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DOJ pledges enhanced focus on domestic terror ahead of Biden speech

DOJ pledges enhanced focus on domestic terror ahead of Biden speech
© Greg Nash

Justice Department officials are vowing a renewed focus on domestic terrorism, warning that officials see a threat of renewed violence surrounding President BidenJoe BidenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition MORE’s upcoming speech before a joint session of Congress.

Deputy Attorney General John Carlin promised an “enhanced response” to domestic extremism on Friday.

“Success is not the prosecution of a violent extremist or terrorist after the fact, when families have lost loved ones or are grieving, but that success is a disruption before violence occurs, and that always has to be the goal of our counterterrorism work,” Carlin said in a call with reporters.

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He comments come as Biden’s first speech to Congress is facing growing focus for its potential to be a target of an attack in the wake of the Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol.

“It will not happen again,” Carlin said.

A senior FBI official told reporters that "We have been worried that domestic violent extremists would react, not only to the results of an election that they might not see as favorable but the transition of a government that they may question,” calling Biden’s speech a part of the transition process.

“We are watching very closely for any reaction from individuals that would show either an intent to commit an attack or somebody that has already committed one."

The official’s comments come after acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman told House lawmakers Thursday that it was necessary to keep enhanced security at the Capitol ahead of the yet-to-be-scheduled speech.

"We know that members of the militia groups that were present on Jan. 6 have stated their desires that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible with a direct nexus to the State of the Union," Pittman revealed during testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee.

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"Based on that information, we think that it's prudent that Capitol Police maintain its enhanced and robust security posture until we address those vulnerabilities," she said.

The Justice Department said Friday that 300 people have now been charged in connection with the Capitol breach, with 280 of those arrested.

The department’s call with reporters comes as FBI Director Christopher Wray is set to testify before Congress next week for the first time since the Jan. 6 attack.

Lawmakers have also sent a list of items they’d like to see from the agency in order to better address domestic terrorism.

The call offered some of the first glimpses of what the Biden administration has done to address domestic terrorism since he ordered a sweeping review of domestic terror threats by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the entire intelligence community.

That included tasking the National Security Council to determine how the government can better share information to support efforts to prevent radicalization and disrupt violent extremists.

“We plan to issue updated guidance in the coming days that will help make sure the National Security Division has the insight into, and can track all cases, with a nexus to domestic terrorism or domestic violent extremism,” Carlin said. 

“By collecting this data, we will be in a stronger position to take in empirical evidence based approach to domestic terrorism across our work.”

The FBI official, however, noted the agency faces challenges in tracking domestic extremists. 

“Violent extremists are using social media for the distribution of propaganda recruitment, target selection, and incitement to violence, very similar to what we've seen in the [international terrorism] realm for years. And because of the use of encrypted applications, it's becoming more and more difficult for law enforcement to identify and disrupt today's increasingly insular actors,” they said.

But the FBI refused to answer questions about whether the agency would comply with congressional Democrats’ request to begin further breaking down data on “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists,” a catch-all category developed under the Trump administration they say obfuscates the threat posed by violent white supremacists. Lawmakers have similarly sought a more detailed breakdown of anti-government extremists.

Officials on the call would also not answer questions about whether they would support the creation of a specific domestic violence statute, something that has sharply divided lawmakers on each side of the aisle and generated warnings from civil rights groups.

—Updated at 3:44 p.m.