Panel strikes deal, skirts partisan battle on anti-extremist measure

Panel strikes deal, skirts partisan battle on anti-extremist measure

House lawmakers on Wednesday advanced legislation meant to fight back against extremist rampages, on the heels of new warnings from the FBI and last month’s massacre in South Carolina.

The unanimous vote to send the Countering Violent Extremism Act to the House floor skirted a protracted partisan battle in the House Homeland Security Committee.

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After eight hours of disagreement, lawmakers said they had reached a tentative deal to confront a new stage in the fight against terrorism. The bill will focus the government’s efforts to prevent the creation of radicalized “lone wolf” extremists before they emerge, GOP lawmakers argued.

Democrats initially scoffed at the $40 million effort, which they said was being rushed through the chamber and ignored violence from white supremacists and other conservative extremists. But they appear to have been won over late in the afternoon.

“I did not want to bring this to the floor with Republicans and Democrats fighting each other as the enemy watches us,” committee Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulHouse passes legislation to crack down on business with companies that utilize China's forced labor House Republicans blame Chinese cover-up for coronavirus pandemic Engel subpoenas US global media chief Michael Pack MORE (R-Texas) said. “I think that’s the wrong message to the terrorists — foreign or domestic.”

National security officials have been startled by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has proven adept at recruiting foreigners to join its cause and inspiring followers without the knowledge of core leaders.

In recent weeks, federal authorities have uncovered plots to behead the leader of an anti-Muslim group, shoot up a university and bomb New York City, among others they say were inspired by ISIS. Many of those planning to carry out the attacks grew radicalized by following extremists on Twitter, YouTube and other websites, officials say.

According to the House committee, there have been more homegrown plots against the U.S. in the first half of this year than in any full year since Sept. 11, 2001.

“The numbers are astounding,” McCaul said.

“The attack disrupted this week marks the 50th ISIS-linked terror plot against the Western world since early last year, and the 12th inside America,” he added.

In response, federal officials have grown more aggressive. Critics accuse law enforcement agents of being over-eager to file charges against people who aren’t able to actually carry out an attack and using the statistics to stoke fear among the public and on Capitol Hill.

Despite the increased pressure, however, Republicans said there were some glaring holes in the administration’s policy.

Federal officials “spend billions to try to stop [extremists], but very little on prevention,” McCaul said.

The Countering Violent Extremism Act would create a new top official within the Department of Homeland Security whose job would be to streamline the government’s efforts.

“In the face of mounting threats, our government is doing far too little to counter violent extremism here in the United States,” McCaul said. “We are ill-equipped to prevent Americans from being recruited by dangerous fanatics.”

But the DHS declined to send an official to testify about the bill before the committee on Wednesday and has not made clear that it supports the effort.

“Until the committee sees DHS’s [countering violent extremism] strategy and has the opportunity to evaluate it, there is simply no justification for granting DHS a host of new authorities and resources,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the panel’s top Democrat.

Ahead of the votes, 42 civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Brennan Center for Justice, told lawmakers that the bill would be ineffective and could also lead to extra profiling of Muslims.

By using religious practices to identify potential targets, the prevention efforts “threaten freedoms of speech, association, and religion,” they warned.

Opponents also feared that the new effort ignored conservative extremists such as Dylann Roof, the alleged killer of nine people at a South Carolina church last month.

“I have a problem with a bill like [this one] when it goes out after a particular group,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.).

In 2010, the FBI came under fire from some Muslims in Sanchez’s Los Angeles-area district for using undercover informants to try to detect extremists. Critics said that the FBI actually supplied deranged people with weapons only to turn around and arrest them. 

“I come from a district where the FBI put in undercover agents to go into our mosques and infiltrate our Muslim youth ... and try to entrap, in a sense, these youth to do terrorism, or to radicalize,” she said.

The legislation itself does not differentiate between different types of extremism, Republicans were quick to point out. Instead, the bill defines extremism as “ideologically motivated terrorist activities.”

“The bill expands the role of the department to all forms of extremism,” McCaul claimed.

The notion that it erects blinders focusing on Islamic extremism “is a fiction,” he added. “It’s not in the bill.”

Negotiations to hammer out “a few more elements” will continue in the coming days, McCaul said, but he promised to end up with a bipartisan bill by the time it hit the floor.

“I’ll give you every assurance that it’s my full intention to work out these elements so we can proceed and get the bill to the floor with bipartisan support,” he added.