must prepare for a range of potential threats, from spontaneous acts of violence to more organized, planned attacks, according to officials. Authorities also face a disparate range of potential perpetrators from lone actors to a growing threat from extremist groups, including those that are racially motivated, anti-authority and militias.

Federal agents this month foiled a plot by a group of 14 alleged conspirators, including right-wing militia members, to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, before the election. Michigan’s attorney general’s office identified at least eight of the men as members or “associates” of the self-proclaimed Michigan Wolverine Watchmen militia. Seven defendants charged in state court have pleaded not guilty, according to the Michigan attorney general's office.

The vote also comes at a time of heightened tensions. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement officials told Reuters that the country's worsening political polarization, rising agitation over pandemic lockdowns, and high unemployment are a toxic brew that could erupt in the coming days.

The election could serve as a “trigger” for extremists, O’Connor said in an interview, during which he discussed his recent presentation.

POLICE PREPARATIONS

Police departments in major cities across the country - from Miami to New York - say they are planning to put more officers on the street around the election or putting them on standby if trouble erupts.

Jorge Colina, chief of the Miami Police Department, said the department’s plans for Nov. 3 include having up to 50 percent more officers working than on a typical day. Plainclothes officers will be at polling places. A challenge for local police departments is that potentially violent actors can mobilize "with practically zero notice," Colina said.

In Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania - potentially one of the most bitterly contested battleground states - police officers will be working 12-hour shifts during the week of the election, up from the standard 8-hour shift, the department said. A department spokeswoman said the longer shifts have been implemented “on numerous occasions for many different reasons over the years,” though one veteran officer said it was highly unusual for an election week.

Police in New York City and other major metropolitan areas say they have conducted "tabletop exercises" in recent weeks to prepare for emergency scenarios around the election, ranging from demonstrations to bombs. In Chicago, authorities have discussed possibilities that included mass protests with violence and property destruction.

The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness will be monitoring online activity on Election Day in case protesters try to gather around polling stations, according to Director Jared Maples.

“So if a person says on social media, ‘Coalesce at this point and bring your guns,’ we’re aware of it in real time,” Maples told Reuters.

DAUNTING TASK

But tracking and preventing potential attacks is a daunting task, current and former law enforcement officials told Reuters.

An FBI spokesman said the agency has engaged in “extensive preparations” for the election and will plan for a range of possible scenarios. The bureau collects and analyzes intelligence “to determine whether individuals might be motivated to take violent action for any reason,” the spokesman said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said it would take standard election security steps, such establishing a command center to field criminal allegations tied to the election.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a report published earlier this month said domestic violent extremists and others could target events related to the presidential campaigns, the election or the immediate aftermath. “Such actors could mobilize quickly to threaten or engage in violence,” it added.

Trump has been slow to condemn right-wing extremism, which his critics say is emboldening extremist groups. At a debate in September, he told the right-wing Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by" after being asked to condemn white supremacists. A senior Trump administration official said the president has clearly stated “that he does not tolerate any extreme violence.”

BLUSTER VERSUS ACTION

Some say the threat around the election may be overstated. While extremist groups “talk big on the internet, it rarely translates into big action,” said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s extremism program. MacNab said some acknowledge in private online platforms that they are making outlandish threats with the aim of manipulating media and researchers into inflating the threat they pose, she said.

Still, as the Pittsburgh shooting demonstrated, domestic extremists can sometimes strike with little or no notice. The alleged gunman, 48-year-old Robert Bowers, did not have a criminal record, was not known to police and appeared to act without accomplices, officials said at the time. Bowers has pleaded not guilty to the dozens of charges he faces related to the synagogue shooting; a trial date has not been set.

Bowers had posted anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant messages to social media, according to court filings. But the internet is awash with such content and differentiating between "bluster and action" can be challenging, according to Thomas Plofchan, a former DHS counterterrorism adviser who left the department in January.

Constitutional protections around freedom of speech also make it difficult to target a group or individuals simply because they espouse extremist views.

While discussions about plans for a crime can be grounds to launch a probe, “vague comments about civil war” are not, said Mary McCord, a former senior DOJ official.

Alleged domestic violent extremists in the United States killed 48 people in 2019 - more than in any year since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, according to the DHS report released earlier this month.

Far-right actors, including white supremacists and anti-government adherents, were responsible for the majority of the 61 alleged extremist plots and attacks in the United States during the first eight months of this year, according to Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Far-left extremists, including anarchists and anti-fascists, accounted for about a fifth, with Islamist militants and others making up the rest, the center found.

ELECTION INTEGRITY

Trump has made attacking the integrity of the nation's elections a central campaign theme. He has claimed without evidence that increased mail-in voting in light of the pandemic will be rife with fraud and that Democrats will “rig” the outcome in favor of his opponent.

Several right-wing, militia and anti-government groups told Reuters they do not plan to police the polls, but will be on standby if chaos ensues after the election.

Mike Dunn, a prominent member of the “boogaloo” anti-government movement in Virginia, told Reuters that he and other “boogaloos” have no plans for Election Day. If disturbances erupt afterwards, said 20-year old Dunn, his armed supporters will protect protesters from assailants, regardless of their political affiliation, and guard against looting. He emphasized that they would use peaceful tactics to de-escalate volatile situations.

The presence of armed extremists at protests could escalate tensions, even if the groups do not intend it, several former law enforcement officials said.

Chris Hill, the Georgia-based leader of the III% Security Force, said his militia group would defend property in the event of rioting and would focus on deterring violence and unrest. “I’m going to have my gear in my truck and I’m going to have my gas tank fueled and I’m going to have my boys on standby,” said Hill.

(The story corrects number of defendants who have pleaded not guilty in paragraph 5)

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles and Ned Parker in New York; Additional reporting by Julia Harte and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Cassell Bryan-Low)