Congress Left Waiting for Domestic Terror Report Before Attack

  • FBI failed to submit report on domestic terrorism due in June
  • Congress scrapped new requirement in latest defense bill

Days before a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Congress scrapped a requirement in the annual defense policy bill for a domestic terrorist threat assessment that could have helped shed light on the deadly incident.

Lawmakers with oversight of national security agreed that a new report on domestic terrorism wasn’t necessary because the previous annual defense law already required such an assessment. There’s only one problem: The FBI has failed to submit the report, which was due in June, leaving lawmakers without intelligence about mounting threats.

The Jan. 6 Capitol invasion has roiled Donald Trump’s final days as president, with Democrats blaming him for inciting violence and pushing to impeach him for a second time. Lawmakers also will examine how security failures enabled rioters to force their way into the building and vandalize offices.

Several Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Jackie Speier (Calif.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.), and military veterans Ruben Gallego (Ariz.) and Jason Crow (Colo.), called the breach domestic terrorism.

“What we witnessed yesterday was carefully organized domestic terrorism,” Speier, who leads the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, said in a Jan. 7 tweet. The president “is their leader, either by design or appropriation,” she added.

Report Scrapped

Still, lawmakers agreed to drop a requirement for a domestic terrorism report that may have kept pressure on federal law enforcement to help them understand the dynamics behind the Capitol breach.

The House version of the annual defense authorization measure contained a provision that would have required the FBI director, the Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, and the director of national intelligence to report jointly on the nature and extent of the domestic terror threat and domestic terrorist groups.

The Senate’s version of the bill lacked such a provision, and negotiators on the final legislation (Public Law 116-283) agreed to drop the House requirement. Instead, conferees offered a broad rejection and rebuke of domestic terrorism.

“As articulated by the National Security Strategy, the conferees note that America should reject bigotry and oppression and will deny violent ideologies the space to take root in American communities,” lawmakers wrote in the conference report.

Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
Riot police prepare to move demonstrators away from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.

Still Waiting

The requirement for a report wasn’t necessary, partly because the fiscal 2020 defense authorization law (Public Law 116-92) already required that the FBI and DHS, together with the director of national intelligence, track, manage, and report on instances of domestic terrorism in the U.S., the conference report said. The three agencies had to produce an initial report within 180 days of the bill becoming law, but the agencies have so far failed to submit that report to Congress.

The FBI submitted one short section required by that law that focused on terminology for domestic terrorism. On Nov. 13, the FBI told Thompson, the author of the requirement, Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), and former Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) that it was working “expeditiously” to finish the second part of the report.

Thompson’s spokesman, Adam Comis, said Monday the agencies have yet to submit that report.

“This domestic terrorism attack on the Capitol will go down one of the worst security failures in our nation’s history,” Thompson, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement Jan. 7. “It was also the predictable realization of the Trump Administration’s reckless and willful ignorance of the threat posed by white supremacist extremists and other right-wing terrorists. It was well known that extremist groups, some of whom desire to foment civil war, were planning violence.”

Threat of White Supremacy

Negotiators of the 2021 defense authorization bill also wrote in the conference report that FBI Director Chris Wray told Congress in September the greatest domestic terrorist threat is White supremacists. In addition, the acting secretary of homeland security in October followed with an assessment stating that he was “particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years,” and that they “seek to force ideological change in the United States through violence, death, and destruction,” according to the conference report.

Now, the FBI is warning of plans for armed protests at all 50 state capitals and in Washington in the days leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration as president Jan. 20, according to the Associated Press.

Radicalized Troops

Lawmakers are also increasingly concerned about the radicalization of U.S. troops and veterans. The Army is investigating a psychological operations officer from Fort Bragg, N.C., who led a group of people to the rally in Washington. Ashli Babbitt, who formerly served in the Air Force, was shot and killed as she tried to enter the Speaker’s Lobby.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Rendall Brock was arrested and charged with one count of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. Brock was photographed Jan. 6 wearing a helmet and vest and holding zip ties.

Crow of Colorado has already sought assurances from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy that troops handling security for Inauguration Day are screened for possible sympathies with “domestic terrorists.”

Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is demanding that the Defense Department investigate whether troops and retirees participated in the assault on the Capitol. Duckworth is asking the defense secretary to hold them accountable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Rep. Gallego and new Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) also wrote to acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller asking that any military members who participated in the incident “should have the book thrown at them for violating their oaths and duty to the nation.”

White supremacist organizations may have enjoyed a measure of success in reaching members of the U.S. armed forces, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks White supremacy. The center cited a 2019 Military Times poll in which 36% of active-duty service members surveyed reported seeing signs of White nationalism or racist ideology in the military — a significant rise from the year before, when 22% reported witnessing such views.

“The white supremacist movement in the United States is surging and presents a distinct and present danger to this country and its institutions, including the U.S. armed forces,” Lecia Brooks, Southern Poverty Law Center chief of staff, told the House Armed Services panel in February. “Recent investigations have revealed dozens of veterans and active-duty service members who are affiliated with white supremacist activity.”

Because military members often possess unique training and capabilities, those who embrace White supremacist ideology may represent a significant threat to national security and the safety of our communities, she said.

With assistance from Shaun Courtney

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com

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

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