Civil Liberties Worries Loom in Plan to Identify Insider Threats

  • Officials weigh implementation of new terror strategy
  • Senate Homeland leader plans action on domestic terror

Federal agencies are working to root out extremists in their ranks without encroaching on civil liberties, Biden administration officials said Wednesday while discussing a new national plan for combating domestic terrorism.

White House homeland security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall said the government recognizes the potential for an “insider threat” as domestic extremists try to recruit members of the military and law enforcement. Under the national strategy unveiled last week, the Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice departments are working to identify those individuals and improve their screening processes.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Merrick Garland, U.S. attorney general, speaks about the Biden administration’s domestic terrorism strategy at the Department of Justice on June 15, 2021.

The Office of Personnel Management and federal agencies face the “hard work” of assessing how to use screening questionnaires effectively without violating civil liberties, Sherwood-Randall said at a University of Virginia event.

“As we develop our plans and develop these programs, my closest partners right now are our Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Office and our Privacy Office,” Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary John Cohen said at a separate event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The new strategy follows a rise in attacks motivated by White supremacy or anti-government sentiments, according to a U.S. intelligence community assessment. Domestic extremists “almost certainly” will attempt violence again this year, the analysis says, spurred by factors including the “emboldening impact” of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and unfounded claims that then-President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

Garland Says Domestic Terror Focus Is Violence, Not Ideology

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee is also weighing the issue and plans to hold a hearing on domestic terrorism soon, Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said this week.

“This is a very complex problem, and it’s going to take a complex solution, but we need to get working on it,” he said in a hallway interview Tuesday. “We need to take some meaningful first steps, and we’re hoping to do that relatively quickly.”

Weighing New Tools

Cohen reiterated the Biden administration’s previous pledges that the effort to stamp out domestic terrorism will focus not on ideology but on actual violence or threats.

“Our objective in addressing domestic violence and the issue of domestic violent extremists is not to police thought,” Cohen said.

The White House’s plan focuses on improving information-sharing among agencies and levels of government, preventing recruitment and violence, and addressing underlying contributors to domestic terrorism. The administration is also seeking $100 million for the Justice and Homeland Security departments to support domestic terrorism investigations and prosecution, Sherwood-Randall said.

Domestic Terrorism Threats Elude Bipartisan Fixes in Congress

The national strategy stops short of recommending that Congress expand the executive branch’s legal authority to investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism. Sherwood-Randall said the Justice Department is leading an analysis of cases and will make a recommendation to President Joe Biden. She didn’t give a timeline for the study.

“New criminal laws, in particular, should be sought only after careful consideration of whether and how they are needed to assist the government in tackling complex, multifaceted challenges like the one posed by domestic terrorism and only while ensuring the protection of civil rights and civil liberties,” the plan says.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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