House Republicans are raising concerns about the revival of a Clinton-era domestic terrorism task force, warning it has the potential to become a tool for the Obama administration to silence political opponents — including those who favor limited government and support Second Amendment rights — by branding them terrorists.
Last week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he was planning to re-establish the defunct Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee (DTEC) to focus on preventing domestic terrorist threats, especially among groups with a radical “anti-government animus” racial prejudice.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, raised questions about the reopening Wednesday during an oversight hearing with FBI Director James Comey.
“The question is what and whom does the attorney general really intend to target via the DTEC?” Mr. Goodlatte said. “Would a group advocating strenuously for smaller government and lower taxes be included in the attorney general’s definition of a group with ‘antigovernment animus’? Given that the administration appears to have used the IRS to intimidate its political opponents, the re-establishment of the DTEC should cause us all to sit up and take notice.”
The DTEC will consist of officials from the Justice Department, the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ offices, and it aims to help coordinate with local public-safety officials around the country, officials have said.
The task force originally was convened after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and met regularly until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Afterward, its mission evolved from domestic threats to international groups, focusing on the defeat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.
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Officials say a refocus on domestic terrorism is needed following attacks such as the slaying of two police officers in Las Vegas by a husband-and-wife team on Sunday, the killing of three people at Kansas City-area Jewish centers in April and the slaughter of six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012.
Some Democrats applauded Justice’s initiative, citing growing domestic radicalism.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), membership in the militia arm of the anti-government Patriot movement has more than quintupled over the past five years, and those participating in the radical sovereign-citizen movement have increased even more so over the same period. Between 2009 and 2013, there were 43 violent incidents between law enforcement officials and anti-government extremists, giving way to the largest resurgence in militia and radical movement since the Oklahoma City bombing.
“The FBI plays a fundamental role in confronting extremist violence here at home. The bureau has called the so-called sovereign-citizen movement a ‘growing domestic threat,’” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat. “Congress has empowered the FBI with considerable authority — including federal hate crimes legislation — to root out this extremism.”
Federal law enforcement will be careful to only investigate these matters when crimes have been committed and won’t block free speech, Mr. Comey testified Wednesday.
“We face domestic terrorism from individuals and groups who are motivated by political, racial, religious or social ideology — ideology fueled by bigotry and prejudice — as we saw in Overland Park, Kansas,” the FBI director said, referring to the Jewish Center killings, for which an avowed white supremacist is awaiting trial.
“Most of the time, domestic extremists are careful to keep their actions within the bounds of constitutionally protected activity. And for the FBI, protecting those civil liberties — such as freedom of speech — is of paramount importance, no matter how hateful that speech might be. We only get involved when words cross the line into illegal activity,” Mr. Comey said.
Mr. Goodlatte said that focus still should be concentrated abroad on terrorist treats and militant groups that are trying to influence Americans to do their dirty work for them.