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What To Make Of The Plot To Kidnap The Governor Of Michigan

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Federal and state officials have charged 13 people in an alleged plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. Those charged are reportedly part of a militia group called Wolverine Watchmen. We're joined now by Elizabeth Neumann, who served in the Trump administration from 2016 to 2020 as senior adviser and chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security and Assistant Secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy. She also served in the Bush administration. And we should explain, she has publicly endorsed Joe Biden for president. Thanks very much for being with us.

ELIZABETH NEUMANN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: There will be trials ahead, of course. But based on your experience, is this extraordinary plot revealed this week to kidnap a governor symptomatic of an isolated threat or something larger?

NEUMANN: I think we're seeing something significantly larger. And sadly, I'm afraid that we will likely see more of this. Maybe the good part would be if we're seeing it the way that we saw this particular case come to light, it's because the FBI was on top of it, and they made arrests and are keeping people safe. And I'm very glad that they do that, but I am concerned that there are a number of groups that - even after the arrests this week, we saw chatter online of people reminding people about operational security, to not communicate on the Internet, to make sure you're using encrypted means to communicate. So that makes it very difficult for law enforcement to keep tabs on what these various violent groups might be up to. So I am concerned we're going to see more violence.

SIMON: Well, and I'm struck by the fact that you say various violent groups, suggesting that there are more than a few, and also the use of the word chatter. Do words rhetoric, including the president's, fuel these movements?

NEUMANN: Sadly, they do. And I want to be really clear here - because we are operating in a political environment and we have both parties trying to take advantage of a situation here, I just want to be really clear; this isn't about politics. It's incumbent upon every leader, anybody that has a platform, to recognize the way that their words get interpreted by threat actors. So even if you say something like Liberate Michigan and your intent is to provide commentary on actions that the government had been taking related to pandemic mitigation that you feel is government overreach and an infringement on your liberties, these fringe extremists interpret that as a call to arms. So we're operating in a very sensitive environment. It's a very difficult time, and it's incumbent upon all leaders to be very careful with their language.

SIMON: And, of course, we will note again, the president says that he is - that he denounces white supremacy. But do you hear something else or discern something else in his words?

NEUMANN: You know, the challenge that we've had with this particular president is that we've asked him time and time again to address domestic terrorism as a rising and growing threat. It started in this administration in 2017. We had multiple secretaries of Homeland Security try to get this as a top priority issue. DHS was rebuffed in those efforts. We've made some progress...

SIMON: That's when you were in DHS. So this is something you saw firsthand.

NEUMANN: Yes, exactly. And we've made some progress among the counterterrorism community. The practitioners have taken this seriously. We have done what we can at that level, which is significant, but there's more that needs to be done. We need to be having conversations about changes in our laws, about making it easier for the FBI to investigate so that we can do a better job of keeping Americans safe. But that opportunity has not been taken up by this particular White House.

The second area of leadership, which is really critical is that of your language and what you're communicating to the American public. If you as a president communicate that we have this enemy, we have this threat, and you clearly articulate what the threat is, it allows Americans to understand with a unified picture. And it might even inoculate people from potential radicalization in the future. But he seems to be doing the opposite. He's actually sowing division. He's sowing and feeding into the grievances. And we know that grievances are a core part of why somebody radicalizes in the first place. So he's actually adding fuel to the fire of extremism.

SIMON: Elizabeth Neumann, former DHS official, thanks so much.

NEUMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.