Imagine that you have been given a jigsaw puzzle to solve without the reference picture on the box and without all the necessary pieces. Clearly this is an absurd—and impossible—task. But when it comes to understanding the full picture of domestic terrorism, Congress and the American people are trapped in this futile exercise.
In March, we learned—from unpublished FBI data leaked to the press—that there were more arrests tied to domestic terrorism than to international terrorism in 2017 and 2018. In May, the counterterrorism lead for the FBI testified before my committee that the FBI is currently pursuing around 850 active domestic terrorism investigations across the country. This summer, the FBI director told Congress that the number of arrests linked to domestic terrorism was on par with the number of arrests linked to international terrorism in the last nine months. These are some of the puzzle pieces – but its clear that we do not have enough information for a clear picture of this persistent threat.
These revelations are punctuated by the real-life horror of domestic terrorist attacks. El Paso. Gilroy. Poway. Pittsburgh. Charlottesville. Charleston. Oak Creek. So many more. Each expose another piece of the puzzle.
Some organizations—like the Anti-Defamation League—have done the admirable work of collecting and publishing open-source data on extremist violence in the United States. These puzzle pieces help, too.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is reportedly redirecting some resources away from domestic terrorism. The FBI’s domestic terrorism investigations into right-wing extremists might be hamstrung by politics, even as the FBI appears to be directing more resources toward the spurious threat posed by black civil rights activists.
It wasn’t always this way. Until 2005, the FBI published an annual public report on terrorism, which included some information about domestic terrorist incidents and arrests. The picture it provided was far from complete, but it was better than what we have now.
But now, years later, the security of the homeland is at stake as we struggle with the domestic terrorism threat. We must find a way to get the final pieces of the puzzle.
As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, I have a responsibility to hold the administration accountable when it fails to level with the American people. That’s why I introduced legislation—H.R. 3106, the Domestic and International Terrorism DATA Act—to pull back the curtain from the full picture of terrorism in the United States.
This bill, which was approved on a bipartisan basis in committee and is expected to be before the full House in the fall, would require the FBI, Justice Department, and DHS to publish an annual public report on terrorism. These agencies would be required to tell us about domestic and international terrorist incidents. They’d also have to share information on how the government is keeping us safe. We need to know how many staff are on the job—and how many terrorism-related investigations, indictments, prosecutions, and convictions there have been.
H.R. 3106 would also task DHS with researching the transnational aspects of domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorists, like white supremacist extremists, rarely act in a vacuum. From the United States to New Zealand to Norway, networks of extremists—facilitated by anything-goes social media platforms like 8chan—inspire each other to violence.
This would give us many more pieces of the puzzle. But putting together this puzzle to give us the full picture of terrorism in the United States doesn’t take us to the end of the road. It is just the first step. We need this information to chart a course toward combatting domestic terrorism more effectively.
And until we take this first step, we are in no position to consider amending our laws. Some of my well-meaning colleagues in Congress are looking to take swift action in response to these horrible attacks, but it would be unwise to take dramatic action, such as creating a domestic terrorism charge, before gathering all of the puzzle pieces. We must carefully consider the ramifications of such a law, particularly its impact on the vulnerable communities we seek to protect.
The American people deserve an informed debate. Policy discussions about new laws surrounding domestic terrorism are premature until and unless we have complete transparency on domestic terrorist incidents and what the government is doing to keep us safe.
When Americans’ safety is on the line, we can’t put together this puzzle with a handful of pieces. It’s time to pass H.R. 3106 to provide the American public the full picture.
Thompson is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.