EXCLUSIVE: DHS launches ‘urgent review,’ plans to restructure after Buffalo and Uvalde shootings

·9-min read

The Department of Homeland Security has launched an “urgent review” into the department’s domestic terrorism and targeted violence efforts in the wake of the mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, Yahoo News has learned.

The goal, according to internal emails and interviews with senior officials, is to determine how the massive department established after 9/11 can restructure itself to address the biggest threats facing the United States: domestic terrorism, mass shootings and acts of violence that fall somewhere in between.

“It’s a full review of the department's organization, coordination and execution of all things counterterrorism and targeted violence,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News.

On Friday, an email was sent to DHS leadership across component agencies requesting information in support of “a newly launched urgent review of DHS efforts to counter targeted violence and domestic violent extremism in our communities that the secretary tasked the office of policy.”

Among the recipients were the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Intelligence & Analysis and the U.S. Secret Service, which are all under DHS and were tasked with responding by Tuesday. The information requested includes “grant funding programs, training, information sharing, research and development, community engagement and outreach, field staff, coordinating groups and bodies,” according to the email.

A uniformed police officer crouches in front of a memorial made from white crosses, candles and flowers around the sign in front of Robb Elementary School.
A police officer In front of the makeshift memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

This review, sources told Yahoo News, could lead to a massive overhaul of DHS’s counterterrorism mission and a reorganization of the department.

Other agencies and offices involved in this review include: CISA, Management Directorate, FLETC, Federal Protective Service, general counsel’s office, privacy office, Science and Technology Directorate, Office of Civil Liberties and Office of Public Affairs.

A request for more funding from Congress is expected soon, sources said.

Among the plans being discussed are streamlining and coordinating the department’s outreach to social media companies, streamlining resources and school shooting response guides and amping up a national prevention program, sources told Yahoo News. The sources stressed that the review is still underway, and the plans, in the early stages, could and likely will change.

The Office of Public Affairs was tasked with putting together potential public engagement plans such as a nationwide campaign promoting community prevention resources and programs, sources said.

DHS’s Office of Public Affairs did not respond to Yahoo News’ repeated requests for comment.

The review was prompted by a memo, compiled by senior leadership, in the days after the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, sources said. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas provided feedback and the request for information was sent out across the department.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The review comes as the Biden administration grapples with how to respond to the recent attacks and comes nearly one year after the White House launched its domestic violent extremism strategy, a coordinated effort to better position government agencies and resources to address the biggest threats facing the country.

“The big picture is that, at DHS, DOJ and the White House, all of us since taking office have been operating on the following proposition: We need to step up our game against the ideologically or politically motivated side of things and step up our game against targeted violence more generally,” a senior Biden administration Homeland Security official told Yahoo News.

“We are collectively grappling with how to tackle this distinctive challenge posed by politically motivated violence as well as where that overlaps with broader violence prevention,” the official said.

This is also not the first review of its kind at DHS under the Biden administration.

Former DHS senior counterterrorism official John Cohen told Yahoo News that the department launched a similar review of domestic terrorism and targeted violence efforts, resources and capabilities on Day 1 of the Biden administration and soon rolled out an operational plan that’s still in effect today.

That review resulted in a plan that implemented a “broad range of operational and programmatic capabilities,” Cohen said, pointing to several grant programs and resources funded or created as a result of his review that focus on domestic extremism and targeted violence prevention. He said this has been a priority since Mayorkas’s first day in office.

A person stands in front of a wall that holds pictures of the victims of a shooting with messages written in chalk around them.
A person visits a makeshift memorial near the scene of a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. (Matt Rourke/AP)

“It was called the CT [Counterterrorism] Review, and it was a review that was ordered by the secretary that instructed folks to look at what was taking place across the department, compare those activities to the current threat assessment and identify additional steps the department could take in order to enhance the nation’s ability to address the current threat,” Cohen told Yahoo News.

Cohen, who left his position as DHS Counterterrorism Coordinator and Acting Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis in early April, said “the suggestion that the department hasn’t been focused on this is simply not accurate.”

“The department did not just begin focusing on this issue two weeks ago.”

A senior administration official said the current review goes a step further than Cohen’s by recommending the department look at restructuring its agencies, offices and programs — all the ways it is involved in training, prevention and response and intelligence sharing.

“It goes further; it’s saying we may now actually need to reorganize and restructure divisions,” this official said.

This is also part of the administration’s broader look at how to adapt or reposition itself across the government. The post-9/11 infrastructure was put in place to prevent a similar style of attack from happening. But identifying, preventing or thwarting violent attacks by Americans inside the U.S. who aren’t tied to any designated foreign terrorist group is more complex, largely because of the First Amendment and the stricter guidelines governing domestic investigations and surveillance operations.

The top floors of one of the World Trade Center towers explodes into flames, with the Brooklyn bridge in the foreground.
The second tower of the World Trade Center explodes into flames after being hit by a airplane on Sept. 11, 2001. (Sara K. Schwittek/Reuters)

It’s also more challenging, sources said, to spot someone who might carry out a violent attack when they aren’t tied to a known group and act alone, versus tracking a plot being hatched by a foreign terrorist group oversees.

One of the things this review is looking at is how DHS can amp up and scale its community prevention program, Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership, known as CP3. This is the revamped, twice-rebranded office formerly known as Countering Violent Extremism, which was heavily criticized for unfairly targeting Muslim communities in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The program is no longer led by law enforcement and relies on regional coordination officers, of which there are currently 13 nationwide, according to internal DHS documents widely circulated to local, state territorial and tribal partners days after the Buffalo shooting. The materials included a map of the DHS Regional Prevention Coordinators’ location and coverage areas and contact information for each person. These DHS employees live in cities across the country, but none were near Buffalo or Uvalde. They are supposed to act as a channel through which federal and other resources are allocated and made readily available to communities around the country.

A senior Biden administration Homeland Security official explained that these coordinators are put in place to help communities identify people heading down a pathway to violence and equip them with the training and resources that could assist in preventing both ideologically driven acts of violence like in Buffalo and those who act violently but who aren’t necessarily ideologically motivated, like in Uvalde.

A person in an FBI shirt looks at a window in which labeled bullet holes are visible.
Investigators work the scene of a shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, N.Y., in May. (Matt Rourke/AP)

The Biden official said this could be a model for prevention efforts.

“Federal officials like DHS Regional Prevention Coordinators are supposed to be force multipliers,” the Homeland Security official told Yahoo News. “They are supposed to be helping people who are already well positioned in communities to have the resources, the tools and the training they need to identify those who may be going down a path to violence and guide them in different directions.”

In a private conference call with law enforcement and community leaders around the country days after the Buffalo attack, Mayorkas urged partners to utilize DHS resources available from this program. He specifically mentioned nonprofit grant funds available — one of the results of Cohen’s earlier review.

“It is focused on not going into communities to ferret out the threat but rather to equip and empower and resource communities to identify the threat within their jurisdictions and to address it before it materializes. It’s so important that we guide and instruct individuals in neighborhoods to identify when the individual is exhibiting signs of descending down a path of violence born of ideologies or other basis,” Mayorkas said during the call.

But the program’s past has some critics pointing to DHS’s track record and questioning DHS’s abilities to prevent attacks, raising questions about the potential for harm.

“In the wake of tragedies such as Buffalo and Uvalde, there is an understandable impulse to do something to prevent such horrors,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, told Yahoo News.

Law enforcement officers help children climb out of a window and run across a street.
Children run to safety after escaping from a window during a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News/Handout via Reuters)

“But DHS’s decade-long efforts at violence prevention have been unsuccessful because they are premised on the idea that there are reliable early warning signs of people who are likely to shoot up a school or a grocery store. DHS knows this.”

Patel pointed to the RAND Corporation’s commissioned assessment of DHS prevention programs. It determined that “there are no unambiguous early indicators of future violent behavior,” and risk assessment tools are not useful in distinguishing real threats, she said.

“It is much easier to give meaning to warning signs in retrospect than in real time,” Patel told Yahoo News.

“Assessing potential threats based on vague and ambiguous signs — such as feelings of alienation or an interest in guns — will undoubtedly tag a lot of people as potential threats who have no violent propensities at all. And, like other threat perceptions, the cost is likely to fall on youth of color”.

Senior officials acknowledged past criticism of the program but emphasized the differences in the current version, relaunched last May, and are hoping to garner support at a time when the country may be more interested in such efforts.

Robert Silvers, who is one of the senior officials spearheading the current review, urged law enforcement and community leaders on the call after the Buffalo shooting to work with DHS to develop and expand these community prevention programs.

“We want to engage with your communities,” he said. “So please do reach out.”