For today’s Daily Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler interviewed John Miller, the New York City Police Department’s Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism, about the assault on the U.S. Capitol, the ongoing lessons of 9/11, and the influence of social media in metastasizing extremism and terrorism.

Chuck Wexler: How will the events of January 6th impact the way police across the country prepare for events?

Deputy Commissioner Miller: I think what happened on January 6th is going to cause a significant reassessment by law enforcement and its intelligence arms about how to view domestic violent extremism. Protected speech and First Amendment-protected activities are going to be one of the factors to consider. Remember that we’re dealing with Americans on American soil in a free country, where unpopular speech is protected. And yet we can’t afford to let acts of violence happen because we’re not paying close enough attention. That sounds like a very difficult task, and it’s going to be. But it’s not a matter of choice anymore.

More than a year ago, the NYPD, which has one of the more sophisticated intelligence apparatuses, formed a new unit called REME -- the Racially and Ethnically Motivated Extremism unit. We don’t have a large violent right-wing extremist population in New York City, but there are pockets of that in areas surrounding the city. And New York City is target-rich and the media capital of the world, which means anything you do in New York City is going to bring you much more attention. The plotters know this.

We had an individual drive up from Baltimore to try to carry out a series of attacks with a machete. He wanted to behead African-American victims, to spur a race war. He could have done that in Baltimore, but he came to New York for a reason.

Wexler: Do you believe the police might have underestimated this group’s intentions because they assumed they were pro-police?

Deputy Commissioner Miller:  I think it’s a factor we have to be watching for. If there was an impression that right-wing violent extremists, because they call themselves patriots, were somehow on the side of law enforcement or democracy, just look at the violence at the Capitol and you’ll see that extremism is extremism.

They weren’t patriots. They were trying to topple the very democracy they claim to defend. They’re not friends of the police. They assaulted police officers, causing the death of one and the injury of many more. Violent extremists are violent extremists, and that’s that, period.

I see something else here:  the infection of politics on policing. There was probably a reluctance on the part of the military to deploy the National Guard, because the military had felt a bad reaction to the use of the military as props when the President decided to walk from the White House to the church across the street. The optics of that were considered bad.

But on January 6, there was a real need for help from the military.  The Capitol Police were asking for military assistance.  But decisions were being made and advice was being given from political perspectives about optics. I think we’re paying the price for that now.

Sometimes police decisions have to be made as police decisions, and the optics have to be settled later. In this case, the optics ended up being much worse.

I’ve heard it said that what happened at the Capitol was an intelligence failure.  But we gave them intelligence, which was tracking with intelligence that they already had. The FBI gave them intelligence that was tracking with the intelligence we gave them and the intelligence they had from other sources. They had the intelligence, and the intelligence said they would need more resources there. Chief Sund asked for those resources, and found himself in a series of phone calls with bureaucrats saying they might not like the “look” of military assistance. And you see the result.

Wexler:  This year is the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. What lessons about intelligence and information sharing have we learned since then?

Deputy Commissioner Miller:  The key lesson, between the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, and state and local law enforcement, was about information-sharing and exchange. It has to be a two-way street; the crossflow has to be constant; and the personal relationships that go with that crossflow have to be real and maintained, even though personnel change over time.

You have to find your partners and develop relationships with them that are more than just email, so that the trust factor is there. And you need to use that to make sure that nobody is blindsided the way we were on 9/11.

9/11 was vastly mischaracterized as an intelligence failure, which it was not. The intelligence was all there, in bits and in pieces, between multiple agencies. The failure wasn’t the collection or the analysis of the intelligence. The failure was to get it to the right people, all in one place, to share it, and to act on it.

The other lesson of 9/11 is what the bad guys have learned since 9/11. We learned that a non-state actor, such as a self-created organization like al-Qaeda, could strike at multiple targets on U.S. soil in an act that in any other category would be considered an act of war, and do so without having to be a nation-state and without requiring a significant budget. They just needed to have a more diabolical imagination than the people providing the protection against such an attack.

ISIS taught us that you can actually crowd-source terrorism. Rather than being a secret organization operating in the shadows, you could exploit the same social media tools to reach millions of people, and sell them on the idea that if you could get just a few thousand of them to be interested in taking rhetoric and turning it into action, and just a few hundred actually went forward with that, and just a dozen or so of them succeeded, you could continue to constitute a threat against the world’s greatest democracy, just using chatrooms and Twitter.

Wexler: How has social media changed how we process intelligence?

Deputy Commissioner Miller:  In every conceivable way. John Timoney always said, “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. And those who study policing know that we don’t study history.”

Since then, I have been studying history, and I have found out that John Timoney, as always, was right. And so was Mark Twain, who said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

If you go back through things like the demonstrations we saw in the 1960s and ‘70s as the Vietnam War progressed, and compare those to movements today, you can draw a lot of parallels. But the difference is that those groups had to organize by holding meetings, going to college campuses, and putting posters on telephone poles announcing demonstrations.

What you’re seeing today is exponentially different because of social media. There’s no reason to hold meetings in the basement when you can come up with an idea, select an enemy, create a doctrine, and weaponize that on a digital platform where you can gather followers.

Wexler:  Can you give me examples of what this means in practice?

Deputy Commissioner Miller:  Yes. During the post-George Floyd demonstrations, some of which turned into disorder and even riots, we saw social media posts calling on people to show up at locations for the purpose of burning and looting. There was a post on social media saying that we’re going to have a riot at a mall in Queens. That was something we’d never seen before.

In New York City, Cesar Sayoc, a guy no one had ever heard of who lived out of a van in Florida, sent multiple pipe bombs to New York City media outlets and prominent Democratic organizers and politicians, from George Soros to Hillary Clinton to CNN. He was causing havoc in a major city, and he was doing it by remote control from far away.

On the day in November 2018 when we arrested Sayoc, something else happened.  On a social media platform called Gab, which is a message board populated by violent right-wing extremists, anti-Semites, and white supremacists, an individual named Robert Bowers said, “Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

Nobody knew what that message meant until Bowers arrived at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and massacred as many people as he could during religious services.

That was a lesson on the suddenness of how social media could go from talk, to extolling violence, to weaponization of a single individual.

If you move forward into the summer of 2019, you see three tragedies in the span of a week:

  • We saw an active shooter, who had been living on social media in white supremacist circles, attack a garlic festival in Gilroy, California, which is not exactly something that would’ve been at the top of our threat target list.  
  • Next, a guy drives 11 hours across Texas to El Paso, because he wants to target immigrants, opens fire at a shopping mall, kills 22 people, and is captured.
  • The next day, in Dayton, Ohio, a guy who had many different ideologies, from incel, to left-wing, to right-wing, ends up killing nine people, including his sister.

Looking back over that week, you had to ask where we were going as a country.

Wexler:   And the attacks on government leaders and state capitols….

Deputy Commissioner Miller:  When you look at the Michigan plot, you really start to see this metastasize. You’ve got a guy who’s an organizer of one of these chatrooms and is gathering like-minded people. He’s got a doctrine and is weaponizing that into a plot. The plot sounds like something out of a bad movie script, where they’re going to kidnap the governor. They’ve done surveillance on the governor’s residence. They want to bring bombs and weapons. They’re talking about attacking the statehouse. And there’s a number of them.

Here’s the thing that makes it unique: They’re not meeting in a basement. They don’t live near each other. They don’t really know each other. They’re from multiple states. But there’s this dark room in a dark corner of the internet, and that is the new basement meeting. And they all come together on the idea that they’re going to meet in Michigan and execute this mission. What we see is that geography no longer matters.

And then you look at what happened in Washington on January 6th. That is a new phenomenon: Americans fighting Americans.

And it’s not a group of knuckleheads who found each other in one chatroom and came up with a plot. Now there’s the mass messaging, the massing of forces, and a determined plot to overturn democracy.

Wexler: How has threat assessment changed?

Deputy Commissioner Miller: It’s gotten vastly more complicated. If the question is, “Are you worried about al-Qaeda, or are you worried about domestic extremism?” the answer is “yes.” Al-Qaeda hasn’t gone away. ISIS hasn’t gone away. Both of them are looking to rebound.

That said, al-Qaeda has to organize this from a distance, and that leaves a communications trail. Al-Qaeda is a designated foreign terrorist group, as is ISIS. That means that providing assistance to them, whether it’s money, communications, or ground support, is automatically a crime.

The difficulty we’re going to face with the growing specter of domestic violent extremism is that these are Americans, on American soil, engaging in First Amendment-protected activities -- until it’s not protected activities.

The short length of that fuse can be the distance from protected hate speech to the line “I’m going in,” and then the guy logging off. That is going to be a real challenge, because we are threading the needle, not only between knowing when protected speech crosses the line to being not protected, which is an amorphous area in the law, but also knowing when protected speech goes from being speech, to being weaponized, to being a plot.

On January 6, they expected crowds, they expected trouble, and they expected violence, but I don’t think that they expected something that large and that organized. And I think there was a “Lord of the Flies” mentality where people did things as a group of thousands, that I don’t think many would have tried as individuals.

Wexler  Thank you, John. I’m not aware of anyone who knows and understands these issues better than you.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.