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Breaking down the White House strategy to end domestic terrorism

Nearly six months after pro-Trump rioters overwhelmed the U.S. Capitol, the White House on Tuesday published its framework for how it intends to combat one of the most pressing national security threats — domestic terrorism. Amna Nawaz examines the strategy and its consequences with Mary McCord, who previously served as the top national security official in the Justice Department.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The White House published its framework today for how it intends to combat one of the most pressing national security threats, domestic terrorism.

    It comes nearly six months after pro-Trump rioters overwhelmed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    It was President Biden's attorney general, Merrick Garland, who spoke before cameras today to roll out this 32-page strategy. Here's what he said.

  • Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General:

    During President Biden's first week in office, he directed the administration to undertake an assessment of the domestic terrorism threat and then to use that assessment to develop the national strategy being released today.

    In March, they concluded that domestic violent extremists posed an elevated threat to the homeland in 2021. 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.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, the strategy outlines a whole-of-government approach to the problem. It calls for better information-sharing among the many agencies that are involved, calls for a broader push to short-circuit the ability of domestic extremist groups to recruit new members online, and improve screening to root out extremism within the U.S. military and law enforcement.

    Mary McCord previously served as the top national security official in the Justice Department. She studies and writes about these issues at Georgetown University. And she joins me now.

    Mary McCord, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    When you look at this strategy, what does it say? The size and the scope of it, what does it say to you about how this administration views domestic terrorism in 2021?

  • Mary McCord, Georgetown University Law Center:

    Well, I think it serves an important signaling function, first that this administration recognizes the threat from domestic extremist violence and domestic terrorism. And that is something that has not really been seriously recognized in the previous administration.

    Secondly, it acknowledges that this administration is going to put that threat at the highest level and respond to it and put it in an equivalency to other terrorist threats, international terrorist threats. And that means not just a whole-of-government approach, but a whole-of-society approach.

    So I think those signaling functions, before we even get to the meat of the strategy, are very important.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should mention that federal officials have noted the threat of domestic violent extremism before. We know, in 2017, the FBI reported white supremacists posed a lethal threat. There was, in 2019, a framework presented by then acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan to counter violent white supremacy.

    When you look at the Biden strategy, what are the effective parts? What's going to make the difference this time?

  • Mary McCord:

    Well, a strategy is just that, right? It's words on paper that establish, in this case, pillars, pillars of activity that's going to be taking place.

    But you're right to suggest, what is going to come from it? What does that mean is going to happen top the ground?

    And I think that in some ways remains to be seen, but there is already much that has happened even before the strategy was published, right? We have seen the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security announce measures to try to eliminate extremism within their ranks.

    We have seen more money requested for resources for combating violent extremism. So, there's been already steps taken. And I think that's what we are going to see more of. There's a lot of plans in this document for things, and I think things that are so important, like more — providing more information, international, to federal, to state, to local, and the reverse, so that there's a better coordination, there's a better understanding of the threat and a better ability to actually counter it.

    I think that you're going to see actions taking place to try to reduce the impact of disinformation and other extremist rhetoric that fuels extremist violence online. You will see efforts to undertake that. And I think we will see just, as we're already seeing post-January 6, a real emphasis from our law enforcement agencies to combat this threat.

    And that is an area where they really need to be able to reach out to the communities, build trust from communities, who sometimes don't trust law enforcement, to really be able to be effective in this area.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Mary, some of that broad information-sharing has raids concerns among some groups.

    So, let me ask you what's not in the strategy. The ACLU's National Security Project director, Hina Shamsi, put out a response to the strategy, saying — quote — "The strategy includes none of the civil rights and liberties safeguards that rights group and communities of color have long sought."

    We know in the past, Mary, counterterrorism measures have resulted in abuse of power and oversurveillance of communities of color, Muslims in particular. Is there room in this strategy, you think, for civil rights abuses down the line?

  • Mary McCord:

    So, I think, again, the strategy is really not at the level of detail where I think we would be seeing exactly where the vulnerabilities to abuse are and what kinds of measures need to be taken to prevent that.

    So, I very much appreciate Hina Shamsi's comments. I do think A.G. Garland as well in his speech today, as well as the document itself, makes clear that everything that's being proposed is being proposed to be done within — with respect to civil rights and civil liberties and constitutional values.

    So, I think the devil will be in the details. And I think Hina Shamsi raises — will be raising good points as we move forward and we see actual actions, policies, and potentially legislation, although not necessarily, and other actions that the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, et cetera, that they take to implement that.

    That's where we really will need to be looking to see that civil rights and civil liberties are protected.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Mary, all of those agencies for two decades have been focused almost exclusively on an entirely different threat, right, mostly a foreign threat.

    We're talking about violent Islamic extremism. Culturally, culturally, can you get all of those systems of power to pivot, especially when you look at — as we reported earlier, we know what happened on January 6. They were military veterans. There were law enforcement officials. There was a former member of Congress in the crowd outside the Capitol that day.

  • Mary McCord:

    So, I think that it's right that the overwhelming resources have been put toward the international terrorist threat since 9/11.

    But it's not as though this threat was ignored. I mean, as you noted already, Director Wray has been saying now for a couple of years, has been emphasizing the significance, in terms of lethality, of the domestic terrorist threat. We have seen cases brought by the FBI and the Department of Justice, not only post-January 6, but over the last few years, numerous cases brought to disrupt threats, because, obviously, they'd prefer to disrupt a threat before a terrorist attack happens.

    But you're right that this is much more of a mandate for change here. And I do think that the federal government has enough power and authority — and Congress through oversight — to ensure that directives are being implemented, and that there really is a change in resources.

    I think getting the states and locals also on board might be even a bigger challenge. And that will need to be incentivized through — potentially through some of the grants that are given from the federal government to states and locals and have some strings attached to those grants that include this type of prioritization.

    So I think it's going to take all of those efforts, and starting, frankly, with renewed emphasis put on vetting and screening of government employees who are in positions that — sensitive positions or positions of dealing with the terrorist threat, and looking at current employees.

    And where — I'm really talking about here about our military and our law enforcement and making sure that we don't have extremists in the ranks, because, even though they have First Amendment rights, they don't have a First Amendment right to be law enforcement. And extremist views, terror — racist views, those things are incompatible with the role of law enforcement and the military.

    And there is leeway within our constitutional framework, courts have told us, for government employers to take action to eradicate those types of extremist viewpoints, violent anti-government, racist viewpoints from law enforcement and the military.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Mary McCord, formerly of the Justice Department, now at Georgetown University.

    Mary, thanks for being with us. Always good to see you.

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