On Capitol Hill last week, an FBI Director provided a troubling update regarding America’s national security. Robert Muller’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence regarding his tenure as Special Counsel was not the source of this update, however. It was Christopher Wray, the current Director, who provided a stark warning about the state of terrorism in the United States and who, unfortunately, found his vital message largely eclipsed by his predecessor’s appearance.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Director Wray stated that the FBI had recorded nearly 100 arrests of domestic terrorists (individuals motivated by predominantly domestic ideological convictions, like the neo-Confederate views motivating the 2015 Charleston, SC attack) in the past nine months. Adding valuable context, a FBI spokeswoman later indicated that the FBI is aware of 90 domestic terrorism arrests and 100 arrests linked to international terrorism (individuals whose ideological allegiances are predominantly foreign in nature, like the Islamic State or al-Qa‘ida) over the same time frame. Capping this segment of his testimony, Director Wray stated: “Needless to say, we take domestic terrorism or hate crimes, regardless of ideology, extremely seriously.”
Current trends – like the FBI’s monitoring of arrests – indicate that domestic terrorism is nearly as dangerous, and potentially more dangerous to Americans, as international terrorism. However, the Executive Branch is simply not organized to challenge domestic terrorism in the way that post-9/11 reforms harmonized the government’s approach to international terrorism. In short, Director Wray’s claim is partly rhetorical, since the tools to be any more organized or aggressive against domestic terrorism at the federal level do not yet exist.
The past three administrations have varied greatly in their approach to international terrorism, and some of these efforts have been misguided, others were abject failures, and even certain programs were likely unlawful. This mixed record acknowledged, the re-organization of the intelligence community that led to innovations like the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the employment of State Department and Department of the Treasury authorities against terrorist groups and individuals overseas, and consistent efforts within the intelligence community, law enforcement, and the military to prioritize pressing terrorist threats have achieved real successes. While the world remains violent, a 9/11-style attack against the United States is dramatically more difficult to initiate now that the federal government operates differently.
No such architecture exists for domestic terrorism. NCTC, despite its name, is organized to monitor international terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security is oriented towards the country’s borders and points of entry. Perhaps wisely, the United States does not have a domestic intelligence service to monitor domestic terrorists, rather a patchwork of law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local level are collectively responsible. Continuing, there is no “Domestic Terrorist Organization” designation available to policymakers to enhance efforts against the Atomwaffen Division or violent adherents of QAnon, for example.
Despite domestic terrorism – especially white nationalist motivated terrorism – being an active and serious threat to the country, it is unlikely that Congress will seek to re-organize the federal government in response or encourage large scale re-prioritization across law enforcement. Legislative will, fair concerns over civil liberties, and base domestic political realities will leave men like Director Wray attempting to prevent serious violence perpetrated against the American public with a limited toolkit. To again reference his testimony, “extremely seriously” must be qualified with an expectation that Congress will provide little additional support to aid his efforts. Unlike what Robert Mueller witnessed in the days following 9/11, the current Director’s threat assessment will not be matched with an equivalent policy response.