Published April 16, 2009
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized to veterans after a report issued by her department said troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at risk for being recruited by right-wing extremists.
"To the extent veterans read it as an accusation ... an apology is owed," she said during an on-air interview on FOX News Thursday, a day after veterans' groups and members of Congress blasted her for the report, which they said libeled members of the armed forces.
"This was an assessment, not an accusation," Napolitano continued. "It was limited to extremists those who seek to commit violence within the United States. And all this was meant to do was to give law enforcement what we call 'situational awareness.'"
"The last thing I want to do is offend or castigate all veterans. To the contrary, let's meet and clear the air," she said.
A footnote in the report, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," said that while there is no specific information that domestic right-wing terrorists are planning acts of violence, such acts could come from unnamed "rightwing extremists" concerned about illegal immigration, abortion, increasing federal power and restrictions on firearms -- and singled out returning war veterans as susceptible to recruitment.
"If there's one part of this report that I would rewrite ... it would be that footnote," Napolitano said.
American Legion National Commander David Rehbein, who blasted the report earlier this week as incomplete and politically-biased, said he was pleased with Napolitano's apology.
"I am glad that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has apologized for the language used in the report about 'Rightwing Extremism,'" Rehbein said in a statement obtained by FOXNews.com. "I look forward to meeting with her next Friday, putting this behind us and discussing critical issues involving Homeland Security and The American Legion."
At least one veterans group, however, wasn't moved by Napolitano's mea culpa.
"It wasn't an apology in my view," said Pete Hegseth, chairman of Vets for Freedom. "It was one of those non-apology apologies. She was sorry that veterans were offended. She should either apologize for the content of the report as it stands or they should rewrite the report and reissue it."
Hegseth, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, said the report represents a "gross misunderstanding and oversimplification" of the country's service members. He did not call for Napolitano's ouster, but said he would accept her resignation.
"If she volunteered to step down, that'd be very honorable of her," Hegseth said. "It would be a recognition of what she did."
Napolitano defended the report Wednesday, saying it is part of an ongoing series of assessments to provide information to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies on "violent radicalization" in the United States.
"Let me be clear: we monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States," Napolitano said in a statement. "We don't have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence."
But the unclassified report, which was produced by DHS' Office of Intelligence and Analysis also cited the case of Timothy McVeigh, a decorated Gulf War veteran who was executed in 2001 after being convicted of killing 168 people during the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
"The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today," the report reads.
Rehbein criticized the report in a letter sent to Napolitano on Monday.
"The American Legion is well aware and horrified at the pain inflicted during the Oklahoma City bombing, but Timothy McVeigh was only one of more than 42 million veterans who have worn this nation's uniform during wartime," Rehbein wrote. "To continue to use McVeigh as an example of the stereotypical 'disgruntled military veteran' is unfair as using Osama bin Laden as the sole example of Islam."
Hegseth said he found it "amazing they would single out veterans as a threat to this country. It underscores a pervasive belief that some are trying to spread that veterans are victims and we're coming home as damaged goods that need to be coddled instead of celebrated."
Napolitano acknowledged Rehbein's letter on Wednesday and said she plans to meet with him sometime next week. But she told FOX News that the report's reference to the Oklahoma City bombing "rang true" to her.
"Unfortunately [McVeigh] was a vet, that's where he got his training and so when I was told about the report, it rang true with me, this has happened in the past," Napolitano told FOX News. "That is a far cry, however, from saying veterans somehow are at risk."
Hegseth said he was also troubled by the report's assertion that returning veterans who face "significant challenges reintegrating into their communities" could be easy targets for extremist groups seeking new members.
"If anything, veterans have an allegiance to this country greater than the average citizen," he said. "Veterans have learned where their allegiances lie and are less prone to extremism. Something's wrong with the editing process or [DHS officials] just don't understand veterans. The report demonstrates a true lack of understanding of who veterans are."
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also criticized the report, saying its portrayal of veterans was "offensive and unacceptable."
The report follows a similar DHS assessment released in January that detailed left-wing threats, focusing on cyberattacks and radical "eco-terrorist" groups like Earth Liberation Front, accused of firebombing construction sites, logging companies, car dealerships and food science labs. The report noted that left-wing extremists prefer economic damage to get their message across.
"Their leftwing assessment identifies actual terrorist organizations, like the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front," House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement issued Wednesday. "The rightwing report uses broad generalizations about veterans, pro-life groups, federalists and supporters of gun rights. That's like saying if you love puppies, you might be susceptible to recruitment by the Animal Liberation Front. It is ridiculous and deeply offensive to millions of Americans."
FOXNews.com's Joshua Rhett Miller contributed to this report.