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Senators propose "Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act"

In September 2012, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), acting as chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, held a Congressional hearing on the threat posed by violent right-wing extremists after a white supremacist murdered six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) , the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and non-government organizations’ experts testified about the serious threat posed by violent domestic extremists. Five years later, some of the recommendations stemming from this hearing are finally being acted upon.

On November 17, 2017, Durbin introduced new legislation to combat the growing threat posed by white supremacists, sovereign citizens, anti-government extremists, and other violent right-wing radicals. The bill also authorized the necessary appropriations to fund this effort.

The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2017 (S-2148)  is cosponsored by twelve other U.S. Senators including Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patty Murray (D-WA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Brian Schatz (D-HI).

In his official press release, Durbin said, “Violent white supremacist groups and other right-wing extremists are the most significant domestic terror threat facing the United States today.” He further stated, “Too often when violent tragedy strikes our people, the conversation only shifts to terrorism if the perpetrator is from another country. Our own federal law enforcement agencies recognize that terrorism is on the rise in our own backyard, and it’s time that Congress takes steps to address it.”

Durbin cites numerous fatal acts of domestic terrorism as justification for proposing the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. The list of fatal attacks include the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; the 2014 shootings at Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas; the 2014 ambush of police officers in Las Vegas, Nevada; the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina; the 2015 Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs, Colorado; among other deadly incidents attributed to violent white supremacists in 2017.

Citing a 2009 DHS report warning of right-wing extremist radicalization and recruitment in the U.S., Senate Bill S-2148 is designed to enhance and expand the federal government’s counterterrorism efforts to prevent acts of domestic terrorism. It proposes requirements for the DHS, DOJ, and FBI to monitor, analyze, investigate, and prosecute domestic terrorists. These agencies are authorized to provide the necessary training and resources to assist state, local, and tribal law enforcement in addressing such threats. It also requests that DHS, DOJ, and the FBI organize and staff “dedicated domestic terrorism offices” within their respective agencies.

The bill specifically authorizes the creation of a Domestic Terrorism Unit within DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis. This unit will be responsible for monitoring and analyzing domestic terrorism activity. It had been disbanded in 2009. It also authorizes the creation of a Domestic Terrorism Office within the DOJ responsible for investigating and prosecuting incidents of domestic terrorism. This office will be headed by the Domestic Terrorism Counsel, which was recently reconstituted in October 2015 by then-DOJ Attorney General Eric Holder. The FBI’s already existing Domestic Terrorism Section will continue its mission of investigating domestic terrorism activity.

Of particular interest, Senate Bill S-2148 further requires a joint annual report on domestic terrorism. The FBI had previously produced such an annual report, but discontinued its publication in 2005. The renewed annual report should be unclassified (with a classified appendix, if necessary) and releasable to the public. It requests that the DHS Secretary, DOJ Attorney General, and FBI Director combine their efforts to produce this joint publication. The annual report is written for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, the House Committee on Homeland Security, the Select Committee on Intelligence in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.

The joint annual report will provide an analysis of incidents and attempted incidents of domestic terrorism that occurred within the U.S. during the preceding year. The report will also include a quantitative analysis of domestic terrorism incidents including a breakdown of the type of extremists responsible, the number of deaths/injuries, and a detailed summary. Further, it will include analysis on the number of FBI assessments completed, FBI preliminary and full investigations initiated and federal domestic terrorism-related arrests, indictments, prosecutions, and convictions.

In addition, it authorizes the FBI to report on the threat posed by white supremacists, “including white supremacist infiltration and recruitment of law enforcement officers and members of the Armed Forces.” The legislation also requests that the FBI reports on the number of domestic terrorism-related weapons recoveries, including the number of each type of weapon and the number of weapons seized from each type of extremist movement. Lastly, the DHS, DOJ, and FBI are directed to focus their limited resources on the most significant domestic terrorist threats as determined by the number of domestic terrorism-related incidents outlined in the joint report.

If passed into law, these recommendations will be the first step in strengthening and codifying the federal government’s efforts in combatting and, hopefully, thwarting acts of domestic terrorism. Senate Bill S-2148 has been endorsed by leading civil rights organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Arab American Institute, Muslim Advocates and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Photo credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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