Jun 15, 2021
Merrick Garland Announces Plan to Combat Domestic Terrorism Speech Transcript
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a new plan to combat domestic terrorism during a speech on June 15, 2021. Read the transcript of his briefing remarks here.
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Merrick Garland: (00:00)
The whole place is filled, this is good. The Great Hall is beginning to look like the Great Hall again, this is really good. Well, good morning. I’m very happy to be in the Great Hall today with representatives of the FBI, the ATF, the US Marshall service, the Executive Office for US Attorneys and with representatives of the National Security Division, the Civil Rights Division, the Criminal Division, and the Office of Justice Programs. I’m pleased to announce that the administration is today releasing the First National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, each of your components will play an important role in ensuring its success. The National Strategy is designed to coordinate and provide a principled path for the federal government’s efforts to counter the heightened domestic terrorism threat, using all available tools. It is the culmination of an effort undertaken at the president’s direction by federal agencies all across the government, from the Justice Department, to the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, State Health and Human Services, and others.
Merrick Garland: (01:11)
As part of this effort, our law enforcement and intelligence agencies examine the evolving threat that faces us today. From that base of understanding, we developed this National Strategy to guide the work of a broad set of federal actors. At the Justice Department. The Deputy Attorney General and I have already begun implementing a range of measures. Among other things, we have begun to reinvigorate the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, and we will convene that inter-agency body in the coming days and months. Attorney General Janet Reno originally created the Executive Committee in the aftermath of the 1995, Oklahoma City Bombing. Investigation of that bombing which required an enormous commitment of resources from agencies across the federal and state governments had demonstrated the importance of such a coordination mechanism.
Merrick Garland: (02:08)
Our current effort comes on the heels of another large and heinous attack, this time the January 6th assault on our nation’s capital. We have now, as we have then, an enormous task ahead to move forward as a country, to punish the perpetrators, to do it everything possible to prevent similar attacks and to do so in a manner that affirms the values on which our justice system is founded and upon which our democracy depends. The resolve and dedication with which the Justice Department has approached the investigation of the January 6th attack reflects the serious illness with which we take this assault on a mainstay of our democratic system, the peaceful transfer of power.
Merrick Garland: (03:00)
Over the 160 days since the attack, we have arrested over 480 individuals and brought hundreds of charges against those who attacked and law enforcement officers obstructed justice and use deadly and dangerous weapons to those ends. That would have not been possible without the dedication of our career prosecutors and agents, as well as the critical cooperation of ordinary Americans, who in acts large and small have shown that they are our best partners in keeping America safe. Within the very first week following the attack, members of the public took it upon themselves to submit over 100,000 pieces of digital media to the FBI. Unfortunately we know from experience that domestic terrorism and violent extremism comes in many forms.
Merrick Garland: (03:58)
Six years ago, nine black men and women were shot and killed while praying at their church in Charleston, four years ago this week and attackers shot four people at a congressional baseball practice after confirming that the players were Republicans. Two months later, a man drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters against white supremacism in Charlottesville, murdering one and injuring many more. In 2018, 11 Jewish worshipers were shot and killed at their synagogue in Pittsburgh. And two summers ago, 23 people, most of whom were Latino, were gunned down while shopping at a Walmart in El Paso. Such attacks are not only unspeakable tragedies for the victim’s loved ones, they are also a tragedy for our country, an attack on our core ideals as a society. We must not only bring our federal resources to bear, we must adopt a broader societal response to tackle the problems deeper roots.
Merrick Garland: (05:11)
This effort begins with taking a rigorous look at the problem we face. During President Biden’s first week in office he directed the administration to undertake an assessment of the domestic terrorism threat, and then to use that assessment to develop the National Strategy being released today. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies undertook that assessment in the first several weeks of this administration. In March, they concluded that domestic violent extremists posed an elevated threat to the homeland in 2021. Our experience on the ground confirms this, the number of open FBI domestic terrorism investigations this year has increased significantly. According to an unclassified summary of the March Intelligence Assessment, the two most lethal elements of the domestic violence extremist threat are racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and militia violent extremists. In the FBI’s view, the top domestic violent extremist threat comes from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.
Merrick Garland: (06:25)
The March assessment concluded that the militia violent extremist threat, which it describes as those who “take overt steps to violently resist or facilitate the overthrow of the United States government in support of their belief that the United States government is purportedly exceeding its constitutional authority” also increased last year and will almost certainly continue to be elevated throughout 2021.
Merrick Garland: (06:54)
Particularly concerning is the March assessments observation that the threat from lone offenders or small cells poses significant detection and disruption challenges because of those actor’s capacity for independent radicalization to violence, ability to mobilize discreetly and access to firearms.
Merrick Garland: (07:18)
The domestic violent extremist threat is also rapidly evolving. As FBI Director Wray has noted, we continue to observe actors driven by a diverse set of violent motivations, sometimes personalized and developed from a mix of violent ideologies. Developments in technology exacerbate the overall threat. Today, people may be drawn to social media and then to encrypted communications channels, there they may interact with like-minded people across the country and indeed the world who want to commit violent attacks. And they may then connect with others who are formulating attack plans, as well as mustering the resources, including firearms and explosives to execute them. Technology has amplified and enabled transnational elements of the threat. In earlier days, foreign terrorist groups had to board airplanes to conduct attacks on America. Now they take advantage of technology to inspire others already located in the US to violence. The same is true for domestic violent extremists who increasingly take common cause and inspiration from events and actions around the world indicating an important international dimension to this problem.
Merrick Garland: (08:43)
The man who allegedly killed one person and injured three in an April, 2019 attack on a synagogue in Poway, California, cited as inspiration an attack that took place a month before halfway across the world in Christchurch, New Zealand. That attack killed 51 people and injured dozens more at two mosques.
Merrick Garland: (09:10)
In response to these many and serious challenges the National Strategy today, seeks to confront the threat from all angles. The strategy rests on four pillars, each of which is essential to support the whole. First, our efforts to understand and share information regarding the full range of domestic terrorism threats. Second, our efforts to prevent domestic terrorists from successfully recruiting and citing and mobilizing Americans to violence. Third, our efforts to deter and disrupt domestic terrorist activity before it yields violence. And finally, the longterm issues that contribute to domestic terrorism in our country must be addressed to ensure that this threat diminishes over generations to come.
Merrick Garland: (10:00)
The National Strategy recognizes that we cannot prevent every attack. The only way to find sustainable solutions is not only to disrupt and deter, but also to address the root causes of violence. We have not waited until completion of the National Strategy to begin implementing it. At the Justice Department, for example, the FBI has increased the domestic threat information it provides to our state and local tribal and territorial partners, it’s enhancing training provided to these important partners and continues to work closely with them in our joint terrorism task forces.
Merrick Garland: (10:46)
Through the Antiterrorism Advisory Councils that we have established in every US attorney’s office across the country, we are strengthening our domestic terrorism related prosecutorial resources and expertise. Our civil rights and national security divisions are working more closely than ever in determining whether a given investigation should be handled as a hate crime, an incident of domestic terrorism or both. This will ensure that we consider all appropriate criminal offenses and that whenever we encounter domestic terrorism, we treat it for what it is.
Merrick Garland: (11:24)
Through a directive we issued earlier this year, we are ensuring that we carefully track investigations and cases with the domestic terrorism nexus and our grant making components are dedicating additional resources to helping states, localities and others focus on the threat. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, for example, has started prioritizing grants to local law enforcement agencies committed to community-based approaches to combating racially violence and domestic terrorism. And we will seek to determine whether there are any gaps in our capabilities that should, consistent with our needs and our shared values, be addressed through legislation. To support these efforts the President’s discretionary budget request for fiscal year of 2022, seeks over $100 million in additional funds for the Justice Department to address the threat of domestic violent extremism and domestic terrorism.
Merrick Garland: (12:28)
The actions that agencies are taking in support of the National Strategy are held together by several core principles. First, we are focused on violence, not on ideology. In America, espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful. We do not investigate individuals for their first amendment protected activities. In 1976, Attorney General Levi established the guidelines that form the foundation for a detailed set of rules that continue to govern the FBI’s conduct of investigations today. In doing that he made clear that “government monitoring of individuals or groups because they hold unpopular or controversial political views is intolerable in our country”. As the National Strategy makes clear safeguarding our country’s civil rights and liberties is itself a vital national security imperative. We do not prosecute people for their beliefs. Across the world, extremist or terrorist labels have at times been affixed to those perceived as political threats to the ruling order. But there is no place for partisanship in the enforcement of the law. The Justice Department will not tolerate any such abuse of authority.
Merrick Garland: (14:01)
The National Strategy explains that it is “critical that we condemn and confront domestic terrorism, regardless of the particular ideology that motivates individuals to violence”. Although we often describe violent extremist motivations by reference to different violent ideologies, the purpose of those characterizations is to help us categorize and understand motivations. That is why even as we’re here today to discuss domestic terrorism related violence, we are addressing violent crime more broadly, including through a directive to reduce violent crime that the Deputy Attorney General and I announced last month in the form of a new initiative. It is also why even as we augment our efforts against domestic terrorism, we remain relentless in our focus on international terrorism perpetrated by foreign terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Our focus as members of the Department of Justice and as a federal government is to prevent, disrupt and deter unlawful acts of violence, whatever their motive. As the National Strategy makes clear, there is no place for violence as a means of resolving political differences in our democracy.
Merrick Garland: (15:34)
The second principle is that we need not only a whole of government, but also a whole of society approach to domestic terrorism. Implementation of the National Strategy will therefore occur across the federal government and beyond. The State Department will focus on the transnational aspects of domestic terrorism, including mapping links between foreign and domestic terrorists. And with the Department of the Treasury, they will assess whether foreign organization and individuals linked to domestic terrorism can be designated as terrorists under existing authorities. The Department of Homeland Security is expanding its intelligence analysis, production and sharing. It is prioritizing relevant grant funding to support state and local partners. It’s enhancing its collaboration with community-based organizations of state and local and industry partners to address domestic terrorism threats while protecting privacy, civil rights and civil liberties. And is working to support the development of resources that enhance critical thinking and media literacy as a mechanism to strengthen resilience to misinformation and disinformation.
Merrick Garland: (16:56)
The Department of Homeland Security is also focused on community-based violence prevention programs in order to empower and revamp support to community partners who can help to prevent individuals from ever reaching the point of committing a terrorist attack. The Department of Defense will train service members on the potential targeting of current and former military members by violent extremists in order to help prevent radicalization. The Department of Health and Human Services will work with the Departments of Education, Homeland Security, and Justice, to develop a website that aggregates and publicizes information on federal resources, including grants, training, and technical assistance that can assist state and local authorities and the general public in identifying the resources they need to implement their own counter domestic terrorism programs. And those are just a few examples.
Merrick Garland: (17:56)
We have a track record of successful collaborative approaches to the challenges posed by terrorism, not just at the federal level, but also with our state and local tribal and territorial partners. The Justice Department’s first joint terrorism task force, for example, was established in New York in 1980. At the time, it was staffed with just 11 FBI investigators and 11 members of the New York City Police Department. Today, our approximately 200 joint terrorism task forces have over 4,300 officers for more than 550 local state and federal agencies who work together every day as our first line of defense against terrorist attacks. The work that we do to support and enhance the resources and capabilities of our local partners who are on the front lines of our counter-terrorism efforts is vital to our success.
Merrick Garland: (19:03)
Nearly every day, I get a briefing from the FBI director and his team. In those briefings I’m struck by the frequency with which a critical tip or lead in an investigation comes from a state or local law enforcement member or from a member of the public. The FBI reports that roughly 50% of our cases originate from tips and leads from law enforcement or private sector partners and private citizens who identify potential threats and report them to the FBI or our partners. Creating and maintaining an environment in which individuals, community groups, and others continue to come to us, depends on the extent to which we can continue to merit their trust. This includes making sure that our determinations are made free from bias, so that too must be part of our longterm approach.
Merrick Garland: (19:59)
Equally important is our work with private industry and with international partners. The National Strategy emphasizes that the government should continue to enhance the domestic terrorism related information it offers to the private sector. The technology sector is particularly important to countering terrorist abuse of internet based communication platforms to recruit, incite, plot attacks and foment hatred. Along with more than 50 other countries, the United States has joined the Christchurch Call to Action to collaborate with each other and relevant stakeholders, including tech companies, NGOs, and academics to tackle the online aspects of this threat. The Christchurch call is just one example of the many productive engagements we have had with our international partners.
Merrick Garland: (20:56)
Our third principle is that we build upon and learn from the past. A look at our past efforts to combat terrorism teaches valuable lessons about what can go right and what can go wrong. It should also give us hope about our ability to rise and adapt to the challenge. I’m personally struck by three events that occurred not far from each other at different points in the last 100 years. When I visited the Greenwood District in April of this year, where Black Wall Street once thrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was struck by the failure to do justice after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Over 1,250 homes were burned down, some 10,000 people were left homeless, businesses, schools, houses of worship, and 35 city blocks were destroyed. The number of people killed is estimated in the hundreds. All that destruction and death and not a single person was prosecuted for it.
Merrick Garland: (22:12)
Almost seventy-five years later, just over a hundred miles Southwest of Tulsa in Oklahoma City, after an attack that resulted in the deaths of 168 people, the Justice Department successfully apprehended, prosecuted, and convicted the men responsible for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. And five years ago across Oklahoma’s Northern border in Kansas federal authorities disrupted a plot to bomb an apartment complex and its mosque and to kill its residents, immigrants from Somalia, working with joint terrorism, task force partners, the government prevented the bombing, no one died and those who sought to commit it were convicted of their crimes.
Merrick Garland: (23:08)
Since the tragedy of 9/11, we have changed our intelligence community infrastructure, created national mechanisms for coordinating counter terrorism efforts across the government and disrupted and prosecuted hundreds of terrorism related offenses through a legal system that has proven resilient and just. We cannot promise that we will be able to disrupt every plot, diffuse every bomb or arrest every co-conspirator before they managed to wreak unspeakable horror, but we can promise that we will do everything in our power to prevent such tragedies. And we can further promise that we will never again fail as we did after Tulsa to pursue justice.
Merrick Garland: (24:05)
Finally, the long-term issues that contributed to domestic terrorism in America must be addressed to ensure that this threat diminishes over generations to come. To diffuse the underlying causes of domestic terrorist attacks we must promote a society that is tolerant of our differences and respectful in our disagreements. The Justice Department remains acutely aware of the continuing threat posed by international terrorist organizations, we will never take our eyes off the risk of another devastating attack by foreign terrorists. At the same time, we must respond to domestic terrorism with the same sense of purpose and dedication. Attacks by domestic terrorists are not just attacks on their immediate victims, they are attacks on all of us collectively, aimed at rending the fabric of our democratic society and driving us apart.
Merrick Garland: (25:12)
To confront the menace they pose we must understand and share information regarding the full range of threats we face. To prevent domestic terrorists from successfully recruiting, inciting and mobilizing Americans to violence we double and expand our efforts to deter and disrupt domestic terrorism activity before it yields violence and address the long-term issues that contribute to domestic terrorism in our country. The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism is a key step in our efforts. We have much work ahead. Thank you all for joining me today for the work you will do to put this strategy into action. Thank you.