Domestic Terrorism Law Being Weighed by Justice Department

The Justice Department is “actively considering” whether to seek a new law that would let prosecutors bring specific charges for plotting and carrying out acts of domestic terrorism, a senior department official said.

“One of the things we’re looking at is would we need new authorities,” Brad Wiegmann, deputy assistant attorney general for the department’s national security division, said during a House hearing Thursday.

Wiegmann said the department has been successful using existing laws to fight domestic terrorism, such as bringing charges for offenses involving violations of weapons or explosives laws, hate crimes and arson. He said more than 430 arrests have been made in connection with the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. The attack was carried out by extremist supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

The FBI has warned that domestic violent extremists pose a heightened threat for carrying out attacks in the U.S. in the near future, with white supremacists being the most lethal threat.

“The question we’re really wrestling with is: Are there gaps?” Wiegmann told a House Appropriations subcommittee. “Is there some type of conduct that we can envision that we can’t cover or would it be an otherwise benefit in having something else other than what we’re having now?”

‘Cancer’ on U.S.

Currently, no U.S. law lets the government designate domestic extremists as terrorists or bring specific charges for domestic terrorism. That contrasts with laws to combat international terrorism, which allow the government to designate groups and bring charges for providing those groups with material support.

It’s a gap that some law enforcement and intelligence officials say should be closed.

“This is a cancer on our country,” said Democratic Representative Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, chairman of the subcommittee. “Right-wing extremist attacks and plots have greatly outnumbered those from all other groups combined and caused more deaths as well.”

However, opposition to creating a specific domestic terrorism law has been voiced from groups spanning the political spectrum -- from civil liberties advocates to conservatives. They contend a new law isn’t needed and could be used to violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.

The Justice Department recently took other steps to better address the threat of domestic terrorism.

In March, for example, the department directed U.S. attorney’s offices across the country to notify headquarters in Washington about investigations and cases that are related to domestic extremism, Wiegmann said. The effort is intended to ensure the department has the ability to identify and internally track investigations and prosecutions involving the threat, he said.

Terrorism ‘Exporter’

Although U.S. lawmakers have traditionally worried about foreign terrorist organizations and extremist ideologies radicalizing Americans, a senior State Department official told a different House panel Thursday that the U.S. is now seen as an “exporter.”

Foreign partners are raising concerns through diplomatic channels that Americans are exporting racially and ethnically motivated violence, John Godfrey, acting coordinator for counterterrorism at the Department of State, told House Homeland Security Committee members.

“What we’re increasingly seeing evidence of is concern about the flow going the other way,” he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.