The Biden administration’s top law enforcement officials on Wednesday pledged to dedicate their resources to combat domestic violent extremists amid questions over whether the agencies are equipped to monitor such threats in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee for a hearing on domestic extremism as Congress ramped up its scrutiny this week of the circumstances around the attack on the Capitol.
Both Garland and Mayorkas testified that white supremacist groups pose the most serious domestic national security threat in the U.S., reinforcing what analysts have long concluded about far-right organizations.
“Domestic violent extremists pose an elevated threat in 2021 and in the FBI’s view, the top domestic violent extremist threat we face comes from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race,” Garland told lawmakers at the top of the hearing.
But the hearing on Wednesday highlighted the competing partisan priorities as Republicans urged a crackdown on illegal immigration and Democrats questioned whether the agencies are fully prioritizing efforts to prevent the type of domestic extremism that led to the storming of the Capitol.
Garland dismissed concern from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) who asked whether the Justice Department was investigating with “equal vigor” protests in Portland, Ore., and other cities that were often a focus of former President Trump.
“We don’t care what the ideology is, violations of law are pursued and are prosecuted. I think it’s fair to say that in my career as a judge, and in law enforcement, I have not seen a more dangerous threat to democracy than the invasion of the Capitol,” Garland said. “There was an attempt to interfere with the fundamental passing of an element of our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power. And if there has to be a hierarchy of things that we prioritize, this would be the one we’d prioritize. It is the most dangerous threat to our democracy. That does not mean that we don’t focus on other threats.”
The Department of Justice has brought more than 400 prosecutions against individuals who participated in the Capitol riot, including members of right-wing groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, who are facing conspiracy charges over their alleged roles in planning out operations at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Some of those charges have also been brought against those with a military or law enforcement background.
Mayorkas faced questions on a recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) commitment to conduct an internal review of its own workforce to root out any extremist views within its ranks.
“That sends chills down my spine that we have to even be doing that,” committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said before securing a commitment from Mayorkas to make the conclusions of the review public.
Mayorkas’s appearance before the committee follows an announcement by DHS that they are establishing a specific domestic terror branch within the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis and amid reports that DHS plans to increase its scrutiny of social media to root out potential extremist plots.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) warned the agencies need to track social media not just to root out plots but to monitor disinformation campaigns from Russia.
“They are using the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol in such a manner to amplify narratives in furtherance of their policy which is to disrupt and disunite and to indeed destroy, if they could, our democracy,” he said.
But Mayorkas didn’t offer specifics on DHS’s efforts, instead offering up a closed door briefing.
“We are intensely focused on the information with respect to Russia’s effort to sow discord and disunity in our country. And of course we’re bringing an all of government effort to respond to that, and I would welcome the opportunity to brief you in a more appropriate forum to address information we have in that regard,” he said.
While in past hearings on domestic extremism, Republicans have largely sought to encourage the agencies to focus their attention on left-wing extremism, Wednesday’s questions from the GOP were almost exclusively centered on the southern border.
Mayorkas sought to dispel any concerns that swelling migration at the southern border could present a terror threat.
“We don’t have any evidence to suggest that the threat on the border with respect to a foreign terrorist is any greater today than it was last year, the year prior, or the years over the past decade,” he said.