May 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

DHS preparing for violence following abortion ruling

Illustration of caution tape in front of the Supreme Court.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The U.S. government is bracing for a potential surge in political violence once the Supreme Court hands down the ruling that's expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to a Department of Homeland Security memo obtained by Axios.

The big picture: Law enforcement agencies are investigating social-media threats to burn down or storm the Supreme Court building and murder justices and their clerks, as well as attacks targeting places of worship and abortion clinics.

Details: The unclassified May 13 memo by DHS' intelligence arm says threats that followed the leak of a draft opinion — targeting Supreme Court Justices, lawmakers and other public officials, as well as clergy and health care providers — "are likely to persist and may increase leading up to and following the issuing of the Court’s official ruling."

Context: Abortion-related violence historically has been driven by anti-abortion extremists.

  • "Some racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists’ embrace of pro-life narratives may be linked to the perception of wanting to 'save white children' and 'fight white genocide,'" the memo also says.
  • But the memo warns that this time, extremist acts could come from abortion-rights proponents as well.

But, but, but: "The mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics does not constitute domestic violent extremism or illegal activity and is constitutionally protected."

In response to a request for comment from Axios, a DHS spokesperson said the department “is committed to protecting Americans' freedom of speech and other civil rights and civil liberties, including the right to peacefully protest.

  • "DHS is also committed to working with our partners across every level of government and the private sector to share timely information and intelligence, prevent all forms of violence, and to support law enforcement efforts to keep our communities safe.” 

Between the lines: The Roe decision is flypaper for extremists. The memo, along with communications between government and the private sector, show how multiple agencies are mobilizing to try to get ahead of ahead of civil unrest.

  • The mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., over the weekend has "complicated everything even more," said Jonathan Wackrow, a risk management consultant and a former special agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
  • "The attack in Buffalo actually has a measured impact on this Roe decision and how people will will react to it," he told Axios. "You see that people are willing to engage in the most violent acts in furtherance of that ideology."

Even before the Supreme Court leak, the Biden administration had made a focus of combatting domestic violent extremism. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has called the issue one of the greatest terrorism-related threats to the U.S.

What's next: Across the country, regional fusion centers — state-level hubs for communicating threat-related information — are sounding the alarm.

  • One memo from a Nevada counterterrorism agency raised concerns about the potential impact of the court decision on the the 2022 midterm elections, and safety of election workers.
  • A similar Virginia fusion center document flags the possibility of doxing and cyber attacks on abortion facilities, as well as violence from non-abortion-related extremists.
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