The SPLC’s “Lone Wolf” Lunacy and the DHS

In its latest fear-mongering fundraising foray, the Southern Poverty Law Center has finally come out and stated the obvious: It’s not so-called “hate groups” that pose the greatest threat of violence today, it is the “lone wolf” lunatic.

As it turns out, an even greater threat to the American public is the extent to which the SPLC has insinuated itself into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as an alleged source of reliable data. More on this to follow.

First, let’s have a look at “Age of the Wolf,” a “report” written by SPLC staffer Ryan Lenz and edited by Public Relations Chief Mark Potok.

Click Image to Enlarge

Click Image to Enlarge

The “report” is filled with the usual “may-might-could” fundraising alarums familiar in Mr. Potok’s writing and repeats a point he made as far back as 2008:

“And I would say as a general matter, it is extremely unusual these days for an organization to plan and carry out a criminal act where mainly for the reason that they are so likely to get caught. So what we really see out there in terms of violence from the radical right is by and large what we would call lone wolves, people operating on their own or with just one or two partners. As opposed to, you know, being some kind of organizational plan.” (www.npr.org, October 30, 2008) [Emphasis added]

And:

“Still, [Potok] said the public should remain vigilant about the activities of hate groups, even though individuals are responsible for the majority of hate crimes in America. (www.courier-journal.com, July 21, 2009) [Emphasis added]

Individuals are responsible for the majority of hate crimes in America, but that has not prevented Mr. Potok from issuing his highly lucrative “hate group” “Hate Map” every year.

As we’ve demonstrated numerous times on this blog, and as Mr. Potok even admitted to us personally on video, the “Hate Map” is a fundraising tool and, in Mr. Potok’s own words, “anecdotal,” “an imperfect process” and “a very rough estimate.”

Potok continues to designate “hate groups” to populate his “Hate Map” because that is where the money is.

The media regurgitates his meaningless numbers without ever performing even the most rudimentary fact checks, Potok’s Progressive donor base gets agitated and out come the checkbooks. Works like a charm every time.

What is most troubling about “Age of the Wolf” is that it reinforces a dangerous trend we first reported on back in 2012. The report is full of soft, nebulous bogey-words such as “extremist,” “Right-wing” and “far right,” which are largely subjective terms intentionally skirting  legal definition as much as possible. They frighten the donors without risking litigation.

The problem comes with the frequent use of the term “domestic terrorist,” which actually does have a legal definition, even though Mr. Potok largely ignores it in his report.

While the FBI does not, cannot designate “hate groups,” the DHS has every right to investigate any potential source of “terrorism” and, as we’ve seen in the past, doesn’t necessarily bother with a lot of Constitutional niceties in the process.

Being branded a “hate group” by the SPLC carries a stigma. Being branded a “terrorist” has legal repercussions.

“Age of the Wolf” concedes the obvious repeatedly, with such provisos as:

 “Analyzing terrorism comes fraught with pitfalls. There is no hard and fast agreement on what constitutes a terrorist action. What if the attack has a political dimension, but is carried out by someone who is clearly mentally ill? [Emphasis added]

Is a rampage killing spree terrorism or simply an eruption of personal hatreds? Does the murder of three police officers responding to a domestic disturbance count, even if the killer does have a long history in the police-hating anti-government movement?”

 Obviously, to a veteran fundraiser and fear-monger like Mr. Potok, the answer to those questions is a resounding “Close enough!” to warrant inclusion in a list of incidents in the report.

The FBI has a rather more stringent, three-pronged definition:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  1. Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;

  2. Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and

  3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.”

An event has to meet all three requirements before the FBI considers it a possible terrorist act, but the incidents on Mr. Potok’s list tend to focus mainly on the first and third criteria, while leaving the second characteristic pretty much up for interpretation.

Such broad interpretations are key to Mr. Potok’s standard M.O., whereby he breathlessly claims to have collected thousands of “hate incidents,” not hate crimes, most of which often do not pan out under closer examination. These are nothing more than standard Potokian fundraising hyperbole, designed to separate the donors from their dollars.

The serious part of “Age of the Wolf” comes at the end of the report in the “Related Studies” section.

To boost the credibility of his claims, Mr. Potok cites six recent studies that discuss domestic terrorism. Potok states:

“In recent years, a number of studies from sources inside and outside of federal government have warned of the threat of increased violence from the radical right, with many specifically addressing lone wolf attackers inspired by ideologies of hate and other extremism. What follows is a description of several of the studies.”

What Mr. Potok neglects to mention, however, is the incestuous relationship between the authors of these reports and his own Southern Poverty Law Center. Even more troubling is that several of them were funded by the DHS.

Before we delve into Mr. Potok’s reports, a quick word about a separate 2014 report Watching the Watchdogs stumbled upon two weeks ago.

In “The Relationship Between Hate Groups and Far-Right Ideological Violence,” published in the academic Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, JCCJ, (which you can download here), the four authors examine “whether the presence of hate groups increases the likelihood of serious ideologically motivated violence committed by far-rightists.”

That wording alone was enough to set off alarm bells, but reading further into the abstract, we read that:

“We test the relationship using data from the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) for the dependent measure, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for the hate groups measure, and various other sources for additional variables.”

As Mark Potok has already explained to us in person, his “hate group” statistics are “anecdotal,” “an imperfect process” and “a very rough estimate.” How then, we wondered, could any serious study incorporate such shoddy data and come up with academically rigorous results?

After all, we had already reported on a similar “study” published by the Social Science Quarterly in 2012 that attempted to use Mr. Potok’s fundraising propaganda to prove the correlation between the presence of a Walmart in any given county with the subsequent appearance of a “hate group” on Mr. Potok’s “Hate Map” in that same county a decade later. This was junk science at its worst.

In the days before “Age of the Wolf” was posted, we had already emailed each of the four authors of the JCCJ report to ask them why they used SPLC numbers in their report. The wording to all four authors, Amy Adamczyk, Jeff Gruenewald, Steven M. Chermak, and Joshua D. Freilich, (remember these names), was identical and, we thought, quite civil and polite:

“Prof. _____, I have just read your 2014 article “The Relationship Between Hate Groups and Far-Right Ideological Violence,” in which you, Adamczyk, Chermak, et al, state in the abstract that you included data from “the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for the hate groups measure.”

Could you or one of your colleagues explain the methodology for vetting the SPLC’s data? I’m also interested in the working definition of “hate group” your team used for the study, as I was unable to find it within the text.

Thank you for your consideration,”

Ten days later and we’ve yet to hear anything from any of the authors. As we soon discovered, there seems to be a very good reason for the silence.

As for the funding for the article, “This research was supported by the Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through START.”

START is the National Consortium for the Studies of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, “established in 2005 as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, tasked with utilizing state-of-the-art theories, methods, and data from the social and behavioral sciences to improve the understanding of the origins, dynamics, and social and psychological impacts of terrorism.”

START was funded by an initial $12 million grant from DHS to complete projects in the research areas of terrorist group formation and recruitment, terrorist group persistence and dynamics, and societal responses to terrorist threats and attacks.”

All four academics associated with the JCCJ report are members of the START team and therefore dependent on the DHS for much of their funding.

Of the six reports cited by “Age of the Wolf,” five of them were co-authored by Chermak and Freilich of the START team and four of the reports cite the SPLC as a principle source of “hate group” data.

As for the other primary source of data for the JCCB report, the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB)it was created by START members Chermak, Freilich and Gruenewald. And who financed this impartial resource? “Part of this research was supported by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS)… and …[START].”

So, at the end of the day, we have Mark Potok’s “Age of the Wolf” fundraising screed, which cites multiple reports by several START researchers, who cite Mr. Potok’s “Hate Map” hogwash in their reports to the DHS, which is the primary source of funding for START.

Just as Mr. Potok’s “hate group” label is worth millions to the SPLC, it certainly appears that DHS funding is worth millions to START. What would happen to that funding if the START researchers determined that Mr. Potok’s numbers were lacking in credibility?

Impartial? You be the judge. Incestuous? Cue the banjos.

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