With Focus On Domestic Extremists, Lawmakers Aim To Reorient National Security Agenda

Mar 29, 2021
Originally published on April 1, 2021 7:05 am

Michigan congresswoman Elissa Slotkin says the end date for America's singular focus on threats from foreign terrorists has come and gone.

"January 6, for me, kind of capped the end of the post-9/11 era," says the former CIA analyst who served in Iraq and personally briefed both George W. Bush on Barack Obama on foreign terror threats.

As chair of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, Slotkin says the Capitol attack proves combating domestic violent extremism has to be America's number one national security priority.

The second-term Democrat is now coordinating with the White House on possible executive orders to address the threat — such as new rules and regulations to make the national terrorist watch list a stronger tool in the fight against homegrown extremists. Slotkin, who recently hosted a hearing with state attorneys general on the issue, says she is also weighing whether the U.S. needs a new domestic terrorism czar who would serve in a role under the Director of National Intelligence.

It's part of a new wave of efforts that Slotkin and other Democrats say were stymied when former President Trump was in office. But with President Biden now in the White House, and growing consensus about the severity of the threat, Slotkin says badly needed action could soon become a reality.

"Unlike a year ago where our committee was really, in many ways, spitting into the wind vis-à-vis the Trump administration, we have an open door from the Biden administration, who has taken this on in a serious way," says Slotkin.

A new focus on homegrown threats

The January siege of the Capitol is forcing lawmakers and top agency heads to pivot to find out about future threats before individuals and groups with extreme views, such as violent white supremacists, try to mount new attacks.

By now, more than 300 people have been charged by federal prosecutors in connection to the riot, and about two dozen with ties to militias and right wing extremist groups face conspiracy charges.

"The Trump administration wasn't interested in dealing with this problem with the seriousness that it deserved, although you would have comments by acting secretaries that domestic terrorism is the number one terrorist threat," says Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "We didn't see that actually translate into resources and priorities."

Peters says he raised the issue repeatedly when he was the top Democrat on the committee and the GOP controlled the chamber. Fast forward to today, he says that Democrats can finally take action now that they control the White House and hold majorities in both the House and the Senate.

For some time, Peters and other Democrats have pressed to make domestic terrorism the top national security priority. And even in a mostly polarized Congress, he says there's potential to work with Republicans on a number of specific policies.

"It's clear we'll now have an opportunity to address this issue," says Peters, who plans to hold a hearing in the coming weeks focused on homegrown threats.

For example, Peters says unlike with previous Trump cabinet officials, he's in close contact with key players in the Biden administration, such as new Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

"We have to have a better understanding of what these groups are up to, who they are, how they are constituted, what's the extent of the threat," Peters says. "And that means we have to have intelligence resources that are focused on this."

A Michigan perspective

As chair of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., says the Capitol attack proves combating domestic violent extremism has to be America's number one national security priority. Above, Slotkin questions witnesses during a hearing on threats to the homeland in September 2020.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Both Peters and Slotkin bring a unique perspective to the issue as Michiganders. Their state has proven to be the canary in the coal mine, according to Slotkin.

Last year, armed protestors crowded inside Michigan's State Capitol building to protest the state's coronavirus restrictions. A few months later, several men tied to an extremist group were charged in a plot to abduct Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"We are living this in a very real way," Slotkin says. "And so it wasn't designed this way, but I think it's important that we have so many Michiganders kind of at the cutting edge of dealing with this issue."

Slotkin, Peters and other lawmakers say they are poised to craft policy to better equip agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security's intelligence arm to focus more on homegrown extremists.

And much in the same way that reviews of the 9/11 security failures prompted reforms, they want to find ways to ensure these agencies can better share intelligence with other law enforcement groups.

Finding bipartisan support

While finding bipartisan consensus has proved challenging, some key Republicans, including Ohio's Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, agree with the need for action. And along with Democrats, they say there's potential to shape new policy across the aisle.

"I think that's one where there's a lot of — I hope — there's a lot of bipartisan consensus," Portman says.

He and other lawmakers say they're moving to take action after hearing recent testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray and Mayorkas, the Homeland Security chief, who both agree now's the time to redouble efforts.

Texas Congressman Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says he's reintroducing a bill that would apply similar criminal charges to international and domestic terrorists.

"The FBI fully supports this as well. We worked very closely with them to address this issue," McCaul says. "It would give prosecutors an additional tool."

Back in the Senate, Portman and other Republicans disagree their party did not do enough to address domestic terrorism during the Trump era. For example, Portman notes the GOP was able to increase funding in some key areas to address this concern.

And now, as lawmakers in the House remain deadlocked on the creation of an outside commission to investigate Jan. 6 — similar in makeup to the 9/11 Commission — Portman notes how the Senate Homeland Security and Rules committees are working on a bipartisan probe of their own.

Portman also agrees with Democrats that ramping up a focus on domestic extremism is more than just giving federal law enforcement agencies more money. He and others say it's about coordination, too.

"The funding is one thing," Portman says, "but a lot of these groups tell me they just need to know how do you better protect."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hundreds of people have been charged by the FBI for the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6, an attack by Americans on their own seat of government. Democrats on Capitol Hill have been pressing to make domestic terrorism the top national security priority. Now they have specific policies in mind, and they say even in a mostly polarized Congress, this could be a rare issue they can work on with Republicans. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin is a former intelligence officer who was once stationed abroad. Now she has an end date for America's focus that for two decades was consumed with threats from foreign terrorists.

ELISSA SLOTKIN: January 6, for me, kind of capped the end of the post-9/11 era.

GRISALES: As chair of a House Homeland Security subpanel, Slotkin says the Capitol attack proves combating domestic violent extremism has to be the No.1 national security priority. Other key Democrats agree that the focus needs to shift to violent white supremacists and other homegrown terrorists.

GARY PETERS: We have to have a better understanding of what these groups are up to, who they are, how they are constituted.

GRISALES: That's Michigan Senator Gary Peters, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Peters and Slotkin happen to come from a state that has been a canary in the coal mine just in the last year alone.

PETERS: Armed folks in our Capitol building intimidating lawmakers; we had a plot to kidnap and kill the governor.

GRISALES: Slotkin says she's coordinating with the White House on possible executive orders, such as new rules to make the national terrorist watch list a stronger tool in the fight against these extremists. Slotkin is also weighing if the U.S. needs a domestic terrorism czar. And Congress will likely debate whether there's a need for a new broader law or a commission focused on such threats.

SLOTKIN: Unlike a year ago, where our committee was really in many ways spitting into the wind vis-a-vis the Trump administration, we have an open door from the Biden administration, who has taken this on in a serious way.

GRISALES: Democrats are also poised to craft policy to better resource agencies such as the FBI and Homeland Security and boost their intelligence sharing. They and some key Republicans also say there's potential to work on this issue from across the aisle. Members of both parties also say they're moving to act after hearing from FBI Director Christopher Wray and new Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas, who agreed now's the time to redouble efforts.

ROB PORTMAN: I think that's one where there's a lot of - I hope there's a lot of bipartisan consensus.

GRISALES: That's Ohio GOP Senator Rob Portman, the ranking member on Peters' committee. And he's not alone in those hopes. Texas Congressman Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says he's pushing a bill to apply similar charges to international and domestic terrorists.

MICHAEL MCCAUL: It would give prosecutors an additional tool.

GRISALES: Back on the Senate side, Portman and other Republicans disagree. The GOP did not do enough to address domestic terrorism. And he notes now their committee is working, a bipartisan probe of the January 6 insurrection. Portman says it's more than just giving federal law enforcement agencies more money. It's about coordination, too.

PORTMAN: The funding is one thing. But a lot of these groups tell me they just need to know how do you better protect. And how do you work with the FBI and with the local law enforcement?

GRISALES: The January 6 attack is forcing both lawmakers and top agency heads to pivot to find out about future threats before individuals and groups with extreme views try to mount attacks again.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.