Garland Calls Capitol Attack Top Threat to U.S. Democracy

The deadly Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was the most dangerous threat to American democracy in decades, eclipsing other recent acts of violence such as attacks on courthouses and police stations last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland said.

“It’s fair to say that in my career as a judge and in law enforcement I have not seen a more dangerous threat to democracy than the invasion of the Capitol,” Garland told the Senate Appropriations Committee during a hearing Wednesday on domestic terrorism.

Garland’s defense of the Biden’s administration focus on investigating the Jan. 6 riot comes as some congressional Republicans and supporters of former President Donald Trump have sought to equate the attack with violence carried out last summer at government buildings by left-wing activists in cities like Portland, Oregon.

“What is the actual difference between these acts besides the groups carrying them out?” asked Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the panel. “How can you assure this committee and the American people that the Department of Justice under your leadership is pursuing all who commit such acts with equal vigor?”

Garland said the Justice Department seeks to prosecute all crimes regardless of ideology but that it also has to set priorities.

‘Most Dangerous Threat’

“There has to be a hierarchy of things that we prioritize,” Garland said. “This would be the one we prioritize because it is the most dangerous threat to our democracy. But that does not mean that we don’t focus on other threats and that we don’t focus on other crimes. We do, and we don’t care about the ideology behind them.”

The Justice Department is leading one of the largest and most complex investigations in its history into the Capitol attack, with more than 400 individuals charged so far.

Garland testified alongside Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The hearing comes as the Biden administration prepares to announce findings and recommendations of a review into domestic terrorism led by the National Security Council.

Garland and Mayorkas both said they are working to vet personnel inside their departments for any extremist links, and they agreed that White supremacists pose the greatest lethal threat within the U.S., surpassing foreign-linked terrorism. That assessment is based on FBI conclusions and dates back to the Trump administration.

The continuing effort to undermine domestic extremists includes collaborating with foreign allies to find connections between extremists in the U.S. with those abroad, as well as sharing information with technology and social media companies to address the spread of violent radical activity online, Garland said in his prepared testimony for the hearing.

The Homeland Security Department is taking a new approach to addressing domestic terrorism, Mayorkas said during the hearing.

The department’s approach includes expanding an analytic focus to review how extremists exploit social media and other online platforms, and the link between online activities and real-world violence, Mayorkas said.

“The threats posed by domestic violent extremism are often fueled by false narratives, conspiracy theories, and extremist rhetoric spread through social media and other online platforms,” he said.

The NSC-led review is expected to result in a series of changes across agencies to better collect and share information about terrorist threats and more effectively coordinate responses and resources, including with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Federal Bureau of Investigation and State Department.

The idea of further involving intelligence agencies in combating domestic terrorism has provoked sharp criticism from some Republicans, however, renewing past complaints from Trump and some of his supporters that they’re the targets of a “deep state” bureaucracy.

Some lawmakers also are pushing for legislation to establish an independent, Sept. 11-style panel to investigate the Capitol attack, which occurred as Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory in the 2020 presidential election.

The Justice Department and FBI have warned that domestic extremists pose a heightened threat for carrying out attacks in the near future. The greatest peril comes from those motivated by racial biases or anti-government sentiment, according to the FBI.

The Justice Department is also evaluating whether to seek a new law that would allow prosecutors to bring specific charges for plotting and carrying out acts of domestic terrorism. However, no decision has been reached and the terrorism review isn’t expected to include a recommendation for new legislation.

Though it wasn’t the subject of the hearing, Mayorkas was pressed about the risk to the U.S. from undocumented immigrants coming across the southern border with Mexico. He said there is “fairly scant evidence” that international extremists are entering the country there. And he said focusing on extremism and border security aren’t mutually exclusive.

“We can secure our border, and we can effectively combat the rise of domestic violent extremism,” Mayorkas said. “And I want to make sure that we draw a clear line between those two. Even though we can address both, those are two very, very different challenges.”

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