The Biden administration’s Department of Justice announced it would establish a specialized unit dedicated to domestic terrorism.
Testifying on Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the January 6 Capitol riot, Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen revealed the change during his opening statement before the Committee.
“The threat posed by domestic terrorism is on the rise,” Olsen said. “The number of FBI investigations over the past two years since March 2020 has more than doubled.” Olsen cited as examples the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the 2017 shooting at the Congressional Baseball game practice, and the 2015 shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Olsen also made note of the anniversary of the Capitol riot and pointed out that the DOJ has arrested more than 725 people for their involvement in the Capitol breach, including more than 300 on felony charges.
“The attacks in recent years underscore the threat that domestic terrorism continues to pose to our citizens, to law enforcement officers, to public officials, and to our democratic institutions,” Olsen continued. “Based on the assessment of the intelligence community, we face an elevated threat from domestic violent extremists.”
Olsen then outlined what that threat means in practice. He testified that domestic terrorists are motivated by a mix of ideology and personal grievances, but that the DOJ has recently “seen a growing threat from those who are motivated by racial animus as well as those who ascribe to extremist anti-government and anti-authority ideologies.” Olsen did acknowledge that the DOJ is still monitoring threats from foreign terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS as well.
“Today, investigating and prosecuting domestic violent extremists is one of our top priorities,” Olsen continued, adding that the partnership between federal prosecutors and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force is currently the front line of defense against domestic terrorism. Olsen also outlined the role of the National Security Division in coordinating counter-terrorism prosecutions, which includes a team of prosecutors trained to handle terrorism cases, both foreign and domestic.
“In addition, I have decided to establish a domestic terrorism unit to augment our existing approach,” Olsen added. “This group of dedicated attorneys will focus on the domestic terrorism threat, helping to ensure that these cases are handled properly and effectively coordinated across the Department of Justice and across the country.”
Olsen added that the National Security Division works closely with the Civil Rights Division in order to prosecute hate crimes, and uses “all of the legal tool in [its] arsenal” to prosecute domestic terrorism. Olsen closed his statement by assuring that the DOJ does not prosecute individuals based on their beliefs, but only if they commit violent crimes.
The creation of the new task force comes as new questions arise about the circumstances of the infamous letter from the National School Boards Association comparing parent disruptions at school board meetings with domestic terrorism. The Daily Wire reported Tuesday that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona may have “solicited” the letter from the NSBA, which prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to publish a memo instructing the DOJ, including Olsen’s National Security Division, to develop plans to “discourage” threats and potentially prosecute parents.
Pressed by Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley on the subject, Olsen assured him that the National Security Division was playing only an advisory role in enforcing the memo and that the memo was a low priority for the division.
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