As we mourn those who died in Kentucky and Pittsburgh, we should recognize that such tragedies highlight a dangerous counterterrorism gap that has developed over time: an insufficient focus by the federal government on the threat of domestic terrorism.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government developed today’s counterterrorism apparatus, which has largely been successful in preventing foreign terrorists from inflicting destruction on our homeland. But the threats we now face are more likely to come from individuals radicalized toward violence here at home. As we did after 9/11 in response to foreign terrorism, we need a strategic approach to this homeland security challenge.
To start, the White House should develop a coordinated interagency effort focused on domestic extremism. The first step is to restore the homeland security adviser position in the White House to its original stature. As designed in the wake of 9/11, that position was directly accountable to the president and was empowered to coordinate with Cabinet-level officials to meet all homeland security threats. The current homeland security adviser, Doug Fears, is a capable and highly respected career Coast Guard professional
, but, unlike during previous administrations, his position is buried on the organizational chart and lacks the authority to force the necessary coordination across the counterterrorism agencies.
We served as homeland security advisers during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, and were authorized to react to any crisis with a whole-of-government response. In addition to mobilizing and coordinating the response to crises and the threats of the day, such as the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, it was our responsibility to anticipate and prepare the government for the threats of tomorrow. And over time, our jobs grew to encompass not only the terrorist threat but also pandemics, natural disasters, cyberattacks and other evolving threats to the homeland.
This accretion of responsibility was a recognition that these threats are serious and that the national security adviser has a finite bandwidth, which is already fully occupied with other challenges, such as the nuclear threat from North Korea, trade wars with China, the war in Afghanistan and the president’s next meeting with a foreign leader. History teaches that ad hoc responses to specific crises will never fully address domestic threats, which instead require a long-term and sustained focus from the White House between the crises.
But installing the necessary coordination and leadership in the White House is not enough; the administration must also place the right focus on today’s threats. It should begin by restoring vital funding to programs that combat violent extremism in all its forms — including far-right extremism. This funding has declined over the past two years, and grants to groups focusing on right-wing and white-supremacist violence have been stripped from administration budgets. We need more — not less — focus on domestic radicalization, what causes it, and what law enforcement and our communities can do to identify and prevent it.
We must also acknowledge the role of technology in generating and exacerbating the domestic threat. Just as the Islamic State hijacked social media platforms to radicalize people around the world, those with domestic grievances are exploiting platforms to spread hate here at home. The federal government should be working closely with social media companies, which have made strides in taking down Islamist militant content on their platforms, and encourage them to do the same with domestic extremist content.
Finally, the administration should make sure the Justice Department’s Domestic Terrorism Task Force — established after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and revitalized in 2014 — has the resources it needs to coordinate the work of career investigators and prosecutors across the country. This task force has proved effective, sending the clear message that ideologically motivated violence will be met with swift justice.
In short, the administration should follow the lead of the British government, which recently designated far-right extremism as a major threat to national security and reorganized its counterterrorism operations to better meet that threat.
We make these suggestions not to cast blame for the past but rather to provide guidance for the future. We recognize that the only people responsible for violence in recent weeks are the perpetrators. Yet, it is fair to ask whether our federal government has sufficient focus and capacity to prevent the next attack. To the extent that our focus is lacking, it is fair to demand that those at the highest levels of the federal government do everything possible to build that capacity.
And it is also fair to demand that they start doing so immediately. We cannot have another week so full of radicalized violence.