Feds: Let’s Launch a Domestic Terror War!

Virginia National Guard soldiers are issued their M4 rifles and live ammunition on the east front of the U.S. Capitol on January 17, 2021.

Virginia National Guard soldiers are issued their M4 rifles and live ammunition on the east front of the U.S. Capitol on January 17, 2021.
Photo: Samuel Corum (Getty Images)

If you loved the first War on Terror, just wait until you get a load of the sequel.

Ever since the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol that killed five people and injured hundreds, lawmakers and current and former government officials have been discussing how to launch a new war on extremism—only this time, the target is less Afghanistan, more Alabama. Indeed, after the chaotic milieu of militia groups, alt-right media figures, and Trump supporters violently stormed the halls of Congress, Time reports that:

A growing chorus of security experts and politicians has cast the mob, or parts of it, in terms that are typically reserved for ISIS and Al Qaeda. Some commentators have even begun to call for a new American war on terror in response to the Capitol riot, one aimed at President Trump’s more radical supporters on the right.

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I think we can all agree that the desire to fight violent cadres of armed maniacs, many of whom are mobilizing online, is a noble goal. Yet the notion that the U.S. government somehow needs more money and power to accomplish this has raised eyebrows, while also spurring fears about what a new internal security program would do to balloon the already dystopian levels of domestic surveillance that Americans live with daily.

Nonetheless, national security professionals have been vociferous about the need for a paradigm-shift. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta recently penned an op-ed in which he claimed America is “again at war with terrorism, only this time” the terror is “homegrown.” Similarly, another former CIA official recently suggested to NPR that the government treat domestic extremists the same way that the U.S. treats terrorists in Afghanistan.

At a hearing Thursday with the House Committee on Homeland Security, former and current national security professionals similarly pushed for new anti-terror statutes and programs.

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“This attack exposed in the starkest terms the threat we face from domestic terrorists and from right-wing extremists, specifically,” said Christopher Rodriguez, a former CIA agent who now runs the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA). “Various times throughout our history we have witnessed virulent strains of violent political ideologies that run throughout the American bloodstream. But time again, these radical movements have been rooted out and minimized.” Rodriguez said he supported an expansion of the intelligence-sharing capabilities of the federally funded state fusion center network set up after 9/11, noting that local governments should be collaborative in rooting out dangerous extremism.

Another speaker, Elizabeth Neumann, a former CIA agent and Trump administration DHS counterterrorism official, said the U.S. needs new legal precedents and federal programs to deal with domestic terrorism. “I believe we need to criminalize domestic terrorism and consider updating other statutes to make sure equal justice is applied,” she said, also advocating for the creation of an “independent bipartisan commission” to “explore the best ways to update our laws, policies and culture” to confront the terrorist threat.

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U.S. Rep. John Katko, the ranking member of the committee, agreed with the need to reign in extremism, noting that these ideologies occur on both sides of the political spectrum. As example, he mentioned “the Weathermen,” the radical leftwing movement that set off a string of bombings throughout the U.S. in the 1970s. Other speakers also noted it was not just the recent incident in January but the violent protests last summer that should be considered a problem.

The lobbying for a domestic WOT has been accompanied by related legislation from both the House and the Senate. Several weeks ago, a group of House Democrats introduced a new bill, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (DTPA), that seeks to “strengthen the federal government’s efforts to prevent, report on, respond to, and investigate acts of domestic terrorism.” There’s a lot going on in this bill, but essentially it asks that two of the U.S. government’s foremost policing agencies—the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security—be given authority to work in tandem with the Department of Justice to “monitor, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism.” The bill claims it would have a “specific focus” on white supremacist terrorism.

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The law would create new “dedicated offices” within each of these agencies to deal with internal threats to the country. These divisions would have a sunset clause of 10 years, meaning that—for the next decade at least—we would potentially have new police cadres conducting intelligence missions and investigations, trying to sniff out extremists and radicals in our midst. It might be safe to assume that, with time, such programs would grow—garnering more funding, personnel, and resources.

Many officials have suggested that the U.S. needs a generalized federal law against domestic terrorism—something currently absent from our legal system.

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Yet critics have noted that it’s somewhat unclear on why this would be necessary given that the actions that constitute “domestic terrorism” (i.e., murder, assassination, destruction of property) are already illegal and prosecutable. Creating a new statute would be legally redundant at best and, at worst, would give precedent to bold new surveillance programs. Speaking with BuzzFeed, Nicholas Grossman, an international relations professor at the University of Illinois, told the outlet: “It’s almost totally unnecessary. The United States federal government has a massive, terrifying law enforcement, intelligence, and national security capacity. And if anything, the arguments that it has too much are better than the arguments that it has too little.”

Regardless of this lack of clarity, the agenda to launch a new WOT at home appears to have the support of the Biden administration, which recently ordered a review of the government’s approach to domestic terror threats. The New Yorker reports that, on his third day in office, President Joe Biden told “U.S. intelligence officials, the F.B.I., and the Department of Homeland Security to assess the threat posed by violent domestic extremists.” Way back in November, the Wall Street Journal reported that Biden had already vowed to prioritize passage of a domestic terror law and several working groups attached to his transition team were lobbying for the passage of related regulations, such as red flag laws that would take weapons away from people deemed a threat to others.

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Human rights organizations, usually the first to seek stricter punishments for right-wing extremists, have come out against these new proposals. One-hundred-thirty-five different organizations recently wrote to Congress, warning them against passing new terrorism legislation: “We write to express our deep concern regarding proposed expansion of terrorism-related legal authority,” signatories expressed. “We must meet the challenge of addressing white nationalist and far-right militia violence without causing further harm to communities already disproportionately impacted by the criminal-legal system.”

A representative from the American Civil Liberties Union said that the organization hadn’t taken a specific position on the DTPA or other proposed laws, but in general, was against “the creation of a new domestic terrorism statute.”

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“Decades of experience have shown how law enforcement uses broad terrorism-related authorities to target and surveil Black and Brown people, including those engaged in protest,” said Manar Waheed, ACLU senior legislative and advocacy counsel. The government already has more than sufficient statutory and investigative power to address white supremacist violence. A new domestic terrorism statute, even if intended to protect communities of color, would inevitably be used to harm them.”

It is difficult not to see the DTPA and others proposed laws as heirs to the PATRIOT Act—the 2001 national security bonanza that was rushed into law after the 9/11 attacks. The bill allowed the U.S. government to expand its electronic and physical surveillance of Americans ten-fold: increased electronic record searches, clandestine “secret” searches, collection of your internet history, and letting feds spy on you at the library, among many, many other things. The law is also thought to have ushered in a bold new era of diffusive and normalized surveillance that, as of this writing, still seems totally out of control.

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It is appropriate, perhaps, that the Biden administration would preside over such a legislative “sequel” though, given the role he claims to have played in the creation of the original. He has repeatedly bragged that the PATRIOT Act was modeled on the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995, essentially a domestic terrorism bill, that was introduced following events like Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing. Civil liberties groups decried the bill and it was never put to a vote.

For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth the Democrats did about Trump’s authoritarian style, it seems deeply ironic that they would kick off this new moment of party ascendance by pushing for such overwhelming new powers for the nation’s security agencies. Such proposals seem destined to do little except further disfigure the already mutilated corpus of civil liberties that Americans used to take such pride in—but which they now ever more sleepily deride as outdated, impractical, and unsafe.

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