WASHINGTON — The FBI was aware of the Holocaust Memorial Museum gunman and his history of hateful writings about religious and ethnic minorities, but authorities had not opened a criminal investigation of him before Wednesday's deadly attack, officials said Thursday.
The case of James W. von Brunn, who had a decades-old felony conviction for storming the Federal Reserve headquarters in a bid to attack Jews, underscores the challenge posed by a rising tide of Internet-based white supremacists to law enforcement, which walks a fine line between policing potential violence and respecting free speech, experts say.
Von Brunn, who was in critical condition Thursday, was charged with murder and another offense under a federal statute that makes him eligible for the death penalty.
Authorities ranging from the Department of Homeland Security to police in New York City and Los Angeles asked for help from Jewish leaders and maintained heightened patrols Thursday around synagogues and universities. In an e-mail alert to state and local agencies Wednesday after the fatal shooting of a guard at the Holocaust museum guard, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI wrote, "This appears to be an isolated incident" involving a lone suspect, and that authorities had no additional information to indicate threats to area landmarks. In another alert, the agencies said von Brunn was associated with right-wing extremism.
Within the past three months, solo shooters with political motivations have launched attacks in a Little Rock armed services recruiting station, a Kansas church attended by an abortion provider and against police in Pennsylvania, killing five and raising questions about the danger posed by U.S. radicals.
Joseph Persichini Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office, told reporters gathered Thursday outside the gray museum wrapped in yellow police tape that "law enforcement's challenge every day is to balance the civil liberties of the United States citizen against the need to investigate activities that might lead to criminal conduct. No matter how offensive to some, we are keenly aware expressing views is not a crime and the protection afforded under the Constitution cannot be compromised."
Elsewhere in Washington, activists and advocates for Jewish causes mostly praised the quick response Wednesday afternoon of agencies from the FBI and the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department to the U.S. Park Police and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
David Friedman, the Washington, D.C., regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, visited the museum Thursday to check in with friends and described himself as "overwhelmed" and "protected" by the police presence. Many of the lawmen who spanned out across the site were known to Friedman, who 10 years ago launched a training program there for local police and federal agents.
"All law enforcement in this day and age has to be a compromise," Friedman said. "We don't have an ocean separating us from the extremists who represent the kind of hatred unleashed yesterday. They live among us. They can pick their time for the most part, not having to worry about whether they have documentation. ... People like von Brunn were not apparently acting in a way that would cause them to be the subject of a criminal investigation."
Law enforcement agencies already had stepped up their efforts to track domestic extremists last year, a drive that intensified after the election of the first black president and the widening of economic troubles that can present recruiting opportunities to militia groups.
Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said the white supremacist movement has changed in profound ways since the 1990s. Charismatic leaders of the largest groups have gone to prison or died in recent years, producing more lone wolves and splinter cells.
"It has become more difficult for the FBI and other federal agents who want to infiltrate these groups or even keep an eye on them," Levin said.