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Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

Congress eyes domestic terrorism law

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Lawmakers began laying the groundwork for domestic terrorism legislation that would explicitly bar certain violent and/or hate groups and acts occurring in the United States, much the way that current legislation bars international acts of terrorism and violence.

“As we sit here today, we are facing a new reality: the post 9/11 era of security has come to an end,” said U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) during a hearing Wednesday before the Intelligence and Counterterrorism Subcommittee of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee. “The new reality we have to come to terms with is that it’s extremists here at home seeking to exploit internal divisions within our own country that pose the greatest threat. While the insurrection and attack against our nation’s Capitol on January 6 has brought the threat of domestic terrorism and domestic violent extremism to the forefront, these threats are ones we have been dealing with for a long time in our states and local communities.”

“As we all know here, although domestic terrorism is defined in federal law, there is no specific federal domestic terrorism charge. And while some of these investigations may result in serious charges, such as hate crimes and gun charges—and in the case of January 6, we’ve seen perpetrators be charged with conspiracy and now possibly sedition—many of these domestic terrorism-related investigations will not progress as terrorism-related charges,” said Slotkin, chairman of the subcommittee.

While the hearing comes on the heels of two mass shootings—in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo.—that killed 18 people, panel members and the witnesses were reluctant to brand the incidents as terrorism, preferring to wait until law enforcement has had more time to review the two cases.

Almost all of the discussion Wednesday focused on the growing number of attacks or planned attacks by right-wing extremists, including the alleged plot by right-wing militia members in Michigan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, in which several known right-wing groups, like the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Bois, are being investigated for participating in and/or helping plan.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told lawmakers her state is better equipped than many others to arrest and prosecute domestic terrorists, like those allegedly involved in the plot on the governor, because law enforcement uses state laws aimed at combatting street gangs, as well as the state’s own antiterrorism law, which was passed in 2002, on the heels of the 9/11 attack by international terrorists.

“While Michigan has a robust array of laws to address domestic terrorism, many states and federal prosecutors do not,” she said. “For example, while federal prosecutors have laws that address providing material support for designated ‘foreign terrorist organizations,’ there are no laws to address domestic terrorists, or  ‘homegrown’ violent extremists. This is a gap that my department has used our state laws to fill, but to fully combat domestic terrorism across the country, changes to federal criminal laws must be made. Moreover, because we are on the frontline of this battle, federal funding is needed for state law enforcement offices – like mine – so that we can dedicate staff and resources to this cause. If states are doing the heavy lifting, they must be adequately resourced.”

Aaron Ford, attorney general for Nevada, said the federal government should do more to help the states address such actions as the 2017 killing of 60 people at a Las Vegas casino in which the killer took his own life.  “We are working to address gaps in prevention, investigations, and partnerships across local, state, and federal agencies,” said Ford.Federal funding is a much-needed resource in a state’s fight against domestic terrorism. Federal assistance after a domestic terrorism event is critical to a state’s ability to respond to, and recover from, a mass violence or domestic terrorism event, and should be considered in the analysis of a federal law change. The way an incident is defined in law has an impact on how response and recovery can be funded.”

“On the investigatory side of terrorism, more tools are needed for prevention and further legislation could help satisfy that need. Existing law enforcement tools used by first responders working to mitigate domestic terrorism include fusion centers, emergency management systems, and information sharing through suspicious activity reports. Still, we can do better by increasing partnerships, improving the accuracy of shared information, and more expedient SAR follow-up,” Ford said, referencing the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, a joint collaborative effort by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and state and local law enforcement. “One suggestion I have heard from law enforcement would be to implement a statewide notification process like the Amber Alert System,” he added.

John Chisholm, district attorney for Milwaukee County, Wis., told the lawmakers that lack of a federal law identifying and codifying domestic terrorism has hindered law enforcement in investigating potential terrorists across state lines. “There have been recent incidents where it is alleged that individuals in Wisconsin planned domestic terror attacks in another state. This highlights a capacity divide between the local intelligence assets in major urban areas with that needed in smaller rural jurisdictions.

Several lawmakers from both parties expressed concern that a federal law targeting domestic terrorism may also hinder legitimate demonstrators or protesters.

“At the end of the day, it’s important to protect the First Amendment, while keeping our citizens safe,” said U.S. Rep. August Pfluger (R-TX). “The effects (of a new law) may not be immediate but they could be far-reaching.”

“I do have concerns about being able to distinguish between peaceful protestors and acts of violence and terrorism,” Nevada’s Ford told the panel.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), said a federal law setting standards for what may be considered acts of domestic terrorism, planned or actual, could go a far way to assisting local and state law enforcement agencies address the issue. “Whenever the federal government acts, whenever the federal government speaks, it is the very heavy hand,” she stated.

Slotkin said she plans to introduce legislation soon that would “ensure that DHS has the tools it needs from an intelligence analysis perspective to better understand the threats.”