The FBI has 2,700 open investigations of domestic extremism, more than double the usual number of cases, counterterrorism officials say, underscoring the Biden administration’s accelerated pursuit of what it calls “domestic violent extremists.”
The increase in domestic violent extremism that the Biden administration described is shocking. It suggests that the number of plots and racially motivated killings attributed to White supremacists has also multiplied. So far, the administration has not presented those sorts of numbers.
The Department of Homeland Security recorded an average of 1,000 investigations into domestic terrorism plots and incidents per year from 2017 through 2019, including 846 arrests of suspected domestic terrorists by the FBI and other agencies.
The agencies attributed 57 deaths from 2017 through 2019 to acts of domestic terrorism. Of those, 47 were racially motivated and carried out primarily by White supremacists, according to the report.
“It goes without saying that the threat from domestic terrorism is heightened and has significantly increased in the last 18 months,” Timothy Langan, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, said in recent testimony before Congress.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, the Biden administration redoubled efforts to counter the threat of “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” which Homeland Security described as a “national threat priority.”
Concerns are growing, however, that the hunt for domestic extremists has become politically charged and that a once-unthinkable authoritarian trampling of civil liberties in the U.S. is becoming a reality.
“Our concern is that the FBI, being a preeminent counterterrorism agency, along with the CIA [and NSA], that those assets could be turned inward to target U.S. citizens without a foreign nexus,” said Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas, the top Republican on the counterterrorism and counterintelligence panel of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“You have people that are ramping up the rhetoric on domestic violent extremism … to sort of make the case for and essentially justify the misuse, potentially, of intelligence assets that are specifically authorized for foreign threats,” he said in an interview.
Attorney General Merrick Garland piqued fears of a burgeoning police state last month when he issued a memorandum directing federal law enforcement officials to discuss strategies “for addressing threats against” local school boards and administrators and to “open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response.”
The memo was a response to a National School Boards Association letter to President Biden requesting “federal assistance to stop threats” from parents against public school officials.
Mr. Garland’s memo received swift backlash. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee told Mr. Garland in a letter that they were concerned about “policing the speech of citizens and concerned parents.”
“It’s exactly this kind of intimidation of private citizens by government officials that our federal civil rights laws were designed to prevent,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, wrote in a separate letter to Mr. Garland.
The NSBA has since apologized, saying there was “no justification for some of the language included in the letter.”
But Mr. Garland stood by his memo. He said the NSBA’s apology “does not change the association’s concern of violence or threats of violence.”
For Mr. Crawford, the episode is a clear warning sign that the domestic terrorism narrative has gotten out of hand.
“We’re playing fast and loose with the definition of what constitutes a domestic terrorist, and that’s the danger of going down this road without the appropriate safeguards,” he said.
Driving a narrative
The Biden administration announced a sweeping strategy this summer for confronting a rising domestic terrorism threat that it said largely “emerges from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and networks whose racial, ethnic, or religious hatred leads them towards violence.”
The Biden strategy document warns that domestic terrorists take on a variety of forms, including lone actors and “informally aligned individuals.”
“These actors have different motivations, but many focus their violence towards the same segment or segments of the American community, whether persons of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, other religious minorities, women and girls, LGBTQI+ individuals, or others,” it said.
The document stressed that the definition of “domestic terrorism in our law makes no distinction based on political views.”
Former acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf was quick to raise red flags about the focus on domestic terrorism. He said the number of domestic terrorism attacks, while concerning, does not rise to the level of a national priority on par with foreign terrorist organizations, cybersecurity breaches or pandemics.
The Biden administration also prioritized right-wing extremists and Jan. 6 rioters, whom Democrats labeled “insurrectionists,” while overlooking left-wing extremists such as Antifa that were responsible for months of rioting and unrest across the U.S.
“The administration’s new strategy on dealing with domestic terrorism only makes the bias more apparent,” Mr. Wolf wrote in a June essay for The Heritage Foundation. “On the one hand, the document is a public safety policy ‘nothing burger.’ There really isn’t anything new or different. On the other hand, it is a messaging document designed to tar progressive opponents as dangerous and unstable.”
Still, the focus on domestic terrorism and the perhaps more nebulous scourge of “domestic extremism” has become a priority focus across federal agencies.
Few agencies have attended to the threat of “domestic extremism” with more vigor than the Department of Defense. After several active-duty service members were identified in the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, rooting out extremism became a focal point for the Pentagon’s top brass.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies, but we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie with our own ranks,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during his confirmation hearing just weeks after the riot.
Mr. Austin ordered a 60-day “stand-down” across the Defense Department this spring to discuss the scourge of extremism. He established a working group to address further steps needed to defeat its enemy within and, notably, to update the Pentagon’s definition of extremist conduct.
Some lawmakers are suspect about the Pentagon’s focus on right-wing extremism.
Last month, 12 Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee penned a letter to Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with concerns about “this administration’s imposition of political narratives on our military.”
The Pentagon’s “countering extremism working group” was among several concerns outlined in the lawmakers’ letter, a copy of which The Washington Times recently obtained.
“A global ‘stand-down’ curtailed essential military operations so that troops could discuss the perils of ‘right-wing’ extremism,” they wrote. “Six months into its existence, a bloated “Countering Extremism Working Group” plods through its endless review of DOD’s longstanding definition of extremist conduct.
“All this is taking place despite clear data that pegs the number of extremists in our military as minuscule.”
Still, Democrats in Congress warn that active-duty troops and veterans are uniquely susceptible to recruitment by far-right and White supremacy groups.
“The corrupting influence of domestic violent extremist groups that recruit veterans is a critical issue at a time where our nation remains deeply divided,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, California Democrat, said recently at the launch of a series of hearings on the topic.
Republicans on the panel said the Democrats were perpetuating false narratives and portraying veterans in a bad light.
The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, said “headline-grabbing” anecdotes about veterans in extremist groups don’t prove a trend.
“There is very little data on how many veterans are actually involved in violent extremism and the actions that follow,” he said. “And there is no question that the vast majority of veterans are law-abiding and peaceful. We cannot let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch.”
Rep. Jim Banks, Indiana Republican, said at the hearing, “The fact that you’re going to save our veterans from becoming political terrorists is offensive to every veteran in America.”
Lora Ries, a senior homeland security research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Democrats were using a false narrative to target Republicans.
“This is what the left is focusing on and running with and continuing this narrative of domestic violence and White supremacists specifically being the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland,” she said in an interview. “They completely ignore what actually happened in 2020. They don’t mention Antifa or [Black Lives Matter]. And so this is completely biased, and it’s being used to go after conservatives and, in the instance of this hearing, to go after veterans and silence them from free speech.”
Similar hearings on domestic terrorism have dotted lawmakers’ calendars in recent months.
Retired FBI Special Agent Kenneth Gray, who spent most of his career in domestic and international counterterrorism, said the rise in domestic terrorism as reported by the FBI and Homeland Security Department is concerning. Still, he said, countering the threat becomes more complicated when the conversation surrounding domestic terrorism becomes politicized.
“I think both are occurring at the same time,” said Mr. Gray, who now serves as a senior lecturer at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven.
“There is a rise in racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism, and there is a rise in the anti-government violent extremism,” he said. “But it is also being used as a cudgel on both left and right on the political side.”
He fears the increasing threat of domestic terrorism combined with increased polarization could lead the U.S. toward more intrusive methods for infiltrating and rooting out groups and individuals deemed to be domestic terrorists or extremists.
Mr. Crawford said he sat with a similar fear Wednesday as Democrats called an open hearing on domestic terrorism before the House intelligence committee.
Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, reiterated in his opening remarks the threat of White supremacists that is at the heart of the administration’s strategy.
“We must also acknowledge the persistent role White supremacy and White nationalism have on the frequency and severity of these threats,” Mr. Schiff said. “It is an indisputable fact that a growing number of domestic terrorist threats arise from people driven by hatred and a stated desire to harm people because of the color of their skin or their religious beliefs.
“We are seeing a sharpened edge to the threat, an increasingly persistent and coordinated effort to terrorize based on these repugnant views,” he said.
Mr. Crawford said he is concerned about any uptick in domestic terrorism and supports the FBI and Homeland Security Department’s work to combat the threat. Still, he said, he is concerned about Mr. Schiff’s direction for the committee, which oversees funding for national intelligence programs to counter foreign threats.
After the hearing, he said it was clear to him that the intent of the open hearing, rather than a closed hearing where the committee could ask more pointed questions, was to put on a show for the media and “make a political statement.”
No member of the intelligence committee advocated for the use of foreign intelligence capabilities to target domestic terrorism. All committee members and witnesses at the hearing cited the importance of protecting civil liberties.
In the politically charged environment, however, Mr. Crawford increasingly worries that those guardrails will be removed in the name of combating domestic violent extremists.
“We’re kind of treading on thin ice here with regard to just sort of cavalierly throwing this term around,” he said. “I think we’ve gone a step too far — well beyond a step too far. I think this is dangerous.”