Biden Steps Up Federal Efforts to Combat Domestic Extremism

(NYT) - The administration has taken a series of steps to prioritize dealing with white supremacists and militias, especially after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.

Biden Steps Up Federal Efforts to Combat Domestic Extremism

The Biden administration is stepping up efforts to combat domestic extremism, increasing funding to prevent attacks, weighing strategies historically used against foreign terrorist groups and more openly warning the public about the threat.

The attempts to more assertively grapple with the potential for violence from white supremacists and militias are a shift from President Donald J. Trump’s pressure on federal agencies 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.

President Biden’s approach also continues a slow acknowledgment that especially after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, the federal government needs to put more attention and money into tracking and heading off threats from inside the United States, after two decades in which it made foreign terrorism the security priority.

In an intelligence report delivered to Congress last month, the administration labeled white supremacists and militia groups as top national security threats. The White House is also discussing with members of Congress the possibility of new domestic terrorism legislation and executive orders to update the criteria of terrorism watch lists to potentially include more homegrown extremists.

The Homeland Security Department has begun a review of how it handles domestic extremism. For the first time this year, the department designated domestic extremism as a “national priority area,” requiring that 7.5 percent of the billions in grant funds be spent on combating it.

Mr. Biden bolstered a team focusing on domestic extremism at the National Security Council that had been depleted in the past four years, assigning officials from the Justice Department, the F.B.I. and the National Counterterrorism Center, according to senior administration officials.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who helped investigate the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, said the Justice Department would also make domestic extremism a priority.

F.B.I. agents have worked domestic extremism cases for years. But the renewed focus from the highest levels of government is a major shift, especially as the administration grapples with whether current tactics and resources are enough to prevent future attacks.

The decision to confront the issue more directly stands in contrast to the approaches of the Trump and Obama administrations. In 2009, the Obama administration rescinded an intelligence assessment after it mentioned that veterans could be vulnerable to recruitment by domestic extremist groups, prompting political backlash.

National security leaders are now meeting with officials from the Veterans Affairs Department, as well as the Education and Health and Human Services Departments, to directly confront the issue, according to administration officials.

Researchers say that the United States is years behind European countries like Germany and Norway in understanding the threat of far-right extremism. Daniel Koehler, a researcher in Germany who has helped other countries carry out deradicalization programs, said the United States still had not built a system for families who notice a member using threatening language or otherwise signaling that they could engage in violence.

“I have parents writing to me, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Mr. Koehler said, adding that many American families had reached out to him after the Capitol riot with nowhere else to turn.

The Biden administration’s emphasis on the issue is a welcome sign for many current and former government officials who have said that such efforts were stunted under the Trump administration.

In September, Brian Murphy, a former head of the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence branch, filed a whistle-blower complaint accusing the department’s leadership of ordering the modification of intelligence assessments to make the threat of white supremacy “appear less severe” and include information on left-wing groups to align with Mr. Trump’s messaging. The Homeland Security leadership under the Trump administration denied the accusations.

The Obama administration also treaded carefully on the issue out of political concerns. Before announcing his presidential candidacy in 2019, Mr. Biden asked Janet Napolitano, who served as the homeland security secretary at the start of the Obama administration, about the decision in 2009 to rescind a report warning that U.S. military veterans were vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups.

“I thought you were prescient in talking about right-wing extremism and violence in America and motivated by white supremacists,” Mr. Biden told Ms. Napolitano during an event at the New York Public Library.

Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan, has had discussions with White House officials about appointing a domestic terrorism czar at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She has also discussed a potential executive order that would update how the federal government adds individuals suspected of terrorist activity to lists used to screen people trying to enter the country or board planes. Such watch lists are more known for their use against foreign terrorists, Ms. Slotkin said.

“I don’t think we have a good handle on how to think about domestic extremism and these databases,” she said.

During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last month, Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, noted the United States did not have a statute that would empower prosecutors to charge and investigate homegrown extremists with the same tools that are used against terrorism suspects from abroad.

Mr. Biden’s campaign platform said he would work to establish such a law “that respects free speech and civil liberties, while making the same commitment to root out domestic terrorism as we have to stopping international terrorism.”

When asked what the president’s current position on the statute was, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, pointed to a review Mr. Biden had directed the federal government to conduct on extremism “because there is such an expansive impact and threat around the country.”

The absence of a law does not hinder the F.B.I. from investigating such threats, but prosecutors are forced to rely on a patchwork of other charges for domestic extremism, including for the attack on the Capitol.