The Biden administration Tuesday unveiled a national strategy to combat domestic extremism, calling for aggressive steps such as hiring more intelligence analysts and screening government employees for ties to hate groups.
The 32-page plan highlights a shift in the government’s approach to counterterrorism, which for decades has prioritized fighting foreign terrorists. But violent attacks by American extremists are growing, a problem laid bare by the deadly Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
“We cannot ignore this threat or wish it away,” President Joe Biden wrote in the strategy document. “Preventing domestic terrorism and reducing the factors that fuel it demand a multifaceted response across the federal government and beyond.”
Biden ordered the review of how federal agencies addressed domestic extremism soon after coming into office, part of an effort to acknowledge white supremacists and militia groups as top national security threats.
The strategy, which aims to coordinate efforts across the government, outlines four priorities: improving information sharing among law enforcement agencies, preventing recruitment by extremists groups, investigating such groups and confronting the long-standing drivers of domestic terrorism: racism and bigotry.
“We cannot promise that we will be able to disrupt every plot, defuse every bomb or arrest every co-conspirator before they manage to wreak unspeakable horror, but we can promise that we will do everything in our power to prevent such tragedies,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Tuesday in an address at the Justice Department’s Great Hall.
The administration also requested more than $100 million in additional funds for the Justice Department to hire prosecutors, investigators and analysts.
National security officials have long complained that domestic extremism failed to receive the attention it deserves, partly because of political wrangling.
Some efforts to investigate attacks involving extremists, including a commission to examine the attack on the Capitol, have been stymied by Republicans fearing the potential political damage of increased attention on an attack by a pro-Trump mob.
The political problem is not new: A warning in a 2009 homeland security report that military veterans returning from combat could be vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups or extremists prompted backlash from conservatives, forcing the homeland security secretary at the time, Janet Napolitano, to apologize and retract the report. An edited version was eventually issued, but the political risks of highlighting far-right extremism were clear.
Under President Donald Trump, federal agencies were pressured to divert resources to target the antifa movement and leftist groups despite the conclusion by law enforcement authorities that far-right and militia violence was a more serious threat.
Some federal investigators said they felt hesitant to pursue such far-right groups under the Trump administration.
“Trump himself also seemed to have an affinity for these alt-right groups,” said Elizabeth Neumann, the former assistant homeland security secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention under Trump. “Nobody wanted to stick their head too far out of the crowd, because you didn’t want to get criticized by the president.”
Some of the recommendations in Biden’s strategy are already underway. The FBI is providing more training and domestic threat information to state and local law enforcement partners. Every U.S. attorney’s office has an anti-terrorism advisory council. The Justice Department is carefully tracking investigations that have a domestic terrorism nexus.
But the president’s plan, titled “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism” and issued by the National Security Council, also left some questions unanswered.
The report had been expected to detail a position on whether the government should establish a domestic terrorism law that prosecutors could use to investigate and charge homegrown extremists instead of relying on assault, murder and hate crime charges. Biden had called for such a law during the presidential campaign, but the administration did not take a position in the report Tuesday. It instead indicates that the administration is focused on reinforcing methods of combating extremism already used by the government.
While there is increasing bipartisan support to equip prosecutors with more laws to crack down on extremists, civil rights advocates have expressed concern that new statutes would lead to government overreach and infringements on privacy rights. The administration referred the issue to the Justice Department for further review, according to the planning document.
“New criminal laws, in particular, should be sought only after careful consideration of whether and how they are needed to assist the government in tackling complex, multifaceted challenges like the one posed by domestic terrorism and only while ensuring the protection of civil rights and civil liberties,” the document said.
The report was the latest in a series of assessments issued by Biden that labeled white supremacists and militia groups the most lethal threats among domestic extremists. The danger from such groups has not subsided, the document said.
The assessment lists attacks carried out by those across the political spectrum, including the fatal shooting of five police officers in Dallas in 2016, a shooting at a congressional baseball game in 2017 and the siege on Congress on Jan. 6.
Extremists continue to be motivated by “narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and conspiracy theories promoting violence” and will almost certainly “try to engage in violence this year,” according to the strategy document.
An assessment issued this month by the FBI echoed that finding, saying that followers of the QAnon theory could turn to violence. The conspiracy theory holds that a corrupt cabal of global elites and career government employees who run a Satan-worshipping, child sex-trafficking ring will soon be rounded up and punished for their misdeeds, and that Trump will be restored to the presidency. The information has continued to spread online.
Biden’s plan acknowledges the difficulty in policing extremist recruitment on online platforms, including some that are encrypted, while safeguarding posts protected by the First Amendment.
“Dealing with the supply is therefore necessary but not sufficient: We must address the demand, too,” the document said.
The administration is calling for more money for digital literacy programs to train the public to identify hateful content and resist recruitment by extremists groups.
But while the administration is focused on working with social media platforms to combat extremist content, it did not include adequate safeguards to ensure the privacy of Americans, according to Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The plan failed to address “abusive counterterrorism tools” used to surveil minority communities, Shamsi said.
“We’re deeply disappointed that the administration failed to impose safeguards against biased profiling, overbroad law enforcement information sharing and other measures that harm free expression and equal protection, including of the very communities that white supremacists target,” she said.
Biden’s plan does describe how the network of domestic extremists is growing.
Extremists “who promote the superiority of the white race” are among those with “the most persistent and concerning transnational connections because individuals with similar ideological beliefs exist outside of the United States,” according to the strategy document.
The Treasury Department is being directed to investigate those overseas who may be financially supporting domestic extremists. The report also says the administration will work to use terrorism watch lists to crack down on groups overseas supporting extremists in the United States.
A key piece of the Biden administration’s plan also directs the federal government to look at its own ranks. The Homeland Security Department announced recently that it would undergo an internal review to root out extremism and white supremacy in its ranks. The Defense Department has also set up a working group to examine how to better vet recruits and educate service members who might be targeted by extremist organizations.
The administration will augment the screening process for military recruits and those looking to join federal law enforcement or obtain a security clearance. The goal, the report said, is “to prevent individuals who pose domestic terrorism threats from being placed in positions of trust.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.