It came at hearing Wednesday on security measures around the Capitol attack and domestic terrorism. A top FBI official, providing an example of how federal agents work with local police, said investigators in Orange County discovered information that helped disrupt “The Base.”
“The Orange County fusion center in California is a great example of leading sort of the analytics of social media and leveraging their expertise to predicate cases. And they were actually behind the predication of the case – The Base – that we disrupted,” said Jill Sanborn, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism.
Her comments – given their context at a hearing on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot – prompted conversations on social media about whether there was a base in OC connected to the violence in DC.
That’s not the case, according to the FBI and the fusion center’s director.
The disruption Sanborn was referring to was the January 2020 arrests in other states of seven members of The Base, a violent neo-Nazi white supremacist group, on charges that include plotting to overthrow the government and planning a murder.
While those arrested are not known to have local ties to Orange County, OC’s law enforcement “fusion center” discovered information that led to their arrests, according to local and federal officials.
“Information provided by the fusion center in Orange County, California, led us to predicate cases that recently resulted in seven arrests of members of The Base across four different states,” Sanborn testified to Congress in Feb. 2020, according to a transcript provided by the FBI.
“Terrorism is terrorism…We do not and cannot fight this battle alone. Our people are collaborating and communicating at a high level in Joint Terrorism Taskforces across the country and also within the numerous Fusion Centers throughout the nation,” Sanborn said.
OC’s fusion center – officially the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center – is in the city of Orange and managed by the OC Sheriff’s Department.
It’s one of about 80 such centers across the country where federal and local law enforcement collect and share information about potential threats from terrorism, cyber attacks, espionage, organized crime and drug cartels.
“9/11 really exposed the disconnect between local law enforcement and federal law enforcement,” said the fusion center’s director, Alberto Martinez, in an interview last week with Voice of OC.
Modern surveillance technology can automate much of the searching and analysis that used to take much more time to sift through by hand.
OC sheriff investigators have access to software that can monitor, store, and analyze massive amounts of internet communications and make them searchable. Among their uses is in investigations of major drug trafficking and money laundering operations, according to sheriff officials.
The OC center’s director says they take privacy and civil liberties seriously, and keep their focus on threats to public safety – particularly from groups that are trying to “mobilize” for violence.
“Our priority is privacy, civil liberties, civil rights,” Martinez told Voice of OC.
“You and I – all of us have the right to mention any concerns, publicly. And that’s our First Amendment-protected right,” he added. “What we try to identify is online-specific material…from groups that are radicalizing or motivated to violence.”
When it comes to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, so far at least six Orange County residents have drawn official focus in connection with it. They include a sheriff’s special officer, a 22-year-old Costa Mesa resident and UCLA student, and a Huntington Beach man who is alleged to have been among those who stormed the Capitol.
At the hearing last Wednesday, Sanborn said law enforcement has multiple approaches when it learns of online posts and conversations that could lead to violence. That can involve criminal charges – or if the evidence doesn’t support charges, a visit by law enforcement to dissuade people from committing violence.
“We were aware of some of our subjects that intended to come here. We took overt action by going and talking to them, and trying to get them to not come. And that worked in the majority of our already predicated cases,” Sanborn said.
The FBI’s counterterrorism chief herself has experience with Orange County, having overseen counterterrorism investigations in OC earlier in her career. She also helped oversee the investigation of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorism attack against county public health workers.
Voice of OC first learned of the testimony from a post by a local Twitter sleuth known as @inminivanhell, who has been posting about links between OC residents and the Capitol riot.
Orange Couny is no stranger to violent extremism.
In 1985, a Palestinian-American anti-discrimination activist named Alex Odeh was assassinated by a bomb left at his Santa Ana office, in a case that officially remains open.
And a former spokesman for Al Qaeda, a white American named Adam Gadahn, was a teenager living in Santa Ana when he was radicalized in the 1990s and flew to Pakistan to join the terrorist group.
In 2006, Gadahn became the first American to be charged with treason since the World War II era, when charges were filed against him in absentia. He was killed in a 2015 CIA drone strike along the Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, according to news reports.
More recently, a member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division was among those charged in the South OC murder of Blaze Bernstein, a 19 year-old college student who was openly gay and Jewish.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.