A key House panel passed legislation Wednesday that calls for the Homeland Security Department to create an office focused solely on countering violent extremism out of concern that the fractured program cannot effectively deter terror events from occurring within the U.S.
Lawmakers passed the legislation Wednesday evening, after several spats over the legislation’s goals and the department’s needs during a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing on international and domestic terrorism.
Rep, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the panel, was skeptical of the legislation, noting that the Department of Homeland Security did not request it.
“There is no DHS strategic plan to provide clarity about how the $40 million in dedicated funding and expanded authorities would be utilized,” he said. “There is no testimony from DHS, in an open setting, in response to concerns about transparency and the concerns that many Americans have about how current CVE (countering violent extremism) programs are being carried out.”
The legislation also puts too much of an emphasis on homegrown Islamic terrorism, said Rep. Cedric Richmond, Louisiana Democrat.
“I just don’t think that this is the way to go,” he said.
Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and Homeland Security Committee chairman , was quick to defend his legislation and said that postponing it would send the wrong message to terrorists. Something needs to be done to protect the United States from the growing number of Islamic State inspired-attacks against military facilities, law enforcement officers and Americans, Mr. McCaul said.
The number of individuals who now face criminal charges for planning terror attacks against the country or attempting to provide material support to the terror group have increased from 13 in 2014 to 61 in 2015, according to an internal congressional document.
“We can’t wait for the department to act,” he said.
Lawmakers also quibbled over a letter that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote to Mr. McCaul. That letter, Mr. McCaul said, appeared to be “generally supportive” of the legislation, known as H.R.2899. That legislation would streamline a program that is currently split up among various federal departments.
“It is worth noting that neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security have opposed this bill,” he said. “Instead, we have received a letter from Secretary Johnson emphasizing how important CVE is right now, and we’ve seen countless statements from the President about how we need to do more.”
But other lawmakers disagreed with the chairman.
“I’m looking at the letter that was sent to you by Secretary Johnson and nowhere in that did he mention H.R.2899,” said committee member Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat.
The Washington Times obtained a copy of the two-page letter confirming Mrs. Sanchez’s statement that Mr. Johnson never once mentioned the legislation. He simply touted his program accomplishments, which include establishing a full-time coordinator for the countering violent extremism endeavor and expanding the size of the program office.
“In the past 8 months, I have personally engaged with communities in major municipalities across the country on CVE issues,” Mr. Johnson said in the letter. “I have carried President Obama’s message that the United States must present a more attractive vision than those who would recruit citizens and commit acts of terrorism in the name of an ideology. I believe that the Department can and will do more to counter the message of violent extremism regardless of ideology.”
After hours of discussions on terrorism, Mr. McCaul was able to convince his fellow committee members to collectively approve of the legislation. Those members present in the hearing room after 6 p.m. approved of the one-stop CVE shop by voice vote, which did not include a single “nay.”
“I did not want to put this on the floor with Republican and Democrats fighting each other as the enemy watches us do that,” he said. “I think that is the wrong message to [send] the terrorist, whether they be domestic or international.”