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Senators demand intelligence agencies produce months-late report on domestic terrorism

Posted February 12, 2021 5:49 p.m. EST

— Senators are pushing the Biden administration to produce a report detailing the threat posed by domestic extremists after relevant agencies ignored their obligation to do so under President Donald Trump.

Sens. Gary Peters of Michigan and Rob Portman of Ohio, respectively the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, are calling on the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to produce a report on domestic terrorism by March 1, according to a letter obtained by CNN. Trump administration officials blew past a June 2020 deadline for the report.

The bipartisan letter and others like it that have been sent by lawmakers following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol highlight the belief that the Trump White House not only failed to direct law enforcement to prioritize domestic terrorism and White supremacy, but also neglected warnings from top officials who were sounding the alarm years before the January 6 riot.

It also underscores a broader effort by lawmakers to reclaim oversight authority of agencies that regularly dismissed requests from Congress to provide comprehensive national security assessments under Trump due to explicit and implicit political pressure from the White House.

"DHS Secretaries (John) Kelly, (Kirstjen) Nielsen, & (Kevin) McAleenan pushed the White House to address domestic terrorism during their tenures, but WH was uninterested," former DHS Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Elizabeth Neumann wrote on Twitter on Friday, referring to the Trump White House. "Despite the obvious political challenges during the Trump Admin, the civil servants that work terrorism issues persevered & kept their programs from being 'tainted.' Programs based on solid research / behavioral science and tested in the field."

While the report cited in the letter from Peters and Portman is unlikely on its own to provide a complete picture of the domestic extremism threat, it does provide an opportunity for lawmakers to take stock of what career officials across several agencies have learned about the issue despite encountering political roadblocks during the Trump years.

Reset on procedures

The request is part of a renewed push by Capitol Hill to get President Joe Biden to meet an obligation that Trump ignored despite the fact that it is required under law.

"This report must include a strategic intelligence assessment of domestic terrorism in the United States, a description of certain activities of the Federal government to address this threat, information on the FBI's threat prioritization nationally and in each FBI field office, and comprehensive qualitative and quantitative data on all attempted and completed incidents of domestic terrorism," the letter says.

"The January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol highlighted the urgent threat of rising domestic violent extremist and anti-government violence," the letter says. "Yet Congress and the American public lack reliable government data regarding the scope and extent of the threat, as well as a clear and thorough understanding of how the Federal government is responding."

Asked about the request Friday, the FBI told CNN in a statement that the first part of the report in question was released in November and the second part is being finalized in coordination with interagency partners.

"The National Defense Authorization Act requires the FBI and DHS, in consultation with ODNI, to produce a joint, two-part report which includes definitions of domestic terrorism and comprehensive data about the threat, to include historical information going back many years. Due to operational tempo and the impact of COVID-19, Part 2 is being finalized in coordination with our interagency partners. Part 1 of the report was released on November 12, 2020," the FBI said in the statement.

A spokesperson for ODNI told CNN the agency has received the letter and will respond accordingly.

Review underway

Biden recently ordered Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to lead a multi-agency review of domestic terrorism, including a comprehensive threat assessment that officials say was not done during the Trump administration.

That review is ongoing and several congressional committees are also conducting their own investigations into domestic extremism.

Last month, DHS issued a stark threat bulletin due to the ongoing potential for violence in the wake of the presidential inauguration, including concerns that domestic extremists may be emboldened by the attack on the US Capitol.

"Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence," the bulletin reads.

Sources told CNN that the bulletin underscores how the Biden administration is prioritizing domestic extremism in a way that the Trump administration did not.

In October, DHS said White supremacist extremists will remain the deadliest domestic terror threat to the United States, according to the first annual homeland threat assessment, which detailed a range of threats.

Since 2018, White supremacists have conducted more lethal attacks in the US than any other domestic extremist movement, demonstrating a "longstanding intent" to target racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, politicians and those they believe promote multiculturalism and globalization, the report said.

Last September, a DHS whistleblower, Brian Murphy, accused top Trump political appointees at the department of trying to alter a report to downplay the threat posed by White supremacists and instead emphasize the role of leftist groups due to concerns about how the initial language would reflect on the President, according to a complaint first reported by CNN.

Murphy said he refused to modify intelligence assessments so that they more closely aligned with Trump's rhetoric about Antifa and other groups. He also refused to alter the draft versions of a report warning of the threat posed by White supremacists, the complaint states.

CNN has reached out to DHS for comment.

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