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Lawmakers mull domestic terrorism statute in wake of Jan. 6 attack

Lawmakers mull domestic terrorism statute in wake of Jan. 6 attack
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers indicated interest in enacting a new domestic terrorism statute on Thursday in light of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol despite warnings from civil rights groups that such a law could be used to target a broader group of Americans.

“This act of terrorism was not an isolated incident,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonLobbying world Hillicon Valley: Biden gives TikTok and WeChat a reprieve | Colonial Pipeline CEO addresses Congress again | Thomson Reuters shareholders want review of ICE ties Colonial Pipeline may use recovered ransomware attack funds to boost cybersecurity MORE (D-Miss.) said during a hearing on the Capitol breach, noting repeated warnings from the FBI of rising strength of domestic terrorism groups.

“We will begin to shed light on why these warnings were not heeded. The irrefutable fact is that the threat of right-wing and more specifically white nationalist terrorism has been growing for years. The previous administration failed to address this threat appropriately, and on January 6th we saw the result right here.”

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In the light of the attack, numerous lawmakers floated both an outside commission to review the attack as well as to create a new domestic terrorism statute that could be used by prosecutors to seek increased penalties for perpetrators.

Civil rights groups, however, have warned against such a statute, arguing that designating a list of domestic terror groups could pave the way to targeting various political and minority groups in the future, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulHouse votes to repeal 2002 Iraq war powers GOP lawmakers urge Biden to add sanctions on Russia over Navalny poisoning Lawmakers urge Biden to be tough on cybersecurity during summit with Putin MORE (R-Texas) is among the lawmakers who have sought to create a separate statue.

“I think it sends a strong message about where Congress is that we're going treat domestic terrorism on an equal plane as international terrorism,” he said.

But experts who testified before the committee offered conflicting advice. 

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“It doesn't make sense to me why if you commit a crime in the name of white supremacy or you commit a crime in the name of an ISIS ideology that you get more jail time for ISIS versus a violent white supremacist act,” said Elizabeth Nuemann, who previously served as the former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration.

Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation, said that “what we have to do in our zeal to go after the violent component is not accidentally brand as enemies of the state, a broader section of our population.” 

“That's one of the reasons actually why I want so much of our efforts against the violent extremists to be done within the ordinary criminal code," he added. "Put aside the political pretensions; don't give them that. These are crimes — murder assault willful destruction of property — deal with it on that basis.”

The idea has not been a total non-starter with Democrats.

“Honest to God I am not decided on this,” Rep. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinDemocrats seize on GOP opposition to Jan. 6 commission Hillicon Valley: Democrats urge Facebook to abandon 'Instagram for kids' plan | 'Homework gap' likely to persist after pandemic Legislation to secure critical systems against cyberattacks moves forward in the House MORE (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst, said in a call with reporters after the hearing.

“I've been doing a ton of meetings with experts and lawyers and folks who do this for a living. And there is not unanimity that it's required — that a new statute is required," she said. "It's an open question to me whether clear guidance from the Department of Justice, from the attorney general, from the FBI leadership, could encourage law enforcement across the country to use authorities that are already on the books.”

Another issue brought up during the meeting was the role former President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE and social media companies play in forwarding disinformation and spurring violent action.

“The attack on the capital was an act of domestic terrorism. And it was primarily and much attributed to the words of the President of the United States, President Trump, who emboldened those who carried out these terrorist acts,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeRon Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin Black lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory 40-year march: Only one state doesn't recognize Juneteenth MORE (D-Texas). 

The committee was also urged to take action to further regulate social media companies, eyeing changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a move that has garnered support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. 

“I believe that section 230 of the communications decency act absolutely needs attention. It needs to be reformed. It creates a shield of liability for the big social media platforms, a shield that I would suggest to you they have abused, they have utilized it to the detriment of the public,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

The prevalence of conspiracy theories on social media platforms also led Greenblatt to condemn Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) as she faces a vote on whether to remove her from her committees.

“Whether you are an elected member of Congress, or some other office, or you're an aspirant, whether you say it now or you said it in the past, it should disqualify you from being on committees or participating in it. If you believe that our democracy is being taken over by pedophiles, if you subscribe to these crazy theories about Jewish space lasers, you don't belong at the table. Period. End of story,” he said.

Slotkin also warned about the danger of social media in further dividing the American public.

“I believe the post-9/11 era is over. I think January 6 was the cap of one era and the beginning of another that makes clear that the most dangerous threat right now to us as Americans, [the biggest] physical threat, is the division between us and the way that some are exploiting those divisions.”