Following the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the authors of the bill say that its passage is increasingly urgent. When Durbin reintroduced the bill on Jan. 19, 2021, with Representative Brad Schneider of Illinois, he said in a statement that “the continued increase in horrific incidents of domestic terrorism and hate crimes” means Congress must act.
An email from a DOJ official reviewed by POLITICO shows that the ministry sent the memo to the Hill at 9:42 p.m. on Jan. 19 – the last day of Trump’s tenure – in response to a question from Republicans on the committee.
The Democrats on the committee saw no coincidence at this time. An aide to the Democratic committee said Durbin’s office repeatedly requested DOJ’s comments on the bill, without a response. The memo – which came two weeks after the Jan.6 attacks and criticized the legislation in blunt terms – struck a nerve.
“It’s outrageous,” the assistant said. “It really is.”
The note reflects the concerns of career officials at the Justice Ministry, according to several sources familiar with the document. And while its timeline has generated frustration, its content suggests that the legislation will face some hurdles.
“They were longtime dedicated career lawyers who took the pen and provided the inputs, and there really was no political math about it,” a DOJ career official told POLITICO, acknowledging that the timing was not ideal.
The document, titled “Informal and unofficially approved comments from the Department of Justice on HR 5602, the“ Prevention of Domestic Terrorism Act 2020 ”” is published below in its entirety. He refers to the bill by the title of its 2020 version of the House.
The document’s most serious concerns center on the requirement that the FBI share details with Congress about its domestic terrorist investigations. Sharing this information could signal criminal groups that they are under investigation, she warns, which would allow the groups to destroy evidence and threaten witnesses. He also cautions against a provision in the bill that would allow the FBI to share details of its domestic terrorism training in Congress. This would include the names of the people delivering the trainings – a move which, according to the DOJ, “could increase their risk of being targeted by the very national terrorists they train others to investigate.”
The committee aide said concerns about confidentiality were misplaced, the FBI had a long history of sharing information with Congress, and sensitive documents can be kept confidential. The assistant also stressed that the committee is open to working with the Department of Justice to change the language which may be problematic.
The DOJ document also argued that the arrangements creating new offices specializing in domestic terrorism could be “counterproductive,” and it focused on part of the legislation that would oblige the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis to set up a unit focused on domestic terrorism. The office had a unit focused on this threat years ago, but it was disbanded under the Trump administration. The DOJ document argued that such a unit would overlap with the FBI.
The memo raises new concerns over the bill’s decision to establish a national terrorism office within the Counterterrorism Section (CTS) of the National Security Division of the DOJ. The change would be “unnecessary and potentially harmful,” the document says. Lawyers in that section specialize in both domestic and international terrorism cases, and the memo argued that dividing them into two groups could hamper cooperation.
“It would also reduce the absolute number of lawyers available to assist in domestic terrorism cases. [sic] compartmentalizing our efforts, ”the document reads.
Responding to those concerns, the Democratic committee aide said the Justice Department routinely pushes back congressional efforts to change its structure and priorities. But, the aide continued, the January 6 attacks show that federal law enforcement agencies are failing to tackle the domestic terrorist threat and must make changes.
The DOJ document also says career officials there are bristling at the prospect of sending more reports to the Hill on domestic terrorism. The requirement, according to the DOJ document, “would require substantial additional resources – or a significant transfer of existing resources away from investigative activities to meet these reporting requirements.” The memo adds that it creates “the risk that the public and the courts will perceive undue political and Congressional influence over law enforcement and litigation decisions.”
The committee aide responded to those concerns, noting that demanding more details from the DOJ on the domestic terrorist threat is well within the purview of Congress – and arguing that the DOJ has failed for years of fighting sufficiently against the growing problem.
The DOJ and other federal agencies regularly intervene when lawmakers draft legislation. The Biden administration is conducting a 100-day review of the domestic terrorist threat and is not expected to articulate formal positions on potential changes until it is complete.
A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment. Schneider reiterated his support for the legislation in a statement.
“Violent extremism in America has grown in scope and intensity for years, and the Jan. 6 insurgency attempt demonstrated that federal agencies have failed to effectively identify and interdict potential threats of national terrorism. “, did he declare. stay complacent. The reporting requirements in the DTPA ensure that federal law enforcement agencies improve their response to this growing threat. The bill provides the training and resources necessary to make a solid investment in the fight against violent domestic terrorists. As we work on this bill in the House, I will continue to work with the Speaker of the Senate Judiciary, Durbin, the Speaker of the House Judiciary, Nadler, and relevant agencies to ensure we pass legislation that will effectively combat domestic terrorism and ensure the safety of all Americans.
Efforts to move the bill forward come as congressional interest in combating domestic terrorism remains high. The January 6 attack shocked members and staff and literally brought the threat to their doorstep. But it has been spreading for years, and law enforcement has consistently flagged white supremacist violence as particularly deadly.
Under the Trump administration, Department of Homeland Security officials tried to get the White House to take aggressive action against the threat. But these efforts have borne very limited fruit.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, treats the threat as a top national security priority. But efforts to combat it will bring challenges, as domestic extremists enjoy constitutional protections that are not afforded to foreign terrorists.
Past efforts to sound the alarm on domestic terror have been politically strained. Early in the Obama administration, a DHS intelligence analyst released a report raising concerns about far-right extremism. Republicans in Congress protested vehemently, and senior DHS officials later apologized for the document. The controversy has signaled to counterterrorism professionals that focusing on domestic threats presents professional risks.
The Biden administration and members of Congress are now trying to transform the battleship. But DOJ officials’ concerns about the legislation suggest the process could involve serious standoff.