A month after Capitol riot, a look at domestic terrorism laws

Homeland Security panel hears from experts who urge bipartisan agreement on ways to curb domestic extremism

Officers barricade the door of the House chamber as rioters disrupt the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Officers barricade the door of the House chamber as rioters disrupt the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 4, 2021 at 7:08pm

Nearly a month after the attack on the Capitol, lawmakers are getting down to brass tacks of how best to counter the long-term domestic terrorist threat to U.S. democracy. 

“Sadly, I do believe we will be fighting domestic terrorism that has its roots and inspiration points from Jan. 6 for the next 10 to 20 years,” Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism and threat prevention during the Trump administration, said at a House hearing Thursday.

Neumann resigned from her job last spring because she said the Trump administration was not taking the domestic extremism threat seriously and was even making it worse, and she has since become an outspoken Trump critic. She told the House Homeland Security Committee it was critical for there to be bipartisan agreement that what happened on Jan. 6 was an act of domestic terrorism rather than a regrettable riot that the country needs to move on from, as some Republicans have argued.

“Bipartisan agreement on this designation is paramount to ensuring future security efforts,” Neumann said. “We must be clear with our words on this matter and stand unified against this rhetoric that incites violence to achieve political goals.”

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While many elected Republicans have tried to minimize the nature of the Jan. 6 attack and former President Donald Trump’s role in it, some GOP lawmakers on Thursday were unequivocal in their language.

The committee’s ranking member, John Katko, a former federal prosecutor, said Trump’s rhetoric “definitely” spurred the attack on the Capitol, which he called an act of terrorism.

“There’s no question in my mind that the rhetoric inflamed it and turned the boiling water from a hot pot of water to overflowing,” said the New York Republican, one of the few House GOP members who voted to impeach Trump last month.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, a former chairman of the committee and also a former federal prosecutor, said the Jan. 6 insurrection “seems to fit squarely within” the Patriot Act’s definition of terrorism. The Patriot Act was passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Developing a long-term action plan

Lawmakers are also probing why Capitol police and other authorities were so unprepared to respond to the violence on Jan. 6, which allowed a mob to invade and sack the Capitol, resulting in the deaths of five people and the terrorization of hundreds of lawmakers, legislative staff, police, Hill workers and journalists there that day.

Lawmakers are still processing the short-term fallout from the Capitol attack, which includes next week’s start in the Senate of Trump’s second impeachment trial over his incitement of the Capitol insurrection and this week’s House floor vote on whether to take away freshman Republican House member Marjorie Taylor Greene’s committee assignments because of her comments and social media posts calling for violence against elected Democrats.

On top of all that, the House and the Senate, both of which Democrats control by narrow margins, are confronting complicated questions about how best to counter rising right-wing extremism, particularly white supremacist terror, without the excessiveness that characterized much of the post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism response and was in some ways counterproductive.

“Right now, one of the most important things we can do is try to learn some of the lessons from the post-9/11 era and bring them forward,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who before joining Congress in 2019 worked for years at the Pentagon and CIA as a counterterrorism specialist focusing primarily on Iraq.

In a call with reporters, Slotkin outlined her initial thinking about how best to approach domestic extremism in her new role as chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism.

Slotkin said the initial set of questions she is considering in her new oversight role includes:

  • Should there be an independent bipartisan commission examining the Jan. 6 attack?
  • Should there be a separate independent bipartisan commission, more akin to the 9/11 Commission, examining the broader threat of domestic terrorism?
  • Does the U.S. government have the right set of policies and laws for intelligence collection and the fight against domestic extremism?
  • Should Congress pass a new domestic terrorism law as current federal criminal statutes apply only to foreign terrorist threats?
  • How do we respect civil liberties and civil rights while countering domestic extremism?
  • How do we hold social media companies accountable for their role in facilitating the spread of domestic terrorism?

“Working on foreign threats has given me a number of lessons learned that I am trying to bring to my new mission to fight domestic terrorism,” Slotkin said, adding it was important not to overreact with new federal policies that could radicalize more Trump supporters.

She listed federal policies around the transfer of Middle East terrorists to foreign jails, torture and the use of Guantánamo Bay as examples of the federal government’s “emotional response” to the Sept. 11 attacks that produced counterproductive outcomes.

“I think it’s important that we stay laser-focused” on the true scope of the right-wing terrorist threat, Slotkin said, noting her own Michigan district’s multiple recent experiences with domestic extremism. Those include intrusion of the state Capitol in April by armed individuals protesting coronavirus lockdown orders and the foiled militia plot to kidnap the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

With so much disinformation and right-wing political grievances circulating in the American political system, “you can’t arrest your way out of this,” she said.

Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, told the House Homeland Security panel he was gravely concerned that “more and more ordinary people are being radicalized and spurred to acts of terror.”

He attributed the recent rise to two forces: social media platforms making it much easier for conspiracy theories and hate speech to spread and “leaders at the highest levels who have repeated their rhetoric, co-opted their conspiracies and, whether intentional or not, given extremists the green light.”

“What happened at the U.S. Capitol was the most predictable terror attack in American history,” Greenblatt said. “That act of domestic terrorism was a watershed moment for the white supremacist movement in this country. For them, the sight of congressmen and women cowering under tables, Confederate flags and Nazi symbols being paraded through the building, was nothing short of a victory.”

Greenblatt’s criticisms were particularly harsh toward lawmakers and other leaders who support conspiracy theories and lies.

“People in positions of authority need to clearly and consistently call out disinformation, extremism and hate, whether again it’s coming from the president of the United States or a first-term member of Congress. Those who obsess about conspiracy theories, those who spread anti-Semitism and racism, they don’t belong in the public conversation with a seat at the table,” Greenblatt said, in a clear reference to Greene. “Period. End of story.”