Homeland Security Department officials disregarded warnings from their internal civil liberties watchdogs before releasing a security assessment of "right-wing extremism" that had Secretary Janet Napolitano apologizing to veterans Thursday.
A spokeswoman confirmed that the department's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties raised objections about some of the language in the nine-page report before it was sent to law enforcement officials nationwide.
The office "did object to a part of the document, which was not resolved before the product went out. This was a breakdown of an internal process that we will fix in the future," said spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
Homeland Security officials declined to elaborate on or describe in detail the objections of the civil liberty officials, or say whether Ms. Napolitano was made aware of the objections when she was briefed on the general nature of the threat before the report's release on April 7.
However, Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is demanding answers on how the report was cleared with privacy and civil liberty officials.
"I am dumbfounded that (Homeland Security) released this report," Mr. Thompson said in a letter to Ms. Napolitano.
Ms. Napolitano appeared on several morning news shows in an effort to damp down criticism on both sides of the political aisle over the report, titled "Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," which states that veterans could be recruited for use in attacks against the government.
"I know that some veterans groups were offended by the fact that veterans were mentioned in this assessment, so I apologize for that offense. It was certainly not intended," Ms. Napolitano told CNN's "American Morning."
In an appearance on "Fox and Friends," Ms. Napolitano said, "The last thing we want to do is to offend or castigate all veterans."
On Wednesday, Ms. Napolitano made her first public statement on the security analysis of emerging threats among white supremacists, and said she would meet with American Legion national commander David K. Rehbein, who criticized the report as negatively stereotyping veterans.
Ms. Napolitano stands behind the intent of the report, but conceded to Fox News that some of the language was unfortunate.
In particular, a footnote at the beginning of the report that defines "right-wing extremism" as "broadly divided into those groups, movements and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religions, racial or ethnic groups), and 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," the report continued.
"Let me be very clear: If there's one part of that report that I would rewrite in the wordsmithing 'Washingtonese' that goes on after the fact, it would be that footnote," Ms. Napolitano told Fox News.
Mr. Rehbein accepted Ms. Napolitano's apology and is expected to meet with her next week over the report's findings.
The commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) defended Homeland Security officials for assessing all possible threats to the U.S., but said the report should have been worded differently.
"A government that does not assess internal and external security threats would be negligent of a critical public responsibility," said Glen M. Gardner Jr., VFW commander.
"The report should have been worded differently, but it made no blanket accusation that every soldier was capable of being a traitor like Benedict Arnold, or every veteran could be a lone wolf, homegrown terrorist like Timothy McVeigh. It was just an assessment about possibilities that could take place," Mr. Gardner said.
Mr. Gardner said that such future assessments should "tone down the 'disgruntled military veteran' angle" and include other professionals who have paramilitary training including police, Secret Service, FBI, and Homeland Security's own Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Under the heading "Disgruntled Military Veterans," the assessment said that "right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat."
"The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today," the report said.
The assessment cited only a few examples, most prominently McVeigh, the Operation Desert Storm veteran who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, and also a 2008 FBI report stating "that some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups."
The FBI report found 159 veterans with "confirmed or claimed" military service active in Aryan, skinhead, Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist groups from a period between October 2001 and May 2008, from among nearly 24,000 veterans, a number it described as "minuscule."
The Homeland Security assessment also cited a 2006 report, credited only to an unnamed "prominent civil rights organization," as having said "large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the (U.S.) armed forces."
That same clause appears as part of a July 2006 "Intelligence Project" report by the Southern Poverty Law Center titled "A Few Bad Men."
Pete Hegseth, chairman of Vets for Freedom, criticized the singling out of veterans, saying that veterans fight for their country, not against it.
"America's veterans are not helpless victims or damaged goods that become pawns for extremist groups," Mr. Hegseth said.
"They fight extremists that threaten our nation. It is beyond disappointing to see our heroes portrayed in such a fashion in an official government report. Our veterans have pledged to support and defend the Constitution, not extremist groups," Mr. Hegseth said.
Seven Republican senators on Thursday sent a letter to Ms. Napolitano defending others described in the report as potential terrorists.
"The report identifies those individuals who believe in such issues as pro-life legislation, limited government, legal versus illegal immigration and limited federal government as potential terrorist threats," the senators said.
"We can assure you that these beliefs are held by citizens of all races, party affiliations and sex, and should not be listed as a factor in determining potential terror threats. A better way to describe them is as citizens exercising their First Amendment rights," the senators said.
The letter was signed by Sens. James M. Inhofe and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, David Vitter of Louisiana, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
And in a measure of how much the conservative backlash against the Homeland Security Department's assessment has grown, one of the nation's most popular conservative talk-radio hosts Thursday filed a federal suit in Michigan against Ms. Napolitano over the report.
The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of radio host Michael Savage, pro-life activist Gregg Cunningham and Iraq war veteran Kevin Murray, says the report "violates the civil liberties of combat veterans as well as American citizens by targeting them for disfavored treatment on account of the political beliefs" and attempting to chill their free speech and free association rights.
Mr. Savage's show is produced and distributed by Talk Radio Network, which recently announced a deal to distribute and produce a new radio show by The Washington Times.