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Biden's new domestic terrorism strategy is missing a big piece

At times it's less of a blueprint and more of a composite sketch.
Image: Rioters clash with police and other security personnel at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rioters clash with police and other security personnel at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images file

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s National Security Council released a “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.” While Attorney General Merrick Garland introduced the strategy, the fact that this document was issued out of the White House, under the president’s signature, and not delegated to the departments of Justice or Homeland Security sends the right message.

Namely that this threat, as the report states, "poses a danger to Americans, our democratic society, and our national security that we must counter aggressively." In all, I think the 30-page, far-reaching plan is worth a read — both for what it says and for what it doesn’t.

The strategy, authored with significant input from government and private sector stakeholders, is right to repeatedly emphasize that countering the domestic threat isn’t solely the job of law enforcement, the government or the Big Tech social media platforms. It’s going to take a whole-of-society approach to get this right. In that vein, the plan seeks to include a host of nongovernment players. That includes, for example, educators, who can help with “ensuring that Americans receive the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all.”

There’s also an intention to invest in “policies and programs that foster civic engagement and inspire a shared commitment to American democracy.” That’s no small task in a nation where 3 in 10 Republicans believe former President Donald Trump is going to be reinstated soon.

The strategy also correctly prioritizes the need to focus on “violence and factors which contribute to it while respecting civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy protections.” In other words, we shouldn’t trample our democracy in an attempt preserve it.

Further, the strategy is firmly premised on the harsh reality that much of our domestic terror problem “means tackling racism in America.” Of course, that could be a tough sell in places like Florida, Idaho and Tennessee, where Republican lawmakers have recently passed bills to ban or constrain teaching critical race theory.

The strategy is firmly premised on the harsh reality that much of our domestic terror problem “means tackling racism in America.”

Yet, as clear as the strategy’s commitment to civil liberties is, and as strong as the language on racism appears, much of the remaining rhetoric in the report is so vague that it’s impossible to discern the road ahead. When it comes to countering the demon of domestic terrorism, the devil is in the details — and this strategy is devoid of those.

For example, there’s much talk in the plan about enhancing Americans’ capacity to be smarter consumers of media to combat conspiracy theories. The document is replete with references to “media literacy,” “digital literacy” and “critical thinking skills,” which, the authors assert, can be cultivated to “empower the American public to resist those who would use online communications platforms and other venues to recruit, radicalize and mobilize to violence.” But when 15 to 20 percent of Americans believe in QAnon’s mass delusion, the path to “digital literacy” and “critical thinking” may be paved with cannibals and Satan worshippers. The details of how this kind of counter-radicalization effort is going to happen are conspicuous in their absence.

Some of the other thoughts contained in the strategy seem like just that — thoughts, not plans. For instance, “The Department of Homeland Security will introduce a new systematic approach for utilizing pertinent external, non-governmental analysis and information that will provide enhanced situational awareness of today’s domestic terrorism threat.” Huh? Will DHS outsource social media analysis to the private sector? Will it deputize Facebook to tell it when someone is sounding particularly scary? Is this an attempt to get around existing rules about government spying on private communications? We don’t know because the details are missing. That makes this plan less of a blueprint and more of a composite sketch.

Most of all, the strategy falls far short of calling for what might be the single most effective component to countering domestic terrorism: legislation that would make it illegal, which it is currently not. And there’s where the document gets particularly contorted. The strategy devotes an entire strategic goal (1.3: Illuminate Transnational Aspects of Domestic Terrorism) to figuring out, or shall I say “illuminating,” the “international dimension” to our domestic terrorism threat by “implementing more robust information exchanges with foreign partners.”

This does need to happen. But here’s the thing: One of the major reasons cited for wanting to explore international components to our problems at home is that — wait for it — there are laws against international terrorism.

This strategy does nothing to give investigators and prosecutors what they really need.

This approach, according to the strategy document, will “allow us to bring to bear relevant authorities and tools specifically focused on international terrorism. When domestic terrorism threats become international through connectivity to foreign actors or otherwise, the full range of tools applicable to understanding international terrorism threats become potentially available, such as intelligence collection tools.”

In other words, those tools still aren’t available without the international component. This strategy does nothing to give investigators and prosecutors what they really need.

But not to worry. There’s also a whole strategic goal (3.2: Assess Potential Legislative Reforms) that tells us that DOJ is really going to spend some time thinking about whether maybe, possibly, we might need to study whether we should have some laws against domestic terrorism: “Therefore, even as we augment our approach to domestic terrorism under existing authorities, the Department of Justice is examining carefully what new authorities might be necessary and appropriate.”

Strangely, the authors imply they don’t really even know what the existing laws are:

As with the rest of this Strategy, we are ensuring that such examination is driven by the facts and informed by the analysis of the experts who can guide our understanding of both the current authorities for addressing domestic terrorism threats and the implications for civil rights and civil liberties of pursuing any changes to those authorities.

Then, and only then, the White House says, “We will, in consultation with the Congress, consider whether seeking legislative reforms is appropriate and, if so, which to pursue.”

The domestic terror threat is serious. Now we just need a strategy that’s just as serious: one that makes domestic terrorism a crime.