How to Fight Domestic Extremism and Win Public Trust
After years of partisan politicization, national security leaders and workers need to be clear about how they'll keep us safe from each other.
In the coming months, national security leaders at all levels of government face three unprecedented challenges. The first is to rebuild the national security community’s reputation as an apolitical advisor for policy decisions. The second is to reverse the highly-politicized environment within government that was created by the Trump administration’s placement of political operatives over career professionals and their deliberate attacks on the national security workforce. The third is to prioritize the investigation of domestic terrorist threats like those that led to the assault on the Capitol of January.
To confront this tripartite challenge, leaders from President Joe Biden’s newly-appointed Cabinet to line managers and mentors for new officers must be transparent and specific with the American people about what they plan to do to keep us safe while safeguarding our civil liberties in a rigorous and apolitical way.
The degree of politicization imposed upon national security and policy professionals in the final days of the Trump administration is unprecedented. The 11th-hour push to politicize the federal civil service, the installation of loyalists like Kash Patel and Ezra Cohen at the Pentagon, and this week’s order to install a political operative as NSA’s general counsel all threatened to divide national security workforces from their leadership and one another.
The federal workforce, once blissfully unaware of the political leanings of all but their most senior leaders, has been given reason to question the motives behind leaders’ actions. Many of them also may have been exposed to bitter divides with their coworkers over morally-questionable policies such as the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the border – a decision that a recent DOJ IG report said demonstrated a “deficient understanding of the legal requirements related to the care and custody of separated children.” These tensions will make it difficult for some to determine whether future findings on policies are the results of rigorous analysis or partisan agendas.
Even as the national security community struggles to come to grips with its internal politicization being exposed, leaders will have to rise to the challenge of restoring the credibility of a profession that Trump publicly degraded and discredited. Simply having the vocal trust of Biden and his administration will not be enough to convince segments of the American public and the international community who may believe that Biden and Democrats are in the deep state with the national security establishment. But this trust, paradoxically, is needed to foster the grassroots efforts to prevent radicalization and political extremism in groups.
The trust deficits felt by the national security community will be particularly acute at a time when they are asked to turn their analytic lenses to individuals and movements within American society, historically the domain of law enforcement agencies. Director of National Intelligence-designate Avril Hayes made it clear in her Tuesday testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the investigation into QAnon would extend beyond FBI and DHS and into the intelligence community. Even Secretary Defense-designate Lloyd Austin was asked and answered about American extremism in his Senate confirmation hearing to lead the Pentagon. Conducting rigorous investigations will require absolute trust from the workforce that their leaders will not retaliate against them for speaking truth to power, both in the conduct of their collection, analysis, and operations, and regarding the civil liberties implications thereof.
To restore trust and remove politicization from operations and analysis, national security leaders at all levels must be mindful to be specific and legally grounded in their language and communications. The FBI and Justice Department have set a positive example in this regard while conducting their investigations into the Capitol riots – citing “individuals who are actively instigating violence in Washington, DC,” rather than referencing any specific ideology, in their most wanted bulletin on the matter. Maintaining this clear focus first on the acts conducted, and then on the ideologies under whose auspices they were conducting will help the national security community to inoculate itself.
To increase public trust, the national security community should become proactively transparent, particularly into efforts related to domestic terrorism. A good model to follow from an operational perspective is the National Security Agency’s example in the release of an unclassified version of its Signals Intelligence Annex earlier this month. CIA’s unusually-transparent 2016 roundtable between journalists and some of its Muslim officers provides a similar cultural analogue. Though efforts like these will do little to dissuade fringe conspiracy theories, they will provide firsthand evidence for the American media and public to draw their own conclusions — a far cry from the all-too-familiar world of off-the-record sources and heavily-redacted documents that normally inform the public discourse on intelligence.
As a former member of the intelligence community, I have the utmost faith in my colleagues to uphold their oaths to the Constitution and laws of the United States. However, by ensuring that the investigations into the Capitol insurrection and domestic terror movements are conducted with the highest levels of specificity and transparency, I believe that the national security community has the unique opportunity to move beyond the distrust and detractions of the last four years to showcase what it truly represents: the ability for teams of committed individuals of all cultures, religions, and political persuasions to come together in service to our nation’s security.
Adam Maruyama is a national security professional with more than 15 years of experience in cyber operations, cybersecurity, and counterterrorism. He served in numerous warzones and co-led the drafting of the 2018 National Strategy to Counterterrorism. Maruyama currently manages cybersecurity software deployments for federal customers.
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