The Biden government is stepping up efforts to counter domestic extremism, increasing funds available to prevent attacks, analyzing strategies historically used against foreign terrorist entities, and more openly alerting the public to the danger.
Attempts to more assertively tackle the potential for violence of white militias and separatists represent a change of direction from former President Donald Trump’s pressure on federal agencies to divert funds into the fight against them. anti-fascist and leftist groups, despite the conclusion of those responsible, the violence of rights and militias posed a much more serious danger.
President Joe Biden’s approach also continues to slowly recognize that, particularly after the Capitol Rebellion of January 6, the federal government needs to devote more attention and money to investigating and addressing threats within the States- United, after two decades of prioritizing foreign terrorism.
In an intelligence report presented to Congress last month, the government ranked white supremacists and militias as the main threats to national security.
And the White House is discussing with parliamentarians the possibility of new domestic terrorism legislation and executive orders to update the criteria on terrorism watchlists, to potentially include more domestic extremists.
The Department of Homeland Security has started a review of how it deals with domestic extremism. This year, for the first time, he has designated domestic extremism as a “national priority area”, demanding that 7.5% of the billions of dollars in grants be spent to fight it.
Biden bolstered a National Security Council team that focuses on national extremism and that has been weakened over the past four years, appointing officials from the Department of Justice, the FBI and the National Anti-Terrorism Center. terrorism to work with it.
Justice Secretary Merrick Garland, who helped investigate the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, said the Justice Department would also prioritize domestic extremism. FBI agents have been working on cases of domestic extremism for years, but the renewed attention from the highest echelons of government represents a major shift in focus, especially as the administration studies whether tactics and resources current are sufficient to prevent attacks in the future.
The decision to confront the problem more directly contrasts with the approaches of the Trump and Obama administrations. In 2009, the Obama administration rescinded an intelligence assessment after mentioning that ex-combatants might be vulnerable to recruitment by domestic extremist groups, sparking negative political backlash.
Now, national security leaders have met with officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs, in addition to the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, to directly address the issue, administration officials reveal. .
The focus on the subject by the Biden administration is viewed as positive by many current and former government officials, for whom these efforts have been slowed down under the Trump administration.
In September, Brian Murphy, former head of the intelligence section of the Department of Homeland Security, filed a complaint against the head of the department, accusing them of ordering the modification of intelligence assessments to render the danger of white supremacy “Less serious” and include information on leftist groups to align with Trump’s messages. Homeland security leaders under the Trump administration have dismissed the charges.
The Obama administration has also treated the matter with care due to political concerns. Before announcing his presidential bid in 2019, Biden asked Janet Napolitano, who was Homeland Security Secretary at the start of the Obama administration, about the decision in 2009 to quash a report that warned military personnel American veteran was vulnerable to recruitment. extremist groups.
“You were prescient when you said right-wing extremism and violence were motivated by white supremacists in America,” he told Napolitano at an event at the New York Public Library.
Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin has held discussions with White House officials over the appointment of a national terrorism “czar” to the National Security Directorate.
She also discussed a possible executive order that will update how the federal government adds people suspected of terrorist activity to lists used to screen people who wish to enter the country or travel by air. According to Slotkin, these watchlists are best known for being used against foreign terrorists. “I don’t think we have a good idea of how to think about national extremism and these databases,” she said.
In a hearing by the House Homeland Security Committee last month, Texas Republican Representative Michael McCaul stressed that the United States does not have a statute allowing prosecutors to indict and investigate on domestic extremists with the same tools used against terrorism suspects from other countries.
Biden’s campaign platform said he would seek to create such a law, “which respects free speech and civil liberties, but at the same time makes the same commitment to fighting domestic terrorism as we do. must stop international terrorism “.
When asked about the president’s current stance on status, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, pointed to a review Biden tasked the federal government to carry out on extremism, “because there has such a wide impact and danger on parents ”.
Lack of law does not prevent the FBI from investigating these risks, but prosecutors are forced to resort to a patchwork of other charges in the case of domestic extremism, including the attack on the Capitol. . The Justice Department has filed criminal complaints against more than 300 people for their participation in the attack on the Capitol. The charges are diverse and include assaulting police officers, illegally entering the Capitol building, and conspiring to interfere with the voter certification process.
The leaders of the Oath Keepers militia and the far-right group Proud Boys are among the most important targets of this vast investigation.
Critics of a possible national terrorism law say it could extend the government’s surveillance powers too far and could be used against minority communities.
Letter signed by MPs Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York and eight other Democrats says the intelligence failure surrounding the Capitol invasion reflected police reluctance to crack down on white nationalist groups , not a lack of government tools. to monitor these groups.
A homeland security official who participated in the ministry’s review of how to combat domestic terrorism said the agency does not need new laws, but should instead use the tools that have long been used against international terrorism.
One strategy is to analyze federal travel data to track the movement patterns of potential militiamen and extremists, the official said, especially as US groups are increasingly establishing links with Europe. Members of these groups could then be added to the list of persons prevented from traveling by air.
The ministry’s review focuses not only on overt acts of terrorism, but also on people pressured into launching attacks for a mix of mental health issues, complaints and ideologies they see as justifying the violence. The Department of Homeland Security is also keen to cooperate more closely with private social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to identify signs of potential violence. The department has come under heavy criticism for not issuing an alert by January 6, despite the abundance of social media posts indicating that armed groups intended to travel to Washington to protest the election results. from 2020.
This year, the Department of Homeland Security set aside $ 77 million for state and local governments to train police officers and improve intelligence sharing between states.
In addition, the department has doubled the number of donations to organizations that develop research projects on prevention strategies, including the “withdrawal” of vulnerable people to be radicalized. The $ 20 million allocation, which has yet to be granted, comes after the Trump administration gutted transfers, before restoring $ 10 million in the final year of Trump’s tenure. But increasing funds and recognizing the existence of the problem are first steps, nothing more. The task of identifying those linked to domestic extremism and helping them distance themselves from violence is still great and difficult.
Since the attack on Capitol Hill, efforts to counter extremism have become mired in political difficulties and questions related to the First Constitutional Amendment. Interventions that aim to change political positions or appear to be aligned with Democrats may not be able to attract participation from right-wing extremists, experts said.
A program in New York that recently received a federal grant of more than $ 740,000 will seek to stop people from committing politically motivated violence without trying to change their minds.
Richard Aborn, president of the nonprofit that runs the program, said the program would accept participants referred by police, including people already charged with crimes.
Individuals who qualify after undergoing a psychological assessment will undergo individual therapy for several months. The success of the program will be measured by changes in the individual’s emotional state.
Aborn predicts that the participants will include white supremacists, jihadists and people who threaten to carry out massacres.