FBI Officials Grilled on Response to White Supremacist Threats

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration has cut federal spending to tackle domestic terrorism as violent episodes of white supremacist extremism continue to play out, and House Democrats demanded answers Tuesday from FBI and Homeland Security officials about how the agencies plan to solve the problem with inadequate resources.

The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover headquarter building in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

The House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Leadership held its second hearing in as many months to discuss the growing threat of white supremacy in the United States. Tuesday’s hearing zeroed in on the federal response to a 40% rise in domestic terrorism cases since October, as reported by the FBI.

From 2008 to 2018, far right extremism was responsible for 73% of all extremist murders in the U.S., according to the FBI, whereas Islamic extremism only accounted for 23% of fatalities during that same period.

Committee chairman Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told Michael McGarrity, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, that the figures are troubling.

“Yet the FBI allocates its resources backwards, applying 80% of its field agents to stopping international terrorism while just 20% to stopping domestic terrorism, including far right and white supremacist terrorism,” Raskin said.

The FBI has said it successfully thwarted 70% of terrorist activities launched by Islamic terrorist groups or actors last year, but over 71% of white extremists still managed to commit the violent acts they were planning.

Raskin said lawmakers were puzzled not only by the numbers, but also the Trump administration’s push to rebrand a Department of Homeland Security outfit launched by the Obama administration which was tasked with beating back the scourge of extremist violence.

Last month, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced the former Office of Community Partnerships would be renamed the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention. Also changed were the definitions used by the FBI and DOJ to assess domestic terrorist threats for the last decade.

For years, the FBI and DOJ had specific categories to identify domestic terrorists: white supremacist extremists, anarchist extremists, animal rights extremists, anti-abortion extremists, black supremacist extremists, homegrown violent extremists and militia and sovereign citizen extremists.

But now, the categories are limited to just four broad sections: racially motivated extremists- which group black and white extremists together – anti-government and anti-authority extremists, animal rights extremists and the newly broadened category, abortion extremists.

“Merging white supremacist with black supremacist, who are responsible for zero extremist murders, while white extremists are response for 39% of racially motivated homicides, into a racially amalgamated category doesn’t speak to the real threat,” Raskin said, citing statistics from the Anti-Defamation League and adding that the changes were a “ham-fisted” attempt to hide the reality of white extremism. 

Pointing to the shift from anti-abortion extremists to abortion extremists, Raskin found it incredible.

“Pro-choice activists are not the ones blowing up clinics,” he said. “We can’t play word games with domestic terrorism and allow hate crimes to go drastically underreported.”

McGarrity insisted that the FBI did not look at the rise of extremist activity through the lens of race or through a particular religious or political ideology.

“We don’t work ideologies or movements, we work individuals who are using that to commit violence,” McGarrity told Illinois Democratic Representative Ayanna Pressley during the lawmaker’s line of questioning on the agency’s reported targeting of “black identity extremists.”

McGarrity insisted that the no such surveillance has existed in the 17 months he has served as assistant director and that no such designations were made to the best of his knowledge.

Lawmakers asked McGarrity to share more of his knowledge with the committee in an upcoming report detailing terrorist activities in the United States in depth.

Between the 1980s and 2005, the FBI regularly published an unclassified status report on terrorism in the U.S. Now it keeps a monthly roll of domestic and international terrorism arrests, which it reports to the House Homeland Security Committee.

But a broader report for all of the public to see is what is needed, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., told McGarrity.

McGarrity waffled in his response to Norton’s demand, saying he would like to see such a report compiled but refused to say whether it would be declassified, a break with a long-held tradition.

Calvin Shivers, deputy assistant director for the FBI’s criminal investigation unit, said the bureau will soon transition from its old uniform crime reporting system to a new platform which will detail offenses on a more “granular” level.

“So, if you had an armed robbery and a homicide, in the old system, it’s only a homicide. In the new one, you could see all of the associated crimes that have been committed,” Shivers said.

The transition will be completed “soon,” he added, and the FBI will issue a new report on the updated system as well.

“Well, I think you better transition pretty fast because your statistics are not accurate,” Representative Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said.

Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary for threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, made a case for greater investment in combating domestic extremism succinctly on Tuesday: the cost of cleaning up a terrorist attack can range from the tens of millions to hundreds of millions.

“And that doesn’t account for lives lost or permanent change,” Neumann said.

A steady, substantial investment in outreach and better reporting for law enforcement is the one of the best deterrents, she told the committee.

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