Is Obama’s TSA nominee soft on terrorism?

The controversy surrounding President Obama’s nomination of Erroll Southers to head TSA has been growing. The latest salvo in the attacks on Southers is that he is soft on terrorism. This charge originated with a post by Erick Erickson at RedState entitled “The Man Who Would Keep Us Safe From Terrorists Would Rather Focus on Baptists Than Islamic Terrorists.” Since then, some of the claims in Erickson’s piece have been amplified by major media such as Fox News, and have also been widely circulated on the blogs. Today Americans for Limited Government chimed in by calling for Obama to withdraw his nomination of Southers for “equating pro-life, Christian, and anti-government Americans to real terrorists.”

The attacks against Southers are off base, demonstrably so. Southers is a serious and well-qualified security professional who would make an excellent head of TSA, and who would make our country safer in that role. The associate director of the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California, Southers has served as the assistant chief of the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department since 2007. His CV includes a stint as the deputy director of California’s Office of Homeland Security as well as a serious law enforcement background with the Santa Monica Police Department and as an FBI special agent. His track record in Los Angeles suggests his desire to bring an interdisciplinary approach to aviation security; he has reached out to academia and others with relevant expertise to help bolster security at Los Angeles airports; and Southers has the background and skill set necessary to make such needed changes as improving security training and making critical risk-based decisions and investments.

I first met Southers last year at a counterterrorism conference in DC, several months before his nomination, when he approached me to discuss some of the academic work I had done on Somalia’s al-Shabaab. Since then we have maintained regular contact, and I have become familiar with his work. One thing that struck me when I heard that he was nominated for the TSA position was that I doubt most TSA heads would even know what al-Shabaab is when nominated, let alone have familiarity with people doing academic work about the terror group. Of course, my assessment of Southers is based on far more than my rather limited interactions with him; his colleagues in Southern California law enforcement have been similarly supportive of his qualifications to serve.

But what of the case against Southers? Every one of Erickson’s attacks at RedState either demonstrably distorts his words or else amounts to a tempest in a teapot. Unfortunately, I know from several independent political contacts on both sides of the aisle that these arguments are getting some play on Capitol Hill. So in the interest of setting the record straight, I will address each of them.

Erickson’s attacks are based on a video interview with Southers that was recorded in 2008. His first claim is that Southers wants to single out Christians for profiling to the exclusion of Islamic terrorists: “Mr. Southers, in 2008, said he was more worried about ‘Christian identity’ terrorist groups inside the U.S. than islamic [sic] terrorists. What are ‘Christian identity’ terrorist groups? White-supremacists naturally. The KKK. And the Southern Baptist Convention. Southers identifies pro-life groups and anti-government activists as particular problems. Yes, you read that right. Mr. Southers is worried more about tea party activists than Islamic terrorists.” This argument is obviously the source of the claim by Americans for Limited Government that Southers is intent on equating conservative Christians with terrorists. You can watch the video of Southers’s statement here. The quote that has generated so much controversy is his lead statement in that interview segment (as transcribed by Americans for Limited Government): “Most of the domestic groups that we have to pay attention to here are white supremacist groups, they’re anti-government, in most cases anti-abortion, they are usually survivalist types in nature, [and Christian] identity-oriented.”

There are three major problems with this attack. First, Southers never said that Christian groups are a greater threat than al-Qaeda. He said that numerically most of the domestic groups we have to pay attention to are white supremacist groups: this does not mean that such groups are a bigger threat than al-Qaeda. Second, there is a transcription problem in the above quote: Southers was referring to Christian Identity and not “Christian identity.” The capitalization of a single letter may seem like a small point, but it’s not. Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, identifies Christian Identity’s core beliefs in his 1994 book Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement:

1. White “Aryans” are the offspring of the tribes of Israel according to the Bible.

2. Rather than being tied to the Israelites, Jews are the children of the Devil. This is traced back to the sexual relationship between Satan and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

3. The world is on the verge of a final apocalyptic struggle between good and evil with Aryans battling a Jewish conspiracy to try to save the world.

There is some diversity within the Christian Identity movement; as Betty Dobratz and Stephanie Shanks-Meile show in their 1997 book The White Separatist Movement in the United States, apparently not everyone within Christian Identity believes that Jews are descended from Satan, although racist/racialist views are widespread in the movement. But the overarching point is clear: Christian Identity refers to a very specific religious movement that is intimately connected to providing theological sanction to racism. Reading Southers’s quote as referring to “Christian identity” (i.e., one’s identity as a Christian) yields a bizarre result unintended by Southers: this is why Erickson worries that Southers wants to profile the Southern Baptist Convention.

The third problem with this argument is that when Southers describes these groups as “anti-government, in most cases anti-abortion,” he is referring to the specific characteristics of white supremacist groups. This is not the same as saying that people such as tea party activists should be considered threats for having a healthy skepticism of government or opposition to abortion. Similarly, noting that al-Qaeda opposes US foreign policy and the capitalist system does not mean that we should start profiling college kids sitting at a coffee shop in Che Guevara t-shirts.

Erickson’s second claim is that Southers “thinks that America itself is to blame for the terrorist attacks. Had we not sided with Israel and France, which he says is an anti-Islamic nation, we would not be attacked by Islamic extremists.” Again, you can watch the video. Southers does not say that America is to blame for terrorist attacks against it; nor does he say that France is an anti-Islamic nation (he notes that it is perceived as anti-Islamic by al-Qaeda). It is a fact that America’s support for Israel is one of the reasons that al-Qaeda advocates war against the United States. Acknowledging this fact does not mean that we should sell Israel (or France) up the river. Southers is not advocating this course in his 2008 interview, and the very first page of his CV in fact discusses his time studying counterterrorism strategy in Israel in 2006.

Erickson’s third attack on Southers is his quote that “[s]ome people might argue that U.S. foreign policy exacerbates terrorism.” This is not a damning statement. Southers is arguing that the enemy uses US foreign policy to suggest that America is at war with Islam, and that the way to solve this problem is through engagement and better explanation of US foreign policy. Indeed, much of the thinking behind Obama’s Cairo speech reflected the administration’s belief that we do need to do a better job at engagement and explaining ourselves. Southers is correct that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups use American foreign policy to try to paint the US as at war with the Islamic faith. Pointing out this problem does not represent a blame-America-first mentality nor a concession to the terrorists: it is far more dangerous to ignore this facet of the fight against Islamist terrorism.

And finally, Erickson attacks Southers for saying that “the thought that terrorists are all Middle-Eastern and Islamic is a misconception.” Is there really a need to address this criticism? Does anybody believe that all terrorists are Middle Eastern and Islamic? The ETA, IRA, Tamil Tigers, Japanese Red Army, and many others would all beg to differ.

Public debate does not benefit when quotes are wrenched out of context in the hope of serving a political agenda — nor does our nation’s security. I find nothing about Southers’s statements in his 2008 interview to be disturbing, nor should the objective observer.

19 Comments

  • AveSharia says:

    Sorry, not buying it. The fact that this guy chose to focus on Christian extremists instead of Islamic extremists matches perfectly Obama’s pattern of trying to use TSA/FBI to target his critics. Even after the Christmas bombing, Brennan gave an interview to the New York Times saying his focus was on domestic terror.
    Of course he’s not going to come right out and say “I’m not worried about Islam, I’m worried about Christianity.” It’s what he wasn’t saying, instead, that is significant.

  • I am not trying to take sides here.
    One has to acknowledge that Daveed has done an excellent and honorable job of laying out his case.

  • AveSharia says:

    Of course. I wouldn’t read Threat Matrix if I didn’t have the utmost respect for you guys.

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    President Obama has four times as many death threats than the wildly unpopular President Bush ever had. The ratio has probably increased further by now.
    Knowing that, you’re not worried about right-wing American extremists? Concern in that area is wholly justified and prudent regardless of whether Southers cares about them or not.

  • SPQR_US says:

    Southers is a known liar and criminal. This is not in dispute, he admitted this AFTER he got caught red handed. No he won’t be confirmed if Obama is stupid enough to ram it through Southers is going to stink up the TSA to such a degree that it will come back to haunt Obama and by the looks of Obama’s polls even on CBS, ABC & CNN he ain’t doing so well. Hahaha

  • Render says:

    hmmm…
    The group known as “Christian Identity” is no more Christian then the Lords Resistence Army is the Lords, resisting, or an army. Nor are they (CI) particularly “right-wing” or “left-wing” by popular definition.
    President Obama has NOT had four times, (or 400% more) death threats then President Bush, or President Clinton had.
    //www.politico.com/blogs/glennthrush/1209/Secret_Service_Threat_level_against_Obama_no_greater_than_under_Bush_Clinton.html
    Responding to threats to the President of the US is the responsibility of the Secret Service, not the TSA. Try and stick to the program.
    The American extremist groups are not nearly the same threat level that the Islamist extremist groups currently are, at anything beyond the occasional violent crime spree.
    180
    DEGREES,
    R

  • jan says:

    The muslims are fighting their own holy war against non-muslims. It is entirely religious and has been occurring since the 7th century. ETA, IRA, Tamil Tigers, Japanese Red Army are all nationalist conflicts, not religious. In the same instance there are also kurds that want their own independent nation state. The islamic struggle supersedes all border ultimately and will never stop until everyone submits to and eventually converts to the specific brand of the particular jihadist’s ideology. Notice how for centuries the jihadists would dare not to attack america, however due to the the now inherent weakness of our military/political/economic system and moral degeneracy the muslims feel that they are able to get away with more.

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    Render,
    Typical of Politico to only report half the story. Threats against the President have spiked well above anything Bush or Clinton ever experienced – that they have dropped back to the level experienced by the extremely unpopular President Bush is cold comfort and the Secret Service has been forced to step up security considerably.
    //www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/us/06threat.html?_r=1
    While protecting the president is not the TSA’s responsibility, it is important that the director of the TSA be able to characterize the theat. In the United States that includes right-wing terrorists who have carried out spectacular attacks in the past (was Oklahoma City a “violent crime spree”, I wonder?) and who remain a very real threat – as the intense level of threats against a generally popular President demonstrates.
    Considering that right-wing extremists already live in America and have very easy access to weapons, discounting the threat would be foolish and irresponsible. Let’s not forget Al Qaeda’s unimpressive track record in the US over the last eight years when assessing who poses how much threat.

  • Mr. Wolf says:

    The TSA head should be concerned with domestic threats, Brennen needs to concentrate on the externals. This is why he is so concerned with it right now, we don’t have a head for the local threats (aside from DHS depts.).
    I am not picking a side, other than, stop picking sides. If he does a bad job, fire him, if he does a good job, we will never hear from him again… he stopped bad things that he shouldn’t talk about. Only when things go bad do we hear of who is behind the curtain.
    As for better security, lets step up the biological detection abilities. If a big metal body scanner is too invasive, bring in dogs. I know many more people afraid of the big metal than a dog, and the ones afraid of dogs are more likely to be the ones with something to hide (they can’t fool them like humans). They also allow the ability to “track” a suspect from point to finish. Even the small purse dog can sniff out explosives.
    Just a thought for whomever the new head of the TSA will be.

  • Render says:

    Lesse, who should I trust?
    The head of the Secret Service testifying under oath on camera, or the veracity challenged NYSlimes shilling for a guy that’s trying to sell a book? You betcha…
    The Oklahoma City bombing took place in 1995, fifteen years ago. There have been exactly zero such “spectacular” attacks from any “right-wing” type groups since then.
    That’s Z.E.R.O.
    We are not currently at war with any of the American “right-wing” extremist groups, nor have any of them publicly declared war upon the United States any time recently.
    The threat, such as it is, is not “discounted.” Merely put in its proper place of order, far behind the Islamic extremists, who number in the hundreds of millions according to some sources.
    …and of course none of this (that’s zero again) has anything to do with the incoming head of the Transportation Security Administration. That I know of no (look, another zero) American “right-wing” extremist group has ever hijacked a passenger jet.
    LOOK
    OVER
    THERE,
    R

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    Ah, Render, where should I begin?
    Let’s see – you resorted to name-calling with regard to the death threats issue over a very factual, non-biased story from a reputable newspaper. That means you must have no way to refute my point that there is a major threat from right-wing extremists against the US government and you merely don’t like the facts.
    You claim that there have not been any spectacular attacks by right-wing groups since Oklahoma City despite numerous plots, attempted attacks and a great deal of anti-government hate from that direction. By that standard Al Qaeda is no longer a threat – I can’t recall them succeeding in hitting us at home since 9/11 eight years ago but it doesn’t mean they’re not trying.
    You do not appear to understand my point about being able to characterize the terrorist threat in the United States as a necessary prerequisite for being the director of the TSA. I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at, honestly. The TSA director should be able to field questions about terrorism and the threat we face from it in a generalized sense.
    You claim that there are hundreds of millions of Muslim extremists – I guess Limbaugh is your source on that one? Laughable.
    The threat from the extremist right in America is not “far behind” Islamic extremists – Al Qaeda poses no existential threat to the US even if it acquired nuclear weapons somehow. It is merely a different kind of threat. The very threat of an extreme right-wing insurgency rising in the United States, even if it is unlikely, is enough to make paying very, very close attention to the hard right in America wholly justified and prudent much like we pay very, very close attention to China.

  • John Q. Public says:

    Sorry, this guy might have great credentials and be book smart. But he lacks the common sense approach that is needed to combat the real problem, Muslim extremists’ that will blow themselves up to kill innocent civilians! The other groups he mentions do not have anywhere near the number of followers to be as big of concern. To bring up the Oklahoma City bombings over and over to prove that we should be more worried about home grown terrorism is like saying during WWII we should have been more concerned with Italy than Germany or Japan.

  • Render says:

    “Ah, Render, where should I begin?”

  • Rhyno327 says:

    Its refreshing to hear the truth. This is war motivated by religious beliefs, much like the Crusades in the 1100’s..im sure there were other reasons too, monetary gain etc..but this is a global thing now, its 2010, proliferation of WMD’s, other weaponry, and the INTERNET. I call ’em like i see ’em. RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM, of ANY kind is bad, but in the end, im lining up with the Christians in this battle. Chairman Mao’s words were prophetic when he said “RELIGION IS THE OPIUM OF THE PEOPLE”….that old man was smarter than we thought..

  • Rhyno327 says:

    Its refreshing to hear the truth. This is war motivated by religious beliefs, much like the Crusades in the 1100’s..im sure there were other reasons too, monetary gain etc..but this is a global thing now, its 2010, proliferation of WMD’s, other weaponry, and the INTERNET. I call ’em like i see ’em. RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM, of ANY kind is bad, but in the end, im lining up with the Christians in this battle. Chairman Mao’s words were prophetic when he said “RELIGION IS THE OPIUM OF THE PEOPLE”….that old man was smarter than we thought..

  • Mike says:

    Unfortunate to see the results when debunking a myth born of the fevered swamps of the right-wing blogosphere, such as it is.. It’s basically impossible to say Obama’s name without calling out the crazy, complete with anti-Muslim bigotry. Sad state of affairs in American politics today, folks.

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    Render,
    Your post is a rambling, incoherent mess. As you have apparently abandoned your faculties to make a rational argument in support of your (dubious) assertions my points stand unrefuted. Good day.
    About the only valid thing you brought up in your post was the director of the Secret Service’s statement, which he was apparently not pressed on and which would hardly be the first time an official made a misleading statement – as the NYTimes article shows.

  • Mark says:

    It’s all about religion, and religion is nothing but the acquisition and maintenance of great wealth and political power. Religion in and of itself is just another political party.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis