Domestic Terrorism Often Eludes FBI’s Efforts to Find and Stop it

April 30, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
The FBI is looking for information about the pipe bombs at the RNC and DNC that were placed around the time of the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Courtesy FBI)

WASHINGTON — The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol came back to haunt Congress Thursday as lawmakers sifted through ideas to ensure it never happens again.

The riot was the immediate subject of a House subcommittee hearing but domestic terrorism was the greater concern.

“This is a growing and metastasizing blight on our society,” Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., said during the hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies.

“The attack on the Capitol took violence to a level that should not be downplayed,” said Cartwright, who chairs the subcommittee.

The attack was carried out by extremist supporters of former President Donald Trump.

The FBI and the Justice Department are centralizing information-gathering on potential terrorism in response to the kind of threat the riot represents to domestic tranquility, according to expert witnesses at the hearing.

The question hanging over their testimony was how federal law enforcement can manage the threats without trampling the civil liberties of private citizens.

“We prosecute people for their criminal acts, not for their beliefs or associations,” said Brad Wiegmann, a Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general.

More than 430 people have been arrested so far for participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The Justice Department expects to charge at least 100 more of the accused rioters, federal prosecutors said in court filings last week that asked a judge for deadline extensions.

“The investigation and prosecution of the Capitol attack will likely be one of the largest in American history, both in terms of the number of defendants prosecuted and the nature and volume of the evidence,” the court filings said.

Wiegmann told the subcommittee that the Justice Department is considering a request to Congress for broader legal authority to charge persons who plot domestic terrorism.

Prosecutors typically charge them for hate crimes, arson and violations of weapons laws. No current U.S. law allows prosecutions specifically for domestic terrorism.

“The question we’re really wrestling with is, are there gaps,” Wiegmann said. “Is there some type of conduct that we can envision that we can’t cover or would it be an otherwise benefit in having something else other than what we’re having now?”

Attorneys for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists and other persons associated with extremist groups are warning about overreach of prosecutors that could trample accused persons’ constitutional rights.

Charges against many of the persons arrested are being dropped after the Justice Department was unable to prove the defendants participated in any violence. Some of them were seen on video in or near the Capitol but they said they merely observed what others were doing.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., appeared to refer to the legal dilemma that balances privacy and free speech against risks of terrorism when he said, “I’ve always supported peaceful protest and the right to peaceful protest.”

However, he added, “America is governed by laws and not by violence.”

Jill Sanborn, an FBI assistant director who handles national security cases, described the problems faced by investigators in trying to identify terrorism risks.

“There’s definitely a challenge for us in trying to filter through all the noise out there,” she said about words and actions that could represent brewing violence.

In some cases, there is no warning as political opinions of extremists progress into a rampage.

“The greatest threat we face is the threat by lone actors,” Sanborn said.

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