As the United States navigates a period of increased polarisation and radicalization, the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence chief said in an interview with CNN that the agency’s intelligence division is reviewing its structure and mission.
Extreme public discourse and divisive politics in recent years have contributed to pushing people on the verge of radicalization “over the line,” according to Ken Wainstein, the DHS Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, in a wide-ranging interview following several high-profile mass shootings and an attempted arson attack on a New Jersey synagogue.
“[Y]ou’re hearing more cutting commentary directed at various groups and religious groups. “I think that kind of language agitates people,” Wainstein said.
Wainstein, who took over as DHS’ top intelligence official in June, called it a “troubling period in American history” in which acts and threats of violence against people because of their beliefs are on the rise.
“People appear to be saying things publicly now with the feeling of being able to say things they wouldn’t have felt free to say years ago,” he said.
His remarks come a year after a hostage situation erupted at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, causing fear among religious communities. A man threw a Molotov cocktail at a New Jersey synagogue on Sunday in an arson attempt, according to police and the synagogue, causing renewed concern.
According to Wainstein, the United States is also experiencing a “more divided political time,” which has resulted in an apparent willingness to engage in more heated rhetoric against local groups.
The DHS intelligence office monitors a wide range of issues, from violent extremism to migration patterns, and is the only member of the intelligence community mandated to share information with state and local agencies.
Wainstein became the intelligence office’s first Senate-confirmed director in the aftermath of several Trump-era scandals, reports of low morale at the agency, and concerns that the division is still struggling to find its place in the intelligence community nearly 20 years after its inception in the aftermath of 9/11.
A string of deadly mass shootings has shattered communities and alarmed the public in recent weeks, making Wainstein’s office “intensely focused” on the issue.
On Lunar New Year, eleven people were killed in a mass shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park, California. Seven people were killed in two shootings in Half Moon Bay, California, a small coastal community in the San Francisco Bay area, a few days later. In Lakeland, Florida, 11 people were injured in what police called a “targeted attack” on Monday.
“It’s just devastating to see how frequently these mass shootings occur these days,” Wainstein said.
According to Wainstein, part of that effort includes collaborating with DHS partners to provide guidance on indicators that may indicate whether someone is on a path toward radicalization.
However, he admitted that some of the recent shootings appear to be random or motivated by personal motivation, which can be difficult to predict “even with the best intelligence.”
Wainstein took over as DHS’ chief intelligence official after several years without a Senate-confirmed leader, managing a workforce of about 1,000 people.
During the Trump administration, the office was embroiled in a number of controversies, including being chastised for failing to issue a bulletin or issue a warning about the possibility of violence at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
A whistleblower also filed a complaint alleging that top political appointees at DHS repeatedly directed career officials to downplay Russia’s efforts to interfere in the US and the threat posed by White supremacists in order to suit former President Donald Trump’s agenda.
The DHS Office of Inspector General discovered last year that the department delayed and altered an intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2020 election, making changes that “appear to be based in part on political considerations.”
Wainstein spoke with CNN about the agency’s ongoing “360 review,” which is focused on organisational structure as well as mission priorities, noting that it has a very broad mandate.
Wainstein stated that one of the goals of the “review of prioritisation” is to “ensure that we find, identify, and focus our resources on those sweet spots, where we are the go-to people who really add the best or the most value.”
When he took the job, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told him to “bring leadership and management to the office,” which meant he had to create a management structure that would support the workforce.
Waintstein stated that he has implemented several workforce initiatives, including the reinstatement of “family day” and the hosting of regular award ceremonies to recognise outstanding performance.
“I think people in the ranks are energised about the mission or the possibility of doing things differently,” he said.