Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism
(June 14, 2021)
7:06 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hello, everybody. This is [senior administration official]. Thank you very much for making time to talk tonight as we approach the release of the first National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism tomorrow morning.
As you’ll recall, President Biden indicated that we would be releasing this strategy in his remarks in Tulsa recently. And so what I’m going to give you tonight is a sense of how we have done this work and what the main lines of effort are in the national strategy that will be released tomorrow.
Since January 20th, the President has focused on addressing the elevated threat of domestic terrorism. And he has been equally focused on ensuring that our efforts to counter it take place within the context of upholding American civil rights and civil liberties. Those are the very freedoms that make us unique.
He has discussed this issue many times with key Cabinet members, including with Attorney General Garland, Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas, Secretary of Defense Austin, Secretary of State Blinken, and others. And he has emphasized the necessity to conduct this work in a way that never undermines those freedoms, those values, and those legal guardrails.
In order to get objective and fast at — in order to get an objective and fact-based review of the threats that we face, President Biden tasked the intelligence and law enforcement communities during his first week in office to produce a comprehensive assessment of today’s domestic violent extremist threat. The goal underpinning that assessment was to establish a factual basis about the risk that domestic terrorists pose upon which we could then formulate a strategy and an implementation plan for countering domestic terrorism.
An unclassified summary of that baseline study was released in March, and it found that domestic violent extremists, motivated by a range of ideologies, pose an elevated threat to our country in 2021, with racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists — and specifically those who espouse the superiority of the white race — and anti-government militia violent extremists posing the most lethal threat.
Further, it found that violent extremists to promote the superiority of the white race have the most persistent transnational connections and may be in frequent contact with violent extremists abroad.
However, it’s important to underscore that the study provided to us by ODNI did not find a robust nexus between domestic terrorism and foreign actors. This is largely today an inside-out problem, not an outside-in problem, although we do know that our adversaries are seeking to sow divisions in our society.
The strategy, which builds upon this fact-based assessment, seeks to organize U.S. government efforts to counter domestic terrorism into four pillars. This overarching goal is the prevention, disruption, and deterrence of domestic terrorism.
What I’ll do now is outline for you the main lines of effort in these four pillars.
The first pillar seeks to understand and analyze and share domestic-terrorism-related information. It builds directly off of the ODNI threat assessment that I described. Our goal is to enhance domestic terrorism analysis and improve information sharing throughout law enforcement at the federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial level, and where appropriate with private sector partners.
The Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has implemented a new system to methodically track domestic terrorism cases nationwide. The Department of State, as well as the intelligence and law enforcement communities, will continue to learn more from foreign partners about the international dimensions of this threat.
Pillar two involves the prevention of domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence. Drawing on the expertise of a variety of federal departments and agencies, we will work with communities to help them become more resilient to prevent individuals from ever reaching the point of committing terrorist violence. To do this, we’ll be strengthening domestic terrorism prevention resources and services.
For the first time, the Department of Homeland Security has designated domestic violent extremism as a national priority area within the Department of Homeland Security grant program. And that means that more than $77 million will be allocated to state and local and other partners to prevent, protect against, and respond to domestic violent extremism.
In addition, the Department of Defense is incorporating training for servicemembers separating or retiring from the military, who may potentially be targeted by those who seek to radicalize them.
We will work to improve public awareness of federal resources to address concerning or threatening behavior before violence occurs. And on that, I would just note that one of the things we’re talking about is the need to do something in this space, like the “See something” — “If you see something, say something” concept that has been promulgated previously by DHS. This involves creating contexts in which those who are family members or friends or co-workers know that there are pathways and avenues to raise concerns and seek help for those who they have perceived to be radicalizing and potentially radicalizing towards violence.
We will also be (inaudible) efforts to address online terrorist recruitment and mobilization to violence through increased information sharing with the technology sector and through the creation of innovative approaches to fostering digital literacy and building resilience to terrorist recruitment and mobilization.
One of the principal tools now at our disposal is our decision to join the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online. This is an international partnership between governments and technology companies that works to develop new solutions to eliminating terrorist content online while safeguarding the freedom of online expression. The previous administration had decided against participation in this important endeavor, and we determined that it was in our interest to join it and to work collaboratively with countries that share our values and the private sector in countering these pernicious developments in which online platforms are used to promote radicalization and violence.
Pillar three involves the disruption and deterrence of domestic terrorist activity. The work of federal law enforcement, as well as our state, local, Tribal, and territorial law enforcement partners, is critical to countering domestic terrorism. The U.S. government will increase support to these law enforcement partners in addressing domestic terrorism nationwide.
U.S. attorney’s offices and FBI field offices across the country have formally made domestic terrorism a top priority and are tracking comprehensively domestic-terrorism-related cases, reallocating or requesting appropriate funding and resources as needed to target the threat. That includes over $100 million in additional resources for the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security that are included in the President’s fiscal year 2022 budget to ensure that we have the analysts, investigators, prosecutors, and other personnel, and resources that we need to thwart domestic terrorism and bring domestic terrorists to justice when the law has been broken. State, local, Tribal, and territorial law enforcement will have access to increased intelligence sharing and training on domestic terrorism and associated threats as well.
Within the federal government, we have a special responsibility to ensure that we address the possibility of insider threats, especially among those who have the opportunity to be working in law enforcement or in the military. The Office of Personnel Management will consider updates to the forms used to apply for sensitive roles in the federal government that could assist investigators in identifying potential domestic terrorism threats.
The Department of Defense, Department of Justice, and Homeland Security Department are similarly pursuing efforts to ensure that domestic terrorists are not employed within our military or law enforcement ranks, and that they improve their screening and vetting processes.
Training and resources will be developed for state, local, Tribal, and territorial law enforcement partners, as well as for sensitive private sector partners, to enable them to enhance their own employee screening program and to prevent individuals, who pose domestic terrorism threats, from being placed in positions of trust.
The fourth pillar of this strategy involves confronting long-term contributors to domestic terrorism. It’s important to recognize that there are broader efforts that must be pursued in tandem to the work that we will do specifically to counter the domestic terrorism challenge. This work has to happen in parallel to the strategy to address some of the long-term drivers and enablers of domestic terrorism, including economic inequality, those who feel left behind by the 21st century economy, structural racism, and the proliferation of guns.
That is work that will be data across our administration over the years of our time in service and will be an essential contributor to the outcomes that we seek on this front.
So with that, I’m going to hand the mic over to [senior administration official] and ask if he has any additional remarks that he wants to make before we open this up to questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, thank you. I appreciate people joining and I’ll hand it back to [senior administration official] to facilitate questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. We can turn it back over to the moderator now for Q&A.
Q Hi, there. Thanks so much for having the call. Hopefully you can hear me. I wanted to — so, a couple of questions. One, you mentioned the request the Biden administration has made through the budgetary process. I mean, is this strategy basically acknowledging that the federal government does need to hire, recruit, you know, additional investigators, analysts, and prosecutors in order to really combat this issue?
Secondly, I know there was some talk earlier about potentially examining the authorities around the no-fly list and adding some extremist groups to those lists. Can you provide us an update on that as well?
And then I’m hoping you can just provide a bit more specifics in terms of the relationship with tech companies. We often hear that a lot — that the government is trying to work with social media companies. What is being done specifically?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thank you for the questions. And I’ll take them in order.
To start out, I think what the budget request, as well as the strategy document, reflects is a sense that this threat is — as the professionals and experts in our government conveyed in that March assessment and at other opportunities — is elevated. That’s their word, not mine. And that tackling it means ensuring that we do have the resources and personnel to address that elevated threat.
That, of course, can’t wait for the process of ensuring that we get additional resources, recruiting and training individuals; that is already happening. And, of course, you see manifestations of that, including in the pretty extraordinary pace and scope of work done by investigators and prosecutors in the wake of the January 6 events.
But the sense that this threat is going to remain persistent, that we will continue to step up and augment our efforts to address it, I think is captured, in part, by that budget request, by the strategy, and by the desire to ensure that FBI — as well as broader DOJ and DHS, among others — have the personnel and resources they need to tackle this threat specifically, even while addressing international terrorism and all the other threats they’re charged with protecting Americans from.
On your second question: The strategy will have a brief mention of the sort of watch-listing issue that you flagged. I’ll say that the strategy and our work under it leaves in place preexisting law and preexisting policy in this area while clarifying what its implementation means in light of the current threat environment.
Now, what I mean by that is this: When individuals who meet the existing standards — meaning, known or suspected terrorists with international connectivity — when they meet those standards, they will be considered for appropriate watch-listing, regardless of their ideology.
That’s the goal here, is being ideologically neutral. And those who pose a threat to public safety and air travel, or other forms of public safety, meet the relevant thresholds, whatever their particular political motivation, ideological motivation might be — we want to ensure we’re offering the necessary protection from the threat they might pose.
That ideological neutrality is being carried across the watch-listing enterprise while also leaving in place the sort of mechanisms for anyone who believes an error has been committed — the redress procedures available to individuals in appropriate circumstances to seek a correction if they believe one is appropriate.
Finally, you asked about tech companies, and it’s an important part of the strategy because a great deal of the relevant recruitment, radicalization, mobilization to violence does happen online. Again, that’s not me saying that; that’s the experts and professionals who assessed that in that March 2021 report assessment and continue to assess that.
So, there are a number of ways in which we’re trying to augment our efforts to get at that challenge. One is by enhancing, augmenting the information-sharing the government does with tech companies so as to facilitate their more assertive voluntary enforcement of their terms of service on their platforms to protect other users from those who might pose threats of violence.
We, as a government, see different things from what any particular tech company might see. Any particular tech company often knows its own platform very well. But the government sees things — actually, threats of violence — across platforms. They see the relationship between online recruitment, radicalization, and violence in the physical world.
And so, helping to illuminate these threats is a process that has already begun between the government and the tech sector. And it will continue, again, specifically on this issue set, given the priority we’re placing in addressing it.
The second piece of this is, as [senior administration official] mentioned, our recent endorsement of the Christchurch Call. That forum allows us to leverage other governments that share our concerns in this area, as well as our commitment to free expression online in addressing some of these challenges with tech companies, and doing so with civil society stakeholders fully integrated into the conversation.
And then the third piece I’ll flag in this area — and this gets mentioned in the strategy as well — is fostering programming that can build digital literacy and other forms of resilience to domestic terrorist recruitment online and, frankly, other forms of malicious content online that bad actors deliberately try to disseminate.
You’ve seen this in DHS’s recent call for grant proposals where they specifically invited digital literacy programming. And you’ll see other efforts in this area to try to help build that digital fitness across the (inaudible).
Q Thank you very much for doing this. The strategy mentions that the Defense Department is reviewing it and updating its definition of “prohibited extremist activities.” So we’re clear: Does that mean the Defense Department is looking into whether participating in an extremist group is grounds for separation? Because right now, simply being a member of, say, a white supremacist group is not enough to get a service member involuntarily separated.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for the good question. And, obviously, the Defense Department has really shown a lot of leadership on this, starting early in this administration, to ensure that those critical and sensitive positions — positions of trust that service members and others within the Defense Department hold — can’t be abused or exploited for the sort of nefarious purposes that domestic terrorists would like to see them exploited for.
So, as the strategy indicates, they are relooking at a number of things, and one of those is the one you rightly flag, which is how they understand — quite literally how they define “extremism” for these purposes. They are working that quite hard, both as a policy matter with the security experts and with lawyers at the Defense Department and elsewhere, to ensure they’re doing this in a way they feel ratchets up the protections but also respects expression and association protections, again, for service members and for others.
And so, I know that they will have more to say as they complete their review. But in a sense, the work — the critical work that they’re doing through their Countering Extremism Working Group is something of an implementing arm within the Defense Department for the overall U.S. government’s strategic approach that you’ll see laid out (inaudible).
Q Hey, guys. Thanks for the opportunity. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why this strategy doesn’t take a position on what may be the biggest public policy question in the domestic terrorism arena, which is whether there should be a new statute criminalizing domestic terrorism.
And then, also, could you talk about what is going to be the inevitable criticism on the right — that this strategy calls for using the tools of counterterrorism against, essentially, far-right extremists? Even though you’re saying it’s going to be ideologically neutral, we’re already hearing a lot of rhetoric from Republicans and Trump supporters who fear that that’s not the case.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first question, the President wanted his Justice Department and his new Attorney General to take a hard look at the question of whether new authorities are necessary based on facts and analysis. And so the strategy request that the Justice Department review this question and come back to him with a recommendation — based upon that, we can move forward.
But we concluded that we didn’t have the evidentiary basis yet to decide whether we wanted to proceed in that direction or whether we have sufficient authority, as they currently exist at the federal level in conjunction with possible in all 50 states, to continue as we are currently organized in the pursuit of prosecution in this arena.
And, [senior administration official], I’ll let you answer another.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, sure. Thanks for the good questions.
So, on the second: You know, we have been rigorous here in grounding this work and the work of the experts and the professionals. Their threat assessment that guided us in our strategy and policy development is — that’s part of why we ensured that Congress had that threat assessment in full when it was delivered in March, and that the public — including you all, of course — had the opportunity at least to see the unclassified executive summary, which establishes that this is a real threat, an elevated threat, in the words of those professionals, and that therefore formulating a strategy to tackle it makes sense.
And we have been rigorous not just in the crafting of the strategy, but also in its implementation, which is well underway, in remaining laser-focused on violence and the threat of violence.
This is a strategy that is agnostic as to political ideology or off the spectrum. What matters is when individuals take their political or other grievances and turn that — unacceptably, unlawfully — into violent action. That’s where it comes within the sway of — so, in the document, that’s where it becomes something that is — deemed domestic terrorism, it requires the sort of response that cannot only protect public safety, but in a sense, protect threats to our democratic integrity.
You’ll notice, in the document, that when we list some of the recent incidents that speak to the elevated threat level, that they come across the political spectrum. We acknowledge the shooting at the Congressional baseball game, the attack on police officers in Dallas, just as we acknowledge the attack in Charlottesville and the attack on the Capitol on January 6th.
So, it’s not motivating politics or ideology that matters for us or, more importantly, for the strategy and implementation; it’s when political grievances become acts of violence. And we remain laser-focused on that, and that’s how we’ll continue.
Q Hey, guys, thanks very much. Two questions — one on the Pentagon. You talked about how the Pentagon is going to be training for those departing the military. The services have resisted some of that training and some of that acknowledgement that there’s a threat. Can you talk about whether you think this strategy overcomes that resistance, or you think that resistance is lowering?
And then to zoom out a little bit and talk about a question that the Europeans are asking about the current trip: A lot of experts in this space say that, you know, there have been people focused on this issue for years, and they just haven’t had the political top cover in the last few years. You’re obviously trying to provide that political top cover now. What guarantee can you try and make that that political top cover will outlast these four years? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first question: Look, Secretary Austin has made this a priority, and as you know, the Pentagon is one of the most disciplined and hierarchical organizations in the world.
And so, the efforts to pursue this in a rigorous way, to develop a plan that will enable the Department of Defense to ensure that if people are both, as they are recruited into the military and as they leave the military, and within those two bounds, when they’re in the military — that they are people who are worthy of the role of a military member if — and to, when they leave, are not preyed upon — is something that we trust that all those who are leading the services will support, if that’s the direction that the Secretary of Defense asked them to move.
And on the second: Look, we have based this strategy on hard evidence. And what we will continue to do, as I indicated at the outset, is provide the facts, as they’re developed, to our country, to American citizens, to understand what we’re up against here and to do our work to counter, as [senior administration official] just said, those who seek to use violence to achieve their political ends.
And that is going to be a project for us for the foreseeable future and in which we are investing many agencies of the government and resourcing them appropriately and asking our citizens to participate. Because, ultimately, this is really about homeland security being a responsibility of each citizen of our country to help us achieve.
And so, we will do our very best in the years that we have in service and seek to embed this pattern of action and behavior in a way that will create conditions of public safety and, at the same time, ensure that people can express their political views as is appropriate in a democracy.
Q Hi, thanks. On page 18 of the strategy document, it talks about finding ways to identify and analyze financial activity associated with domestic terrorists, including those through existing provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act. I’m curious what specifically would you be doing with the Bank Secrecy Act.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for the question. And, look, the Treasury Department has, under the Bank Secrecy Act and otherwise, some important authorities that help them be a part of the overall U.S. government approach to understanding illicit financial flows. That’s something we have tried to bring to bear with respect to counterterrorism, generally. It’s been a significant part of how we’ve made some progress in addressing international terrorist threats, like al Qaeda and ISIS and others since 9/11.
And as we ensure that we are bringing the full suite of tools — the appropriate ones — to bear on the domestic terrorism problem, there is, of course, the possibility that there may be those sorts of financial flows be identified, and once identified, the possibility they can be disrupted.
So that is, as with a number of pieces of this strategy, something whose full impact, I think, we’ll see as we move forward with implementation. (Inaudible) emphasize implementation is well underway, but in some ways, it takes time to see which pieces pay the biggest dividends.
But I think what that is an acknowledgement of in the strategy is the role that Treasury can help play in identifying when funds are being used in illicit ways to support this, ultimately, unlawful activity. And to the extent that’s determined to be happening, they and law enforcement have various tools at their disposal to clamp down on that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I want to thank you all for joining us. We have to hop off now. Attorney General Garland will speak tomorrow morning at 11:00 a.m. I hope you’ll be able to tune into his speech. And other members of the Cabinet will also be participating in various events.
So, thanks again, and look forward to talking soon.
7:35 P.M. EDT