Domestic terrorism and hate exploded in 2020. Here’s what the Biden administration must do

By MIKE LEVINE, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — A few weeks ago, several members of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team set up a Zoom meeting with senior members of the Anti-Defamation League, the group that studies and tracks hate crimes, to hear recommendations for fighting domestic terrorism and right-wing extremism.

The weighty meeting, focused on one of the most complex threats facing America today, was initiated in the simplest of ways: The ADL requested a meeting through a form on Biden’s transition team website.

“I find it remarkable that … [they] are taking substantive time to meet with advocacy organizations like ours,” said ADL senior adviser George Selim, who participated in the meeting.

“What it says is that this issue is a priority for the incoming administration,” added Selim, one of the Department of Homeland Security’s top experts on domestic terrorism until he was sidelined in the early days of the Trump administration.

But even if such threats are a priority for the incoming team, transition officials acknowledge that when they take charge of the federal government in three weeks, the recent promise Biden made to “shut down violence and hate” will face significant challenges.

In particular, Biden and his team will be taking office as anti-government militias, neo-Nazi organizations, and far-right groups like the Proud Boys continue to reenergize, thanks in large part to social media and President Donald Trump, who they believe has been “willing to indulge some of their even more outrageous behavior,” one transition official said.

What’s more, according to the official, radical groups are now increasingly “animated” by Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen presidential election and wild theories about government efforts to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This new sense of grievance that they’re promoting among themselves combines into something that can be very dangerous,” the transition official warned, pointing to the recently-disclosed plot by more than a dozen militia members in Michigan to allegedly kidnap their state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, storm the state capitol with explosives and execute government officials if necessary.

Just last week, on Christmas Day, a 63-year-old man in Nashville, Tennessee, detonated a vehicle-borne bomb outside of an AT&T building downtown, killing himself, injuring three others, and leveling at least one building. His motives are still unclear, but the threat he posed is clear.

In fact, while the FBI was arresting fewer domestic terrorism suspects each year between 2017 and 2019, that number is expected to reach one of its highest numbers ever this year, with more than 120 such suspects charged by the U.S. government in 2020, according to recent congressional testimony from FBI director Chris Wray. And the FBI currently has more than 1,000 domestic terrorism investigations underway across the country, Wray said in September.

Earlier this year, the FBI warned in an intelligence bulletin that 2019 was the nation’s most lethal year for domestic terrorism attacks since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In 2019, domestic terrorists were responsible for at least 31 deaths, 21 of which were linked to white supremacists, the bulletin said.

“Hate didn’t start with President Trump,” but “like an antenna, he amplified the signal dramatically” and “created a climate in which conspiracies became [commonplace],” ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt, who also participated in the recent Zoom meeting with transition officials, told ABC News.

But can a Biden administration actually make a difference? What can the federal government realistically do about the growing threat?

‘We need to see a change in tone’

For Greenblatt, the first thing that’s needed is a change in tone, including a consistent condemnation of hate and bigotry. “That then sends signals to other elected officials in both parties about what’s in bounds, and what’s out of bounds,” he said.

The Trump administration “failed at this in several crucial moments,” he said. Several others who spoke with ABC News agreed, calling Trump’s comments in 2017 after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a pivotal moment, with the president saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“When you make people less ashamed to hold and espouse those kinds of views, they come out of the woodwork, and they’re more likely to be drawn to it,” a former Homeland Security official told ABC News.

In a recent address, Biden said he decided to run for president again after witnessing what unfolded in Charlottesville.

“Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the KKK coming out of the fields with torches lit — veins bulging — chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the 1930s,” Biden said. “It was hate on the march, in the open, in America.”

In fact, as part of its tone in recent years, the Trump administration has “chosen to defy the data” on domestic threats by publicly focusing on left-wing radical groups like Antifa, instead of white supremacists and anti-government ideologues “that the data show are much more prone to pushing people toward violence,” the former Homeland Security official said.

The majority of domestic terrorism investigations are focused on racially-motivated individuals, and white supremacists are “the biggest chunk of that,” Wray, the FBI director, told lawmakers in September.

A change in tone from the president is “not a sign that it’s going to stop overnight, but it’s certainly not making it worse,” Selim said.

Trump, meanwhile, has defended his tone, insisting last year that his rhetoric “brings people together.”

“The president has done quite a bit to combat this threat,” White House spokesman Kayleigh McEnany said during a White House briefing two months ago, adding that Trump “has denounced white supremacy, the KKK, and hate groups in all forms.”

Selim and others who spoke with ABC News dispute such claims, with Selim saying the Trump administration put the domestic terrorism threat “in a place that’s further than the back burner.”

‘A fresh eye,’ and a bigger investment

As Selim sees it, the Biden administration needs to clearly identify a specific government official or office to oversee federal efforts against domestic terrorism and hate — a move that has not happened yet — then it must put together a “comprehensive policy” laying out the responsibilities and expectations of each department or agency. And, finally, the administration needs to “resource to the threat” by boosting federal investment to combat the issue, he said.

That’s not just money for more FBI agents or Homeland Security officers, but also for hiring at such departments as Education and Health and Human Services, so that “all the tools of government are brought to bear, from research and analysis, to mental health, social services, economic development, law enforcement and prosecution, and [even] federal Bureau of Prisons rehabilitation,” according to Selim.

“There is a vast entity at the federal level that can and should be tapped to address the severity of the threat that we face today,” Selim said.

At the same time, Selim and others said that the U.S. government needs to expand its support to state and local authorities, especially in the form of federal grants aimed at boosting homeland security.

Potential targets need help fortifying their defenses, training to respond to incidents, violence-prone individuals need to be counseled and redirected and state and local authorities need better technologies to understand what’s happening in their areas — all needs that can be enhanced through federal grants.

Biden’s transition team has already released a “Plan for Safeguarding Faith-Based Communities,” which includes a proposal to increase security grants as “an urgent priority.”

“Existing annual funding levels for the [grant program] are plainly insufficient,” Biden’s transition team wrote in a proposal posted online. “Requests from faith-based organizations last year, according to some estimates, far outstripped the available funding of just $90 million. In the future, funding for this critical program must increase by multiples to meet the need.”

But the Biden administration must bring “a fresh eye” to such grants and rethink how it defines money well spent, one Democratic Senate aide cautioned.

According to the aide, many of the current grant programs were developed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, so the measure of success has often been rooted in “tangible things” like equipment purchases or field training exercises. But the evolving domestic terrorism threat demands investment in “a lot of non-tangible things” whose value is “hard to quantify,” such as programs for teachers or beat officers to identify potential issues early on, before someone is radicalized to violence, the aide said.

Meanwhile, one state-level law enforcement official expressed concern that in some states “money that’s been approved for homeland security” has been “held up in Washington as a political tactic,” with the Trump administration using it to protest state and local immigration policies.

“Grants are really our lifeblood,” the law enforcement official said. “When that dries up, you’re back to MacGyver with bubble gum and matchsticks.”

Focus on Facebook and Twitter

According to Greenblatt, Facebook is “the frontline of fighting hate,” because the social media giant and companies like it have “allowed extremists to exploit their platform.”

The transition official agreed that tech companies have created a sort of “virtual safe haven” for extremist groups, but he said the Trump administration — especially with sometimes baseless attacks on Facebook and others — has made it harder for the federal government to elicit cooperation from such companies.

A Biden administration will likely look for ways to build “a better channel between government and the private sector to inform,” even as it respects civil liberties and First Amendment rights, the transition official said.

“You have to be able to reduce the ability for the domestic terrorists to recruit, radicalize and organize themselves,” Selim said, offering cautious praise to Facebook and other social media companies for steps they’ve taken in the past month to “limit the amount of hate speech and vitriol that’s on their platforms,” as he put it.

Nevertheless, Greenblatt insisted there is still much more work for Facebook and other social media companies to do.

“Facebook is the most sophisticated advertising platform in the history of capitalism,” and, “We want them to police this kind of content with the same intensity that they bring to other aspects of their business.”

Facebook, meanwhile, insists it is committed to “stopping hate,” noting on its website that it has updated its policies to further address the issue, removed divisive content posted by foreign actors, and banned more than 250 white supremacist groups.

Not just a number

Greenblatt and others also said they hope the Biden administration is able to improve nationwide reporting on domestic terrorism incidents and hate crimes.

“Better reporting would give us a better picture” of what’s actually happening, Greenblatt said.

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have expressed similar concern, with even top lawmakers currently relying on non-governmental organizations like the ADL for relevant statistics related to hate-fueled violence.

A key part of the problem, according to Greenblatt, is that while federal law requires police department to report hate crimes in their jurisdictions to U.S. agencies, the relevant laws are not actually enforced by the U.S. government. So some cities don’t report what’s actually happening, he said.

Still, according to the data that the FBI has collected, violent hate crimes against people have reached record levels in recent years, with more than 4,500 such incidents in 2019 alone.

Last year, the Republican chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, successfully introduced into law a requirement that the FBI and DHS better categorize, analyze and release data related to domestic terrorism.

Peters called it “an important step” in the counterterrorism fight. But the legal provision does not compel police departments to provide more data to the U.S. government — it focuses instead on how the U.S. government handles the information it receives.

To address that, the Biden administration could require state or local authorities to provide specific data if they want to receive certain federal grants, one of the Democratic Senate aides suggested.

Whatever approach the Biden administration takes in the coming months and years, Greenblatt hopes one change is clear at the end of Biden’s first term: that white supremacists and extremist groups are “forced back to the fringe where they belong,” he said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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