DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office

DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office
© Greg Nash

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is establishing a new domestic terrorism branch within its intelligence arm while seeking to rebrand an office criticized under the Trump administration for doing little to address growing extremism.

The new, dedicated domestic terrorism branch within the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA) is designed to “ensure DHS develops the expertise necessary to produce the sound, timely intelligence needed to combat threats posed by domestic terrorism and targeted violence,” the agency said in a release.

The announcement comes as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro Mayorkas'Remain in Mexico' opens old wounds among immigration advocates Hillicon Valley —TSA to strengthen rail sector cybersecurity TSA issues directives to rail sector to strengthen cybersecurity MORE is slated to appear before lawmakers Wednesday alongside Attorney General Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandBiden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report Lawmakers call for investigation into proposed AT&T WarnerMedia, Discovery merger Family asks for better treatment for Maxwell as trial stretches on MORE to discuss their efforts to combat domestic terrorism. 

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The specific domestic terror branch also comes as the OIA in particular has come under heavy scrutiny following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as lawmakers have sought to break down the intelligence failures leading up to the riot.

DHS is also scrapping the Trump-era Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention and replacing it with the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships — something the department said will “ensure DHS develops the expertise necessary to produce the sound, timely intelligence needed to combat threats posed by domestic terrorism and targeted violence.”

The center comes amid reports DHS is working to ramp up its ability to monitor social media activity for potential security threats.

DHS said the center will rely on behavioral threat assessment and management tools and “addresses early-risk factors that can lead to radicalization to violence.” 

The move signals the Biden team's dissatisfaction with the prior office, while DHS has taken other actions to show a reversal from the Trump administration, including issuing a bulletin just days after taking office warning of threats from domestic terror.

John Cohen, assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention, called the center "a clean break from the problematic aspects of prior Countering Violent Extremism" efforts started under previous administrations, including the Obama era.

“We are taking a new approach to addressing terrorism and targeted violence. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to prevent targeted acts of violence directed at individuals – including government officials, law enforcement personnel and others – based on their faith, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. We look forward to continuing to work closely with our community partners consistent with privacy protections, civil rights and civil liberties, and other applicable laws," he said in a statement.

But critics said they see little to indicate the latest efforts will establish better civil liberties guardrails than the Trump administration's iteration.

“That office was in part established to investigate the rise in white supremacist violence and would also rely on terrorism related powers that DHS has used to wrongly and unfairly to target communities of color and social justice advocates and to conduct surveillance and investigations of communities and harming equal protection and 1st Amendment rights,” said Manar Waheed with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Waheed said the new intelligence unit could also prove problematic, relying on so-called fusion centers that share information between local, state and federal law enforcement and that have faced bipartisan criticism for doing little to disrupt terror plots.

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“Here we are a little over 100 days into the new administration and they simply replaced the office with this new center and doubled down on prior harmful and ineffective centers," Waheed said.

Lawmakers expressed concern over the centers as far back as 2012 following a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee investigation. 

“It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” then-Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnBiden and AOC's reckless spending plans are a threat to the planet NSF funding choice: Move forward or fall behind DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office MORE (R-Okla.) said at the time. 

Updated Wednesday at 9:26 a.m.