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White House unveils new strategy to counter domestic terrorism 'laser-focused on violence'

The White House did not make a decision about whether to seek a new law with specific criminal penalties for committing or supporting domestic terrorism.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Tuesday rolled out what it said is a new strategy to counter domestic terrorism: a series of changes to elevate the federal government's response to an urgent problem, with renewed efforts to deter, detect and prosecute those who would use violence in pursuit of political aims.

"What we are focused on is violence," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC News' Pete Williams in an exclusive interview. "The incitement of violence, the drive to violence, the commission of violent acts."

In a statement Tuesday morning, President Joe Biden said, "[O]n my first day in office I directed my national security team to confront the rise in domestic terrorism with the necessary resources and resolve. Today, I am releasing the first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. It lays out a comprehensive approach to protecting our nation from domestic terrorism while safeguarding our bedrock civil rights and civil liberties — values that make us who we are as Americans."

In a speech announcing the policy Tuesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said he would “reinvigorate” the domestic terrorism executive committee that was first created by Attorney General Reno in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing.

The strategy and an accompanying White House fact sheet call for more scrutiny of public social media posts and better coordination among security agencies. But after a 100-day review, the White House didn't make a decision about what might be the biggest policy question with regard to what it says is the most urgent security threat to the U.S.: whether to seek a law with specific criminal penalties for committing or supporting domestic terrorism. White House officials said they didn't have enough information and asked the Justice Department to further review the issue.

There is no crime of domestic terrorism and no direct domestic equivalent to the "material support for terrorism" statute, which has allowed federal prosecutors to win long prison terms for people convicted of helping Al Qaeda and the Islamic State terrorist group, no matter how modest their support.

Many experts and civil liberties advocates argue that the government doesn't need more legal authority to prosecute terrorism. Some FBI agents assert the opposite, saying a new law would help quantify the problem and add more prosecutorial tools.

The new Biden strategy is also silent on the question of whether it ever would be appropriate to designate domestic organizations as terrorist groups, the way the U.S. designates foreign groups. It does say the State Department will examine whether any foreign groups linked to domestic terrorism may merit designations as foreign terrorist organizations.

A U.S. flag with a symbol from the group QAnon outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.Win McNamee / Getty Images

But a senior administration official said an intelligence assessment didn't find a "robust nexus" between foreign organizations and domestic extremists.

The Biden administration's review of its domestic counterterrorism strategy began with that intelligence assessment. The unclassified version, released in March, concluded that the two most lethal elements of U.S. domestic terrorism are racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate for the superiority of the white race and anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, such as violent militia extremists.

The new strategy is being released just after NBC News obtained a new, unclassified FBI intelligence bulletin highlighting the risk that adherents of the conspiracy theory QAnon may commit political violence.

"The participation of some domestic violent extremists who are also self-identified QAnon adherents in the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol on 6 January underscores how the current environment likely will continue to act as a catalyst for some to begin accepting the legitimacy of violent action," the bulletin says, noting that the FBI has arrested more than 20 self-identified QAnon adherents who participated in the Capitol riot.

Four pillars

The Biden strategy is based on what it calls four pillars, designed to understand, prevent, disrupt and address long-term drivers of domestic terrorism. Although it involves new government scrutiny of what Americans say on social media, officials say they have been careful to avoid any move that infringes on political speech.

"We are not targeting speech. We are not attacking speech," Mayorkas said. "We are working with the social media companies to be able to better identify the false narratives, to be able to identify disinformation and misinformation and really educate the American public."

On the intelligence and analysis front, the strategy calls for improving information-sharing among federal agencies about domestic terrorism. That may sound bureaucratic, but even within the FBI, there hasn't been good data about the extent of the problem, former FBI agents say. The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, has already begun mining public social media posts for intelligence, as first reported last month by NBC News.

Part of the prevention strategy includes $77 million in grants to state and local governments. And officials say they will work with social media and tech companies to combat disinformation and extremism online.

To boost disruption, U.S. attorney's offices and FBI field offices across the country "have formally made domestic terrorism a top priority and are tracking comprehensively domestic terrorism-related cases, reallocating or requesting appropriate funding and resources as needed to target the threat," the White House fact sheet says.

President Joe Biden's fiscal year 2022 budget calls for more than $100 million in additional resources for the Justice Department, the FBI and Homeland Security "to ensure that the federal government has the analysts, investigators, prosecutors, and other personnel and resources it needs to thwart domestic terrorism and do justice when the law has been broken."

In places, the White House fact sheet about the strategy expresses goals without detailing how to achieve them.

"The U.S. Government will also work to find ways to counter the polarization often fueled by disinformation, misinformation, and dangerous conspiracy theories online, supporting an information environment that fosters healthy democratic discourse," it says, without explaining how that might happen.

"The U.S. Government, in close partnership with civil society, will address the long-term contributors that are responsible for much of today's domestic terrorism," it says, including "reducing and protecting Americans from racial, ethnic, and religious hatred, and stemming the flow of firearms to individuals intending to commit acts of domestic terrorism."

Many Republicans — particularly allies of former President Donald Trump — have expressed alarm at the Biden administration's focus on domestic terrorism; they say they fear it is code for targeting conservatives and right-wing activists.

Even some more moderate Republicans have qualms. Stewart Baker, a top Homeland Security lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, said the new strategy makes him "deeply uneasy," because it appears that "the administration intends to deploy the language and tools of counterterrorism against people on the far right of the U.S. political spectrum."

He added: "Those people are certainly not all innocents. Some of them have committed mass murder, killings of federal officers and the like. But it's hard to say that such violence has been the signature of an organization or, really, of more than one or two individuals whose beliefs border on mental illness. Preventing and punishing such violence is what law enforcement tools are for."

Baker argued that the counterterrorism strategies should be reserved for the "much more dangerous forms of terrorism we've seen from ISIS and Al Qaeda."

But intelligence officials say the threat to the homeland from Islamist terrorism is greatly diminished, and the Biden administration says domestic terrorism "has evolved into the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today."

And a senior administration official pointed out to reporters that the strategy mentions left-wing violence, including the 2017 shooting of Republicans at a congressional baseball practice.

He said the administration is "laser-focused on violence and the threat of violence," adding, "This is a strategy that is agnostic with respect to political ideology."

In his speech, Attorney General Garland emphasized that the Justice Department will be focusing on acts and not beliefs.

“We are focused on violence, not on ideology,” said Garland. “In America, espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful. We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment protected activities.” While referencing three right-wing attacks as examples of political violence — the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the murder of black worshippers in South Carolina in 2015 and the murder of an anti-racism protestor in Virginia in 2017 — he also invoked the left-wing attack on Congressional Republicans as an example.

Garland said that when he visited Tulsa, Oklahoma, earlier this year, he was “struck by the failure to do justice after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” in which hundreds of Blacks were killed by a white mob and the city’s “Black Wall Street” was destroyed.

“All that destruction and death, and not a single person was prosecuted for it,” said Garland. “We cannot promise that we will be able to disrupt every plot, defuse every bomb, or arrest every co-conspirator before they manage to wreak unspeakable horror. … We [can] promise that we will never again fail, as we did after Tulsa, to pursue justice.”

Pete Williams, Frank Thorp V and Julie Tsirkin contributed.