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Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a recently retired Army general, listens during his conformation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 19, 2021.Greg Nash / Pool via AP file

US starts playing catch-up on threat from domestic extremists

Doing so in the Trump era wasn't a realistic option, but the United States is now "finally catching up" to the threats posed by domestic extremists.


In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden spent some time highlighting some of the nation's most pressing challenges, including the "rise in political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism -- that we must confront and we will defeat."

There's reason to believe this is a genuine priority for the new administration and other leading U.S. officials, especially in the wake of last month's attack on the Capitol. NPR reported over the weekend:

As the Pentagon wrestles with concerns over right-wing extremism among service members, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has signed a memo directing commanding officers and supervisors to institute a one-day stand-down within the next 60 days to address extremism within the nation's armed forces.

Austin wrote in the memo that the stand-down is the first step in "what I believe must be a concerted effort to better educate ourselves and our people about the scope of this problem and to develop sustainable ways to eliminate the corrosive effects that extremist ideology and conduct have on the workforce."

The New York Times reported day earlier, "The Biden administration will examine if additional F.B.I. agents are needed at the bureau's field offices to address the threat of domestic violent extremism, a senior administration official said on Friday."

The day before that, new Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said his panel would do a "significant dive" into anti-government extremists in the United States, including questions surrounding radicalized groups' possible connections to foreign allies.

And two weeks before that, of course, as NBC News reported, the Biden White House announced a major initiative aimed at overhauling the government's approach to domestic terrorism, ordering intelligence agencies to conduct a "comprehensive threat assessment" into what officials say has become a pressing national security challenge.

As part of the review, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will conduct a national threat assessment in cooperation with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

The shift in focus is welcome, but just as importantly, it's long overdue. 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 NBC News 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 DHS officials.

Around the same time, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration "diverted" federal law enforcement and domestic security agencies, pressuring officials to "uncover a left-wing extremist criminal conspiracy that never materialized," even as "the threat from the far right was building ominously."

The Times' report added that the FBI, "in particular, had increasingly expressed concern about the threat from white supremacists, long the top domestic terrorism threat, and well-organized far-right extremist groups that had allied themselves with the president." Those concerns were not prioritized.

Fortunately, that's clearly changed. As David Ignatius noted in a recent column, the United States is "finally catching up" to the threats posed by domestic extremists.