Jan 11, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Justice Department creates domestic terrorism unit

Attorney General speaking at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5.
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5. Photo: Carolyn Kaster-Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The Department of Justice is opening a new unit to investigate acts of domestic terrorism, a top national security official said during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

Why it matters: The FBI and Justice Department warned repeatedly last year that the threat of and investigations into acts of domestic terrorism have increased since 2020.

  • While there is no specific federal domestic terrorism statute, the federal government defines domestic terrorism as criminal acts dangerous to human life that appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce civilians or the policy of a government. It can also use other criminal charges when pursuing domestic terrorists.
  • Lawmakers and active and former FBI agents have called for the creation of a specific statute to make such acts a federal crime, though others have argued it would be redundant or fear it could be used to crackdown on constitutional acts of political dissent.

What they're saying: The testimony of Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general of the department's National Security Division, before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday came less than a week after the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Some lawmakers believe that was an act of terrorism and those responsible should be given additional federal terrorism charges.

  • Olsen said, based on assessments from the intelligence community, that the country faces "an elevated threat from domestic violent extremists — that is, individuals in the United States who seek to commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of domestic social or political goals.”
  • “This group of dedicated attorneys will focus on the domestic terrorism threat, helping to ensure that these cases are handled properly and effectively coordinated across the Department of Justice and across the country,” he said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) questioned Jill Sanborn, executive assistant director of the FBI's National Security Branch, if the FBI and the Justice Department are still investigating whether acts of domestic terrorism were committed during the nationwide racial justice protests in 2020.

  • Sanborn said the department and bureau have opened around 800 cases related to violence committed during the protests and have arrested more than 250 people.
  • Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked Olsen and Sanborn if the department is pursuing terrorism charges against Jan. 6 rioters. Olsen said investigations into the riot are continuing and charges will ultimately depend on the facts related to individual cases.

The big picture: In response to the increased domestic terrorism threat assessments, the Biden administration last year released the first-ever "National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism."

  • It called for more information-sharing between the government and tech sector, other nations and among domestic law enforcement agencies to in part help prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence.
  • FBI Director Christopher Wray said in March that the bureau considers the Capitol riot an act of domestic terrorism, though no defendants have been charged with violating federal terrorism statutes.

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