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Opinion Finally, a president who takes white supremacist violence seriously

A signboard featuring multiple photos of suspects wanted by the FBI in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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As part of the response to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Biden administration will treat white supremacist violence as a national security threat. White House press secretary Jen Psaki made this clear in a news briefing on Friday: “The Biden administration will confront this threat with the necessary resources and resolve,” she said.

Psaki told reporters that the newly confirmed director of national intelligence Avril Haines, in concert with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, will undertake a “fact-based analysis upon which we can shape policy.” In addition, the National Security Council will build up its capacity to address and determine how to coordinate across government entities. “As a part of this, the NSC will undertake a policy review effort to determine how the government can share information better about this threat, support efforts to prevent radicalization, disrupt violent extremist networks, and more,” Psaki said. The NSC will also coordinate efforts to fight domestic terrorism across parts of the federal government and oversee a process to “focus on addressing evolving threats, radicalization, the role of social media, opportunities to improve information sharing, operational responses, and more.”

Former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance approves of this approach. “Psaki’s comment goes to the heart of the matter — law enforcement and intelligence work has to be data driven,” she tells me. “We saw the impact of dismissing white supremacist groups as a terror threat because of the last administration’s political alignment. This put Americans in danger and there is no place for it.” Other former prosecutors agreed. “I am glad to see the federal government give the domestic terrorism threat the attention it deserves,” Barbara McQuade observes. “We need a thoughtful strategy that not only holds violent offenders accountable, but prevents attacks and protects civil liberties.”

Many progressive groups welcomed the announcement. Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, tells me, “It’s about time that the federal government took seriously the threat of far-right violence. Civil society groups have long called for a fact-based assessment of this threat.” She notes, “The Justice Department doesn’t even publish a list of ‘domestic’ terrorism cases, and it has failed to comply with the requirements of the National Defense Authorization Act to report on far-right and white supremacist violence to Congress.”

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The NSC is an appropriate location for the review, not only because of its ability to organize discrete parts of the government but because this is a worldwide phenomenon. Former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal explains, “Housing this at NSC makes a lot of sense. Just like 9/11, the failures here are many, but one is the lack of coordination and information sharing in Trump’s broken administration. NSC is the right entity to jump-start the process.” Other experts in right-wing extremism agree.

Praising the “much-needed and long-overdue set of steps” to combat domestic terrorism, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who leads the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, points to the wealth of foreign expertise, in particular the 89 measures that Germany recently funded to combat right-wing extremism as well as New Zealand’s proposals in its report on the Christchurch mosque attacks. “We do not need to completely reinvent the wheel,” Miller-Idriss said.

Despite analysis showing the rising threat of domestic terrorism, the previous administration declined to undertake a major initiative to study or address it. President Biden’s predecessor, of course, was loath to criticize white militia violence. And last fall, we learned — thanks to a Freedom of Information request filed by Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes — that language in a Department of Homeland Security report identifying white supremacists as the greatest source of domestic terror in the United States was watered down in subsequent drafts to “domestic violent extremists.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been tracking the recent rise in violent anti-Semitic violence (most vividly seen in the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018) and hate crimes against Jews. In response to Friday’s announcement, ADL’s chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt tells me, “As we have said for years: The threat of domestic violent extremism in the United States is severe and urgent. We applaud the administration for committing to increasing efforts to counter domestic extremism.”

Conservative resistance to cracking down on such groups — ostensibly based on the fear that they would become targets (a telling indictment of the degree to which white supremacy has become part of right-wing rhetoric) — may subside given the attack on Congress and threats against former vice president Mike Pence.

Constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe tells me, “This seems a sensible and urgently needed step to evaluate and address what we know has been a rising problem, one considerably more urgent than even international terrorism.” He adds, “To approach it systematically and on the basis of data rather than mere hunch and instinct looks like a refreshing signal of what the new administration portends.”

There are a number of questions and challenges here: What’s the appropriate definition of domestic terrorism? Is new legislation needed? How do we better report hate crimes and other violent actions perpetrated by such groups? How do we crack down on violent white supremacists while respecting First Amendment rights of speech and association? How do we determine the extent to which such groups have infiltrated law enforcement and military organizations?

What is not in doubt is the compelling need for this undertaking. Katyal explains, “The Trump administration unconscionably suppressed information about domestic extremism, focusing instead on silly things like a Muslim ban.” He continued, “President Biden is making clear through this directive that facts matter, and that before rushing off a bunch of solutions, that we first learn about the nature of the threat and the existing tool kit.”

Scholars, civil rights groups and many Democrats in Congress have urged this sort of action for years. Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies violent extremism, tells me, “Balancing the need for the government to have more tools to fight this scourge before attacks occur — while also protecting the civil liberties of Americans — is not easy, which is precisely why a comprehensive review is the right approach with which to begin.”

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are wary of “new legislation that will further entrench domestic terrorism authorities that harm communities of color,” an ACLU spokesman tells me. The Brennan Center for Justice, likewise, cautions that “we must ensure that we do not repeat the excesses of the ‘war on terror’ and that we respect Americans’ civil liberties.” They will need to hold the administration accountable for its promise to respect civil liberties as it fights domestic terror.

That said, it is a relief the new administration is seriously addressing domestic terrorism — finally.

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