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Friday, March 5th, 2021

Chairman of House Homeland Security Committee prioritizes oversight of domestic terrorism

Credit: German Marshall Fund

Federal lawmakers are focused on deterring domestic terrorism, which now ranks alongside — or possibly even eclipses — the prevention of global extremist threats against the nation, said U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

“What’s on our minds a lot now is domestic terrorism. We have focused on the radical Islamist terrorist threat for a long time. It remains a threat, but by no means is it the only threat,” said Rep. Thompson, chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee.

Rep. Thompson on Feb. 26 outlined his legislative priorities as well as the current state of national security during a speech at the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to improve transatlantic cooperation on regional, national and global challenges.

“It’s not static how we protect America,” the congressman said. “The hardest threat we face now is the lone wolf — someone who has no history of doing anything out of the ordinary, but out of nowhere decides ‘Today is the day!’”

As an example, the congressman pointed to last week’s arrest in Silver Spring, Md., of U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, 49, on a federal criminal complaint for drug and gun charges.

Hasson, a self-identified white nationalist and former U.S. Marine who has been assigned to U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington since 2016, allegedly planned a mass domestic terrorist attack targeting politicians and journalists, among others; had been stockpiling ammunition at his Maryland home since about 2017; and had made contact with white supremacists, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland.

Rep. Thompson said myriad statistics show that the United States now gets more of these kinds of threats than others facing the nation from abroad.

Members of the Homeland Security Committee, meanwhile, must work hard to ensure their first thoughts about such a domestic terrorist event aren’t based on stereotypes and that they rely on facts to lead their oversight, investigations and subsequent policy decisions.

“The pursuit of the facts will be the hallmark of the committee,” he said, adding that transparency also will be important.

“If information is withheld for whatever reason, I have no problem exercising my duties as chair to get the information,” Rep. Thompson told the audience. “Bad people want to hurt us as Americans. That’s the spirit in which we will operate in the next two years.”

And in compiling information related to a terrorist threat or attack, the chairman said an individual’s or group’s civil rights and civil liberties won’t be abridged.

“We will respect them, but we have to do the diligence in collecting the information,” Thompson added.

First elected in 1993 to serve in Congress, Rep. Thompson became the first Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in 2001 when the committee was established by Congress following 9/11.

The lawmaker said he has full confidence that the committee is “ready and able” to combat any type of terrorism threats, as well as other challenges facing the nation such as border security, network and critical infrastructure protection, and aviation and commerce safety.

“We can’t guarantee that nothing will happen … but we have to be prepared to tackle and come back from any catastrophic event,” the congressman said.

Most importantly, he added, the committee is ready to do the necessary work of conducting oversight of the Trump administration — “and we will hold it to account.”

For instance, Thompson said he has a pre-meeting on Thursday and there is a March 6 full committee meeting planned with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

“Hopefully we can get on footing where we will communicate on a regular basis,” said Thompson. “I have been on this committee through every secretary of Homeland Security that we’ve ever had. This is the first time it has taken this long for me to meet this secretary and I will tell her that it has been too long.”

If the purpose of the committee is to keep Americans safe, he said, “then it’s imperative to have this line of communication” on a regular basis.

Thompson also said he plans to discuss with Nielsen the staff vacancies that still exist in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where he said the No. 2 slot has remained unfilled for over a year.

Among several other topics broached by Thompson were those concerning homeland election security, U.S.-Mexico border security, the Transportation Security Administration, and cyberthreats.

For example, he supports technological interoperability for first responder communications to improve their robust preparedness and response efforts, and a verifiable election system that minimizes hacks.

And regarding global threats, Thompson said he receives briefings daily.

“When I started, I had a full head of hair,” he mused. “But after participating in so many classified briefings, I would rub my head and now I’ve lost half of it.”

All homeland security considerations are ongoing and the House Homeland Security Committee’s goal “is to not have the public so afraid they won’t go to the movies or an athletic event,” he said. “We have to temper security with common sense.”