The FBI is investigating some 850 cases of domestic terrorism and considers it serious and persistent threat, the FBI's Michael McGarrity told the House Committee on Homeland Security on Wednesday.
McGarrity and his fellow national security officials then went on to explain to committee members why the U.S. doesn't have an explicit law allowing the federal government to criminally charge extremists with domestic terrorism.
The federal government, law enforcement and even civil rights groups like the ACLU all consistently say that free speech rights under the First Amendment would make it problematic to define U.S. groups as terrorist organizations.
In an exchange with Democratic Congresswoman Yvette Clarke of New York, McGarrity noted that law enforcement has expanded powers when dealing with suspects linked to international terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida.
"How does it give you more latitude?" asked Clarke.
"Because they're actually designated as a terrorist organization," McGarrity responded.
"So we don't designate white supremacist organizations as terrorist organizations?" she said.
"A white supremacist organization is an ideology, it's a belief," McGarrity added. "But they're not designated as a terrorist organization."
The U.S. has designated about 60 groups as terrorist organizations. Most are Islamist, all are based abroad.
The Patriot Act does define domestic terrorism, which gives law enforcement some additional authority to investigate, but this does not include an actual criminal charge of domestic terrorism.
Debate in Congress
High-profile attacks in recent years, including mass shootings at synagogues and churches, has led to increased discussion about whether Congress should establish a domestic terrorism law.
Committee members raised the issue Wednesday, and the national security officials were quick to point out their reservations.
"I was just curious on your thoughts about Congress enacting a domestic terrorism charge," Michael McCall, a Texas Republican, said to Brad Wiegmann of the Justice Department:
"We would welcome a discussion," Wiegmann said. But he added, "designating domestic groups as domestic terrorism organizations and picking out particular groups that you say you disagree with their views and so forth is going to be highly problematic."
Law enforcement officials generally say they already have plenty of tools to prosecute extremists. The large number of FBI investigations points to both the extent of the challenge, and to the extensive resources the bureau has devoted to the issue, McGarrity said.
Last year, extremists carried out six lethal attacks that killed 17 people in this country. The year before, there were five lethal attacks that killed eight people, he noted.
Social media companies are also facing increased scrutiny for their role in providing a platform. Without naming companies, the law enforcement officials said they've seen changes that include increased reporting of potential threats, kicking people off their sites, and hiring former law enforcement officers to monitor for potential problems.
But the officials described the internet as an accelerant that speeds up radicalization. Lone wolves have online access on how to plot and carry out attacks while remaining invisible to law enforcement.
On the far right, small numbers of like-minded extremists now find it much easier to link up, the officials testified. And among Islamists, groups like ISIS may have lost the physical territory they once controlled, but their message still lives online.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Unlike many other countries, the U.S. does not have laws to charge extremists with domestic terrorism. And there's growing talk about whether that should change. On Capitol Hill today, the House Homeland Security Committee took up this topic, and NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre was watching. Welcome to the studio, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: I think some people might be surprised to hear that extremists are not charged with domestic terrorism. Why is that the case?
MYRE: So federal law essentially defines terrorism as acting on behalf of a terrorist group. And there's a list of about 60 - Islamic State, al-Qaida - but they're all foreign groups, mostly Islamists. Now, the U.S. government, law enforcement, even civil rights groups like the ACLU have always been very reluctant for the U.S. to create a list of sort of domestic terrorism groups. They point to free speech and the First Amendment and say this could be used to outlaw groups based on ideology. So a white supremacist group can espouse its ideology, but it can't act violently. That's the key line.
But there's always lawmakers who are sort of questioning this. And today at the committee hearing, we have some tape of a Democratic congresswoman, Yvette Clarke of New York, speaking with the FBI's Michael McGarrity, who is explaining the powers that are broader and a little different when it comes to foreign terror groups.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
YVETTE CLARKE: How does it give you more latitude if...
MICHAEL MCGARRITY: Because they're actually designated as a terrorist organization...
CLARKE: So we don't designate white supremacist organizations as terrorist organizations?
MCGARRITY: So a white supremacist organization is an ideology. It's...
CLARKE: But they're...
MCGARRITY: It's a belief.
CLARKE: ...They're not...
MCGARRITY: But it's not...
CLARKE: ...Designated as a terrorist organization.
MCGARRITY: We don't have designated terrorist organizations on...
CLARKE: That are domestic.
SHAPIRO: This hearing seems to show some interest in creating a domestic terrorism law. How much of a push in Congress is there for this?
MYRE: Well, we are hearing lots of talk, both in Congress and outside. It often comes in response to these high-profile cases involving the far-right more recently - shootings at synagogues and churches we've seen. And this always seems to reignite the debate. Why aren't we specifically calling this terrorism? Why aren't there terrorism-related charges? But it's really talk at this stage and not action. And every time a committee member raised it, law enforcement would sort of nudge back. Here's Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, speaking with Brad Wiegmann of the Justice Department.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICHAEL MCCAUL: And I was just curious what your thoughts would be on Congress enacting a domestic terrorism charge.
BRAD WIEGMANN: Designating domestic groups as domestic terrorist organizations and picking out particular groups that you say you disagree with their views and so forth is going to be highly problematic.
SHAPIRO: Greg, I'm thinking defining domestic terrorism has got to be challenging. Depending on how you count it, how big a problem is this issue?
MYRE: So the FBI said it's investigating 850 cases right now. So this certainly gives you a sense of the extent of the problem and how - the resources they're devoting to it. But a key point - these would not be prosecuted as terrorism cases. A definition of domestic terrorism exists in the Patriot Act. But in terms of actual killings and fatalities, we're talking about six deadly attacks last year, 17 people killed. So the actual number of fatalities is low.
SHAPIRO: I know there's also debate about the role of social media. And Congress is growing more critical of the social media giants. How is Congress responding on that front?
MYRE: So the law enforcement folks said that they are seeing some changes here. Social media companies are reporting threats. They're kicking people off their sites. They're more willing to meet with law enforcement. And they're even hiring a lot of former law enforcement people to look into this. So they say they are seeing a stronger response these days.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks a lot.
MYRE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.