Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday that she was briefed before the release of a controversial intelligence assessment and that she stands by the report, which lists returning veterans among terrorist risks to the U.S.
But the top House Democrat with oversight of the Department of Homeland Security said in a letter to Ms. Napolitano that he was "dumbfounded" that such a report would be issued.
"This report appears to raise significant issues involving the privacy and civil liberties of many Americans - including war veterans," said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, in his letter sent Tuesday night.
The letter was representative of a public furor over the nine-page document since its existence was reported in The Washington Times on Tuesday.
In her statement Wednesday, Ms. Napolitano defended the report, which says "rightwing extremism" may include groups opposed to abortion and immigration, as merely one among several threat assessments. But she agreed to meet with the head of the American Legion, who had expressed anger over the report, when she returns to Washington next week from a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The document on right-wing extremism sent last week by this department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis is one in an ongoing series of assessments to provide situational awareness to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies on the phenomenon and trends of violent radicalization in the United States," Ms. Napolitano said in her statement.
"I was briefed on the general topic, which is one that struck a nerve as someone personally involved in the Timothy McVeigh prosecution," Ms. Napolitano said.
Ms. Napolitano insisted that the department was not planning on engaging in any form of ideological profiling.
"Let me be very clear: We monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States. We don't have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence," Ms. Napolitano said.
"We are on the lookout for criminal and terrorist activity but we do not - nor will we ever - monitor ideology or political beliefs. We take seriously our responsibility to protect the civil rights and liberties of the American people, including subjecting our activities to rigorous oversight from numerous internal and external sources."
The Times reported Tuesday that the department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) issued April 7 the nine-page document titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." Outcry from veterans groups, Republican lawmakers and conservative activists followed, but the reaction spread Wednesday to Democratic lawmakers and liberal-leaning groups.
In his letter to Ms. Napolitano, Mr. Thompson demanded that Homeland Security officials explain how and why they wrote the report and whether it poses any threat to civil liberties.
"As I am certain you agree, freedom of association and freedom of speech are guaranteed to all Americans - whether a person's beliefs, whatever their political orientation, are 'extremist' or not," Mr. Thompson said.
Mr. Thompson said the report "blurred the line," and that he is "disappointed and surprised that the department would allow this report to be disseminated" to law enforcement officials nationwide.
Homeland Security officials have declined to say who wrote report, except that it was a career official and not a political appointee.
Only three employees are listed in the Federal Yellow Book as working for the I&A office - acting Undersecretary Roger Mackin and two executive assistants.
Mr. Thompson's letter said, "I am particularly struck by the report's conclusion which states that I&A 'will be working with its state and local partners over the next several months to ascertain with greater regional specificity the rise in rightwing extremist activity in the United States with a particular emphasis on the political, economic, and social factors that drive rightwing extremist radicalization.' " He demanded to know what types of activities the Homeland Security Department had planned for "the next several months."
"Rightwing extremism," the report said in a footnote on Page 2, goes beyond religious and racial hate groups and extends to "those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely."
"It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration," said the report, which also listed gun owners and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as potential risks.
The assessment is not the first Homeland Security product to examine threats based on political extremism. In January, the department sent law enforcement officials an assessment of cyberterrorism threats from such left-leaning sources as environmental, animal rights and anarchist groups.
Mike German, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and a former FBI agent, said his organization was concerned about law enforcement agencies' focus on radicalization, regardless of the specific ideology.
"Certainly, the right-wing report is focused far too much on rhetoric and things people say and things people think rather than on criminal activity and the people involved in criminal activity," he said. "There is plenty of crime out there for federal, state and local law enforcement to worry about. They don't need to invent threats that they have no factual basis for supporting."
The American Legion on Tuesday said the latest report unfairly stereotypes veterans.
"I am aware of the letter from American Legion National Commander [David K.] Rehbein, and my staff has already contacted him to set up a meeting next week once I return from travel. I will tell him face-to-face that we honor veterans at DHS and employ thousands across the department, up to and including the Deputy Secretary," Ms. Napolitano said.
"As the department responsible for protecting the homeland, DHS will continue to work with its state and local partners to prevent and protect against the potential threat to the United States associated with any rise in violent extremist activity," Ms. Napolitano said.
Asked about the report at Wednesday's White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs said he has not spoken with President Obama specifically about it.
"Without getting into the report, I think the president works hard every day to make sure that all Americans are safe and secure," Mr. Gibbs said.
"And I would say that, as it relates to some aspect of the report, that the president believes those who serve our country represent the very best of it," Mr. Gibbs said.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Wednesday that the department owes veterans an apology.
"To characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable," he said. "Everyone agrees that the department should be focused on protecting America, but using such broad-based generalizations about the American people is simply outrageous."
Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, called it "inconceivable" that the Obama administration would categorize veterans as a potential threat.
"This kind of mischaracterization can lead to discrimination against veterans in our society, especially in the job market," Mr. Buyer said. "Vietnam veterans were subjected to this unfair treatment, and I call upon President Obama and members of Congress to refute any similar stereotyping of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans."
• Jon Ward contributed to this report.