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Homeland Security to review extremist threat within DHS itself

DHS failed to focus on the rise of domestic threats during the Trump era. But what about alleged extremism within the department itself?
Image: The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington in 2018.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington in 2018.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Recent research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed in a scary direction: incidents of right-wing domestic terrorism surged in the Trump era, reaching a modern high in 2020. The Biden administration has made it clear that it intends to confront the scourge in a serious way.

What wasn't obvious at the start of the year was the scope of officials' efforts.

NBC News recently reported that former Department of Homeland Security officials -- from Democratic and Republican administrations -- agreed that among the agency's recent difficulties has been a failure to focus on "the rise of domestic threats" during the Trump era. The report added, "[I]t was the four years of inadequately monitoring and communicating the rising threat of right-wing domestic extremists that ultimately led to DHS' failure to prevent" the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol, according to former department officials.

But what about the possibility of an extremist threat within the department itself? The New York Times reported overnight:

The Department of Homeland Security will undergo an internal review to root out white supremacy and extremism in its ranks as part of a larger effort to combat extremist ideology in the federal government, officials said on Monday.

"Recent events, including the January 6th attacks on the U.S. Capitol, have highlighted that domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to our country today," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a message to department employees. "As we work to safeguard the nation and our values, we must be vigilant in our efforts to identify and combat domestic violent extremism within both the broader community and our own organization. Violent extremism has no place at DHS and we will work with urgency and focus to address it."

The Times' report added that yesterday's announcement, among other things, represents "a pivot from the approach taken by President Donald J. Trump, who pressured federal agencies to divert resources to target the antifa movement and left-wing groups, even though law enforcement authorities concluded that far-right and militia violence was a more serious threat."

It's difficult to say with confidence what, if anything, the internal review will find, or where it will focus attention. That said, a Washington Post report added that congressional Democrats "have pressed DHS officials to increase scrutiny of Customs and Border Protection and of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the country's most important enforcement agencies."

What's more, the news comes against a backdrop in which other cabinet agencies are taking related steps. In response to reports of military veterans participating in the attack on the Capitol in January, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened the military chiefs and civilian secretaries of the armed forces in February "to begin intensifying the Pentagon's efforts to combat white supremacy and right-wing extremism in the ranks."

Congressional Republicans have been eager to downplay the significance of possible radicalism within the military, but Pentagon leaders are taking the matter seriously anyway.

As David Ignatius noted in a recent column, the United States is "finally catching up" to the threats posed by domestic extremists. It's about time.