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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.

Go deeper: Letter comparing parent protests to domestic terrorism triggers funding fallout

Go deeper

Momentum builds to ban lawmakers from trading stocks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some progressive Democrats and MAGA Republicans are uniting on a proposal to ban sitting lawmakers from trading individual stocks, although it's unlikely that leadership will bring the bill up for a vote.

Why it matters: Members of Congress have great power to move stock prices, and great financial incentives to do so.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: The Weather Prediction Center said in a storm summary Monday that winter storm warnings are still in effect for portions of the Central Appalachians, Ohio Valley, interior Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, while portions of the Central Appalachians and coastal New England are under high wind warnings.

Colleyville Rabbi credits survival to active-shooter training

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, one of the people taken hostage in a synagogue outside Fort Worth on Saturday, said in an interview with CBS Monday that he initially took in the man because he thought he needed shelter.

The big picture: Cytron-Walker said he spoke to the hostage taker, identified by the FBI as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram, for several minutes and made him tea before Akram took the rabbi and three other people hostage during Shabbat services for around 11 hours in Colleyville, Texas.