Our laws have a problem calling domestic terrorism what it is

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A former Coast Guard lieutenant, Christopher Hasson, was sentenced to 160 months in prison last week for plotting a series of potential attacks on targets ranging from the media to elected officials. His sentencing follows his arrest last year on a litany of charges ranging from unlawful possession of unregistered silencers to unlawful possession of firearm silencers unidentified by serial number to possession of firearms by an unlawful user of an addict to a controlled substance, and possession of a controlled substance. Notably absent was one criminal offense. The Justice Department did not, despite clear evidence of intent, charge Hasson with terrorism. The current legal framework would not allow for it. 

However, in early court filings, the government alleged that Hasson was a domestic terrorist, with a clear desire to commit acts of political violence. Despite this, his plea agreement and judgment make no mention of his list of targets, or his statements calling for a “white homeland.” Nor do they reference the government’s detention motion, which states in no uncertain terms that Hasson “intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” 

The prosecution, in its sentencing documents, presented a detailed roadmap of Hasson’s actions in furtherance of his plans to “kill almost every last person on earth.” Across 43 pages of search history are searches Hasson made for, in no particular order: homemade biological weapon, homemade C4, where George Soros lives, Jews in U.S. gov, Russian immigration law, Russian nationalism, how can white people rise against Jews, Russian right, and race war.

Hasson also conducted multiple internet searches for Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, and frequently viewed Breivik’s manifesto. His writings and ideas draw clear inspiration from Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto and from Eric Rudolph’s “Between the Lines of Drift,” both of which were found in Hasson’s files. Hasson’s interest in Breivik seems as ideological as it was instructional: As government sentencing exhibits show, Hasson closely followed Breivik’s instructions for how to prepare for a race war; from May 2016 to August 2018, Hasson spent over $12,000 on military, survival and tactical equipment ordered from Amazon. 

The 120-page Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Coast Guard Insider Threat Program report presented by the prosecution details Hasson’s desire to commit acts of domestic terrorism. The government sentencing memorandum also presents evidence that Hasson contacted a known American neo-Nazi and expressed his interest in meeting “like-minded individuals.” It highlights Hasson’s manifesto, which called for the targeting of “politian’s [sic], Judges, leftists in general” and bemoans the “conspiracy of ((((People)))) out to destroy me.” 

However, defense filings in court paint a picture of a troubled but harmless individual who, as a “decorated member of the U.S. Coast Guard” is a good man with “a long and honorable history of dedicated service” who should be viewed as an “asset, not a danger, to our society.” The defense, in its sentencing memorandum, requested a sentence of time served and a three-year term of supervised release. 

The sentencing of Hasson on minor firearms and drug violations demonstrates a lacuna in the way the federal government prosecutes domestic terrorists, and reinforces the need for a federal statute on domestic terrorism. As argued by former high-ranking Justice Department official Mary McCord, the Material Support to Terrorists statute — 18 U.S.C. § 2339 — criminalizes the act of “conceal[ing] or disguis[ing] the nature, location, source, or ownership of material support or resources, knowing or intending that they are to be used in preparation for or in carrying out” any of the applicable terrorism offenses in U.S. criminal code. It is not only former Obama-era officials who advocate for change; a U.S. attorney appointed by President Trump made a similar argument. This is a bipartisan, if not nonpartisan, consensus among federal prosecutors.

In the course of the investigation into Hasson, 15 firearms and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition were found at his residence. It stands to reason that, when taken together with the totality of evidence presented against him, Hasson’s case — that of an individual who was stockpiling weapons with the intention to carry out terrorism in the United States — would have squarely fit the legal description for a possible federal domestic terrorism statute.

Several bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives that propose a federal statute of domestic terrorism. However, these bills appear to lack the support of civil rights groups, which focus their criticism on alleged government abuse. These concerns partially stem from language in both bills that prohibits action that “creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to any other person by knowingly destroying or damaging any structure, conveyance, or other real or personal property within the United States or by attempting or conspiring to destroy or damage any structure, conveyance, or other real or personal property within the United States.”

Civil liberties advocates have a point about the broad definition. Any proposed legislation of this kind should limit any new criminal statutes to acts of violence against persons — such as homicide and assault under 18 U.S.C. § 2332b — and providing material support to terrorists under 18 U.S.C. § 2339A. There should be strong oversight by both Congress and independent watchdogs such as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board of how the legislation is applied to help prevent civil rights abuses. 

Hasson’s attorney claimed his was not a domestic terrorism case, that “Hasson was never plotting a terrorist attack or any of the abhorrent acts that this prosecution has repeatedly speculated about but never actually charged.” In legal terms, this is true. However, the overwhelming evidence presented by the government in sentencing documents describes in rich detail an individual with the desire and wherewithal to commit acts of domestic terrorism, and offers ample proof that Hasson made multiple overt acts to further his goal. 

It’s time to call domestic terrorism what it is and stop trying to force our antiquated legal framework to dance ungracefully around a growing threat. 

Jon Lewis is a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Seamus Hughes is the deputy director of the program. Follow on Twitter @gwupoe.

Tags American neo-Nazis Christopher Hasson Definitions of terrorism domestic terrorism Donald Trump Terrorism in the United States

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