White House unveils strategy to battle domestic extremism
The White House unveiled its plan for addressing domestic terrorism on Tuesday, rolling out a strategy that set goals and acknowledged challenges as much as it outlined specific steps for combating a growing threat.
The strategy includes a call to bolster law enforcement partnerships and stem extremist recruitment paired with elements deemed more essential after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, including better analysis of social media and programs to boost civics education and battle disinformation.
It also touches on other priorities from President Biden, echoing previous calls for gun control in order to address mass shootings.
“We cannot ignore this threat or wish it away. Preventing domestic terrorism and reducing the factors that fuel it demand a multifaceted response across the federal government and beyond,” Biden wrote in the strategy’s opening.
The plan follows a March report from the intelligence community ordered on Biden’s first day in office that determined white supremacists and militia groups are the greatest domestic terror threat.
It also builds on a budget that set aside considerable money to boost homeland security funding and grants to law enforcement.
It calls on the U.S. intelligence community to increasingly focus on “open source” information, including things mentioned in a Jan. 5 FBI report that noted calls to come to the Capitol armed and ready for war.
Senior officials said the administration would be “augmenting information sharing the government does with tech companies.”
“Any particular tech company often knows its own platform very well. But the government sees things, actual threats of violence, across platforms. They see the relationship between online recruitment, radicalization and violence in the physical world. And so helping to illuminate these threats is a process that has already begun between the government and the tech sector,” a White House official said on a call with reporters.
But the plan sparked concerns among civil liberties groups while leaving a task to an intelligence community that has said it struggles to tease out rhetoric protected by the First Amendment from serious calls to act on violence.
“The Biden administration is rightly focused on addressing white supremacist violence, but its strategy includes none of the civil rights and liberties safeguards that rights groups and communities of color have long sought. Embracing civil rights and liberties as a national security imperative means little when this new strategy fails to rein in abusive counterterrorism tools that result in unfair and unjustified surveillance and targeting of Black and Brown people, particularly Muslims,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.
The plan also does not yet address one of the biggest legal questions facing the administration in the wake of Jan. 6: whether the U.S. needs a new domestic terrorism statute to aid its prosecution of extremists that commit violent acts.
Prosecutors often rely on a collection of state statutes when crafting their charges, but the potential for a new law has concerned civil liberties groups, who fear new federal powers could be targeted at minority communities or activists.
“The president wanted his Justice Department and his new attorney general to take a hard look at the question of whether new authorities are necessary based on that analysis. And so the strategy requests that the Justice Department review this question and come back to him with a recommendation,” a senior administration official told reporters.
The plan follows existing efforts to remain ideology agnostic.
“We are focused on violence, not an ideology. In America, espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful. We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment-protected activities,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a Tuesday speech walking through the strategy.
“There is no place for partisanship in the enforcement of the law. The Justice Department will not tolerate any such abuse of authority.”
However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have in recent months pushed the Justice Department to focus on specific ideologies.
Garland sought to walk that line Tuesday, noting the FBI’s recent determination that a 2017 shooting at a baseball practice was an example of domestic extremism given that the perpetrator opened fire “after confirming that the players were Republicans.”
But he also made pains to highlight that white nationalism and military groups are “the two most lethal elements of the domestic violence extremist threat.”
The plan directs the State Department to work with the Treasury Department on identifying domestic extremist groups with ties to international terror networks.
However, a senior administration official noted that U.S. extremism “is largely today an inside out problem, not an outside in problem.”
The strategy also calls for increased screening of federal employees and law enforcement to weed out those who might pose insider threats — an issue receiving renewed attention after some with military and police backgrounds were arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 riot.
“We are working to augment the screening process for those who join the military and federal law enforcement as well as any government employee who receives a security clearance or holds a position of trust by considering changes to the … federal employee background questionnaires, along with applicable military screening questionnaires,” the plan states.
The plan also identifies a number of cultural issues as long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.
“That means tackling racism in America. It means protecting Americans from gun violence and mass murders. It means ensuring that we provide early intervention and appropriate care for those who pose a danger to themselves or others,” the White House wrote.
“It means ensuring that Americans receive the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all and investing in policies and programs that foster civic engagement and inspire a shared commitment to American Democracy.”
—Updated at 12:36 p.m.