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Biden administration pushes plan to combat domestic terror

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Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Win McNamee/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration says it will enhance its analysis of threats from domestic terrorists, including the sharing of intelligence within law enforcement agencies, and will work with tech companies to eliminate terrorist content online as part of a nationwide strategy to combat domestic terrorism.

The National Security Council on Tuesday released the strategy, which comes more than six months after a mob of insurgents loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress was voting to certify Joe Biden’s presidential win.

“Domestic terrorism — driven by hate, bigotry, and other forms of extremism — is a stain on the soul of America,” Biden, who's traveling in Europe, said in a statement. “It goes against everything our country strives for and it poses a direct challenge to our national security, democracy, and unity."

A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that domestic violent extremists posed an increased threat in 2021, with white supremacist groups and anti-government militias posing the highest risk, officials said.

The new strategy includes enhancing the government’s analysis of domestic terrorism and improving the information that is shared between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Administration officials said the Justice Department had also implemented a new system to “methodically track” domestic terrorism cases nationwide within the FBI.

“In the FBI's view, the top domestic violent extremist threat comes from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocated for the superiority of the white race,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a speech Tuesday.

The Justice Department was also evaluating whether the administration should recommend Congress pass a specific domestic terrorism law, which does not currently exist. In the absence of domestic terrorism laws, the Justice Department relies on other statutes to prosecute ideologically motivated violence by people with no international ties.

But that has made it harder to track how often extremists driven by religious, racial or anti-government bias commit violence in the U.S and complicates efforts to develop a universally accepted domestic terror definition. Opponents of domestic terrorism laws say prosecutors already have enough tools.

Still, there is a delicate balancing act for prosecutors between disrupting violence and not infringing on free speech.

“We are focused on violence, not on ideology,” Garland said. “In America, espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful. We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment protected activities.”

The government’s new plan also includes an effort to identify government employees who may pose a domestic terrorism threat, with a number of federal agencies working on new policies and programs to root out potential domestic extremists in law enforcement and in the military.

A senior administration official said the Office of Personnel Management was considering updating forms to assist in improving screening and vetting of government employees to make sure people who could pose a threat are identified before being put in sensitive roles. The official spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity to detail the internal tools.

Officials said the Justice Department had also formally made domestic terrorism a top priority and had been reallocating resources at U.S. attorneys' offices and at FBI field offices across the U.S. to combat the threat from domestic extremists. The Justice Department’s proposed budget for next year includes $100 million in additional resources related to domestic terrorism to be used for analysts, investigators and prosecutors.

The U.S. and four other countries joined onto an effort to stop extremist violence from spreading online. The effort, known as the Christchurch Call, involves some 50 nations plus tech companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, and is named for the New Zealand city where worshippers at two mosques were killed by a white supremacist gunman.