Saturday, April 18, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Bilirakis & the DHS "Rightwing Extremism" report

Fact-checking the Fact checkers

The issue:

Rep. Gus Bilirakis issued a press release offering comment on the recent "Rightwing Extremism" report from the Department of Homeland Security:
I am disturbed and personally offended by the Department of Homeland Security’s view that returning military veterans and gun owners are likely to commit terrorist acts.

“Federal homeland security officials should focus on specific, verifiable, and actionable intelligence to stop potential terrorist threats to our country. Instead the Department is engaging in political and ideological profiling of people who fought to keep our country safe from terrorism, uphold our nation’s immigration laws, and protect our Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. It troubles me that the Department has specifically avoided talking about foreign terrorism but seems more than willing to insult our nation’s heroes returning from battle.

“As Ranking Member of the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Management, Investigations, and Oversight, I will work to ensure that the Department aggressively pursues all appropriate efforts to stop terrorism here at home, regardless of what political or ideological beliefs individuals may hold.”
(bilirakis.office.gov, bold emphasis added)
Did Bilirakis accurately represent the views of the Department of Homeland Security? Or at least the contents of the report?

The fact checkers:
  • Angie Drobnic Holan (writer, researcher)
  • Bill Adair (editor)
Analysis:

Drobnic starts her evaluation of Bilirakis' claim with opinion-laden background:
Conservative groups have been sounding an alarm about a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security they say portrays veterans and gun owners as likely terrorists.
I keep track of conservative buzz, and the buzz surrounding the DHS report was much broader than any emphasis on veterans and gun owners. The report also suggests that various conservative ideological positions are worthy of being monitored by the authorities. The gun ownership and veteran issues were simply two good examples of the ham-handedness of the report. The "alarm" was primarily criticism of what seems at first blush to be a political document coming from the DHS.

So what about those veterans and gun-owners?
The report was not supposed to be publicly available ("No portion . . . should be released to the media, the general public or over non-secure Internet servers"). But somehow, it got released and is now widely available on the Web. (Read it for yourself here.)
This information seems irrelevant. NSA surveillance methods were leaked even though the information was classified. It wasn't relevant to criticisms of those methods whether or not people were supposed to know about it. The DHS report was not classified. Right at the top of the document it says "Unclassified//For Official Use Only"). Perhaps the reader is supposed to be suspicious of the whole episode since the information was leaked. Drobnic would know for sure.

Drobnic then spends six paragraphs highlighting the portions of the report she found relevant to the conservative complaint cited earlier.

After that, she takes three paragraphs to deal with a side issue, which I will take up after assigning grades.

Eight more paragraphs primarily offered readers the view of Janet Napolitano, Obama's DHS secretary.

After all the to-do, Drobnic dumps on us the following conclusion:
This brings us back to Bilirakis' claim that DHS thinks that "returning military veterans and gun owners are likely to commit terrorist acts." This is a distortion of what the report actually said. The report said that rightwing extremists would try to recruit veterans, and that they would try to use gun control legislation as a "radicalization" tool. That's very different. We rate his statement Barely True.
Drobnic may have somehow overlooked the summary section of the report; certainly there is no mention in her work of the portion of the report ("key findings:") most consonant with Bilirakis' description:
(U//FOUO) The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.
(Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment)
If the above is not a statement ascribing an increased probability of terrorist organization by gun owners and military veterans (those facing "significant challenges," anyway), then the statement is effectively meaningless. We might as well say that the onset of the autumn season could lead devotees of the art of pumpkin-carving to form terrorist groups or turn into lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent acts. As if pumpkin carving isn't violent enough already.

Now that the reader is familiar with the key part of the report omitted by Drobnic, let us go through the steps she should have taken in evaluating Bilirakis' statement.

First, we evaluate the statement itself in terms of authorial intent, and then in terms of plausible reader interpretation. Bilirakis' words lend themselves primarily to two differing interpretations.

1) The DHS report suggests that veterans/gun owners generally are probabilistically likely (greater than 50 percent) to perform terrorist acts.
2) The DHS report suggests that veterans/gun owners generally are more likely than those in the general population to perform terrorist acts.

The first understanding is absurd on its face. Nobody would expect that roughly half or more of U.S. military veterans would engage in terrorist activity. Neither is it reasonable to see that as Bilirakis' intent.

The latter interpretation (2) is likely, and as noted above it is the apparent meaning of the "key findings" portion of the report. Drobnic does perform a valuable service in directing attention to the portion of the report that ought to have supported the key finding, but in this case it happens that the key finding remains unsupported. The supposition that gun owners and veterans facing challenges would serve as potential recruits to the point of justifying the key finding is just that: a supposition.

Contrary to Drobnic's conclusion, Bilirakis does have specific justification from the document for his statement. He can't be fairly ruled worse than "Mostly True," for it is not his fault that the DHS report mismatches its key findings with its supporting evidence.

Another disgraceful performance by PolitiFact.

The Grades:

Angie Drobnic Holan: F
Bill Adair: F


Afterword:

Drobnic made additional mistakes outside the stated focus of the PolitiFact entry.

The first error was relatively subtle:
The report was not supposed to be publicly available ("No portion . . . should be released to the media, the general public or over non-secure Internet servers").
There were two types of information in the report. One type was "For Office Use Only," where those portions were tagged with "FOUO." The second category of information was "Law Enforcement Sensitive" information, duly tagged with "LES."

Drobnic was correct in stating that the report was not supposed to be pubicly available, but offered a quotation taken inappropriately out of context in support of the claim. The statement she quoted did not apply to the portion of the report most relevant to the Bilirakis press release. That was tagged with "FOUO," not "LES."

The second error concerned the supposedly mitigating existence of a DHS report on left wing extremism:

Countering claims that the DHS is targeting conservatives is the fact that the department issued a similar report on leftwing groups a few months previously.

"Leftwing Extremists Likely to Increase Use of Cyber Attacks over the Coming Decade," issued Jan. 26, 2009 (six days after Obama took office), said leftwing extremists include "radical elements of the anarchist, animal rights, or environmental movements" who are "willing to violate the law to achieve their objectives."

First, even if the DHS was specifically targeting leftwing extremists, it would not effectively counter the claim that the report in question targets conservatives. It is not as though targeting one is antithetical to targeting the other.

Second, the reports differ markedly in tenor. The report on leftwing extremism bases its claims on evidence rather than supposition, and deals particularly with one aspect of leftwing extremism as per the title: "Leftwing Extremists Likely to Increase Use of Cyber Attacks over the Coming Decade." The descriptions impugn those associated with those groups rather than casting suspicion on a mass group of people supposedly ripe for recruitment by extremists.

The report on leftwing extremists carries the same warnings against public release as the one about rightwing extremism. It is a wonder that Drobnic neglected to mention it in the former case. In short, the report on leftwing extremism does little if anything to mitigate the content of the report that Bilirakis condemned.

April 20, 2009: "Gus" Bilirakis, not Michael Bilirakis. The latter no longer serves in Congress.
April 21, 2009: Corrected for AP style on a few points

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