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Biden, Garland Taking Quiet But Firm Steps Against White Nationalist Violence

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos

Quietly and with little fanfare, the Biden administration has been taking all the right steps early in its tenure in confronting the threat of right-wing extremist violence and its spread—a mandate handed to Biden by the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Rather than take a high-profile approach that might backfire, Biden's Justice Department and FBI, and to a lesser extent the Department of Homeland Security, have wisely taken a low-key route that emphasizes competence and effectiveness, as a New York Times piece explored last weekend.

But make no mistake, the Biden administration is taking the problem seriously. Indictments from the insurrection now number more than 300, prosecutors are establishing evidence of a clear chain of conspiracy leading to the attack focusing on Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and arrests for criminal behavior by far-right extremists unrelated to the attack are occurring as well. It's a welcome change from the malign neglect of the matter by Donald Trump and his administration.

As we have argued consistently since the insurrection, an effective approach to right-wing domestic terrorism necessarily will eschew the trappings of the post-9/11 "war on terror"—that is, instead of creating new laws and giving law enforcement unneeded new powers, the phenomenon can most effectively be attacked by smartly deploying law enforcement to enforce the many laws already on the books.

According to Shaun Courtney at Bloomberg, that is in fact how the Biden administration has tackled the issue so far. It also appears to be the thinking of key lawmakers in Congress.

"There's no shortage of laws on the books to deal with violent extremist groups and the actions that they take. My sense is right now it's primarily resource allocation and prioritization," said Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"The whole idea of having more robust oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and their intelligence operations, I think is a critical first step," Peters said.

Claiming that law enforcement lacks the legal authority necessary to counter domestic terrorism "gives cover to the idea that somehow, 'Oh if you only had the tools, we would have actually been targeting this threat,' " Becky Monroe, a policy director in the Justice Department's civil rights division under President Barack Obama, told Courtney.

The Times story noted that several concrete steps have already taken place. DHS has opened up a review of how it handles domestic extremism—needed, in no small part, because of the department's well-documented evisceration of its intelligence-gathering capacity for domestic right-wing terrorism. For the first time in its history, DHS has designated domestic extremism as a "national priority area," which requires that 7.5 percent of the billions in grant funds be devoted to combating it.

Biden also has bolstered a National Security Council team devoted to domestic extremism, one that had been depleted under Trump. Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, has said the Justice Department would also make domestic extremism a priority.

A mid-March intelligence assessment commissioned by Biden concluded that far-right extremists—particularly those animated by racial and ethnic grievances—pose the most lethal domestic-terrorism threat to Americans for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, militia-like organizations pose an ongoing threat primarily to government and law-enforcement personnel.

The report noted that the militia-extremist-group threat increased last year and is expected to continue to heighten throughout 2021. That's due to "sociopolitical factors" motivating such groups, "such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence."

Former DHS counterterrorism chief Elizabeth Neumann told NPR's Terry Gross that such groups "basically declared war on the government and stated that their aim was to overthrow the U.S. government, to establish a white nation."

This, she said, is why the Capitol insurrection has actually had the effect of inflaming and encouraging longtime far-right radicals, many of whom had grown discouraged over the years at the prospect of effectively attacking the American government to overthrow it successfully. All of them have, after all, long clung to the fantasy of having a "race war" or "civil war" to overthrow the government. January 6 had the look of their fantasy becoming reality.

As Neumann explained:

So it's not like they destroyed the Capitol. It's not like they disrupted the transition of power. But it was seen as kind of almost the starting point, perhaps, of the civil war that they have believed in their mythology was going to come at some point, a race war. And so you see on online chat rooms that you have groups using this as a recruitment tactic, that it's finally happening, if—you know, there's going to be this race war, that we're finally going to be able to achieve our aim of ridding the country of all of these people we don't think should be here, establishing our own country. And any time you have, for an extremist group or a terrorist group, something that symbolic, it affects and helps them with their recruitment, with their morale. So these—certainly, on the white supremacist side, we see an emboldening effect for those groups.

More than emboldening extremists, the post-January 6 environment has become ripe for shifting boundaries among them and the formations of new alliances and configurations. The resulting reconfiguration will affect the nature of the far-right insurgency that declared war on American democracy on January 6.

"There is a concern then on the other side of January 6, you have groups interconnected in a way that they weren't before," Neumann told Gross. "We heard in the news on Wednesday that prosecutors have found interconnections between Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and Three Percenters. I think we're going to see more of this to come as the investigation unfurls. But the knowledge that they had been coordinating in the weeks up to January 6 is rather significant. These are not groups that necessarily share the same ideology."

FBI Agents And Oregon Cops Got Cozy With Violent Proud Boys Leader

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos

While the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol insurrection made clear to everyone what reporters and other observers had long been saying—namely, that American law enforcement had treated the Proud Boys and other far-right street-brawling cohorts with kid gloves—the details of the relationship between those groups and authorities are still murky. But the attorney for Joe Biggs, one of the Proud Boys currently facing conspiracy charges in the January 6 siege, helped shed some light on that matter this week.

The FBI and other police agencies routinely sought Biggs' advice, according to a Monday court filing by John Hull, Biggs' attorney. The revelation raises questions not just for federal authorities now investigating some of these men, but for law enforcement agencies in Oregon and elsewhere who, according to Hull, had similar arrangements with Biggs.

After an FBI agent contacted Biggs in late July 2020 and he met with two agents at a restaurant, the filing claims, Biggs agreed to feed the agency information about antifascist activists, both in Florida and elsewhere. Hull, who is petitioning a judge to keep Biggs out of jail pending trial, said the agents wanted to know what he was "seeing on the ground." Afterward, an agent asked follow-up questions in a series of phone calls, and Biggs answered them.

"They spoke often," added Hull.

Biggs enjoyed similar arrangements with law enforcement officials in Oregon, Hull claimed. He routinely spoke with local and federal law enforcement officials in Portland about rallies he was organizing there in 2019 and 2020, and sometimes received "cautionary" phone calls from FBI agents.

"The FBI has known about his political commentary and role in planning events and counter-protests in Portland and other cities since at least July 2020 and arguably benefitted from that knowledge in efforts to gather intelligence about Antifa in Florida and Antifa networks operating across the United States," Hull's filing reads.

In August 2019, Biggs organized a large demonstration at Portland's waterfront attracting hundreds of Proud Boys from around the nation, vowing violence beforehand and urging his Twitter followers: "Get a gun. Get ammo. Get your gun license. Get training. Practice as much as you can and be ready because the left isn't playing anymore and neither should we."

Yet on the day of the march, Portland police coordinated with Proud Boys organizers to keep counterprotesters from interfering and provided escorts for separate marching contingents. At the time, Biggs was observed shaking hands and joking with Portland police officers who helped escort the group across the Hawthorne Bridge after the demonstration ended. Afterward, police began arresting leftist counterprotesters in large numbers.

A year later, according to Hull, police had a similar arrangement with the Proud Boys when Biggs organized another march in Portland—one where attendance was markedly down. Nonetheless, predictably, police reserved their aggressive tacticsfor leftist protesters in downtown Portland later that evening.

"As part of the planning, Biggs would regularly speak with by phone and in person to both local and federal law enforcement personnel stationed in Portland, including the FBI's Portland Field Office," Hull's filing reads. "These talks were intended both to inform law enforcement about Proud Boy activities in Portland on a courtesy basis but also to ask for advice on planned marches or demonstrations, i.e., what march routes to take on Portland streets, where to go, where not to go."

Eric Ward, executive director of the Portland-based Western States Center, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that it was "deeply concerning" to learn that Biggs had worked with the FBI, noting that police authorities have "frequently maintained inappropriately close relations with far-right groups."

"Law enforcement has no credible reason for working with someone like Biggs," Ward said. "It's long past time for a clear accounting of institutional and professional law enforcement relationships with groups espousing political violence at home and abroad."

Trump's Election Lies Will Spur More Extremist Terror, Intelligence Agencies Warn

Reprinted with permission from American Independent

On Wednesday, U.S. intelligence agencies released their newest assessment of the threat to America from domestic violent extremism, singling out rhetoric like Donald Trump's election lies as a driver of continued violent events.

The unclassified report was released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The report notes that violent extremists "pose an elevated threat to the Homeland in 2021" and were "galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States."

"Newer sociopolitical developments—such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence—will almost certainly spur some DVEs [domestic violent extremists] to try to engage in violence this year," the report goes on to note.

In the aftermath of his loss to President Joe Biden, Trump has frequently and repeatedly made baseless allegations of fraud against the election process in multiple states.

Trump's team sought to make similar allegations in federal courts in the aftermath of the election and were repeatedly rejected, sometimes even by judges that had been appointed by Trump.

In his interview on Tuesday night with Fox Business's Maria Bartiromo, Trump again reiterated his election falsehoods, lamenting to the conservative host that the "Supreme Court didn't have the courage to overturn elections that should have been overturned."

The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters was sparked by Trump's lies about the election, with many of those who breached the building citing the desire to prevent the election results from being certified.

Their actions were reinforced by congressional Republicans like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), who joined with House Republicans in an attempt to object to the certification and overturn the results in Trump's favor.

Biden defeated Trump in both the popular vote and the electoral college, including wins certified by Congress in key states like Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan, which Trump had won in 2016.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Six Major Questions Still Unanswered After Capitol Riot Hearings

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

After two weeks of congressional hearings, it remains unclear how a rampaging mob of rioters managed to breach one of the most sacred bastions of American democracy on January 6.

During more than 15 hours of testimony, lawmakers listened to a cacophony of competing explanations as officials stumbled over themselves to explain how America's national security, defense, intelligence and law enforcement agencies allowed a homegrown enemy to put an entire branch of government in danger during the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The continuing questions surrounding the attack have prompted calls for a more sustained inquiry than has so far taken place. House Democrats have proposed setting up an outside commission to investigate, similar to what followed the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, but so far Republicans have held up the proposal. Among the key questions yet to be answered:

1. Why did national security officials respond differently to Black Lives Matter protesters than to Trump supporters?

Last week, deputy assistant defense secretary Robert G. Salesses was sent to explain to Congress the Defense Department's decision-making on January 6.

Salesses said the National Guard had been criticized for being too aggressive during the Black Lives Matter protests last year, and that played into the more restrained response to the insurrection.

But his personal involvement in the insurrection response was limited. Much to the frustration of the senators questioning him, he wasn't able to provide details on why the guard took so long to arrive on Capitol grounds that day. This leaves some of the most alarming blunders of the day unexplained.

Last June in Washington, demonstrations calling for police reform following the death of George Floyd became a priority for top Defense Department officials. District of Columbia National Guard commander Maj. Gen. William Walker told Congress on March 3 that the head of the Army, Ryan McCarthy, spent almost a week by his side at the D.C. Armory to facilitate the guard's response to those protests.

Nothing similar happened for the planned protests on January 6.

Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund had to plead for guard support during a series of phone calls during the insurrection. Walker said McCarthy was "not available" for one crucial conference call at about 2:30 p.m. Rioters were minutes from the House chamber at that point, but the defense officials on the call were still skeptical. Walker said they were worried about how it might look to send troops to the Capitol and whether it might further "inflame" the crowd.

"I was frustrated," Walker said. "I was just as stunned as everybody else on the call."

It took more than three hours for the Pentagon to approve the request. During the Black Lives Matter protests, Walker said such approval was given immediately.

Salesses told Congress that McCarthy wanted to know more about how exactly the guard would be used at the Capitol.

An Army spokesperson did not answer specific questions about McCarthy's decision-making during the Black Lives Matter protests or on January. 6, but said the guard's posture on January 6 was based on a request from the mayor of Washington.

"The Department of Defense Inspector General is now reviewing the details of the preparation for and response to the January 6 protest and attack on the U.S. Capitol," she said. "We intend to allow that process to proceed independently."

2. Did lawmakers, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, play a role in security decisions?

Both the House and the Senate have a position known as a sergeant-at-arms, an official responsible for protecting the lawmakers. These officials oversee the Capitol Police chief, and while staff in lawmakers' offices frequently maintain contact with the sergeants-at-arms about security plans and briefings, there are still questions about the details of consultations held before or during the January 6 attack. Paul Irving, the House sergeant-at-arms, and Michael Stenger, his equivalent in the Senate, resigned along with Sund following the riot.

The pair reported to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, respectively. Pelosi's deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, told ProPublica that prior to January 6, the speaker's staff asked Irving questions about security and were assured on January 5 that the Capitol complex had "comprehensive security and there was no intelligence that groups would become violent." McConnell's spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about whether the senator was involved in any security preparations before January 6. Staffers for both lawmakers told ProPublica they did not learn of the request for the guard until the day of the attack.

Sund has said that he began asking his superiors for guard assistance on January 4.

Irving and Stenger dispute that. In their congressional testimony, they said Sund merely relayed an offer from the National Guard to dispatch a unit of unarmed troops to help with traffic control. They said the three of them together decided against it.

Irving and Stenger also said they did not discuss the guard with Pelosi or McConnell's staff until January 6, when the riot was well under way. But the details of those conversations remain vague.

Sund said he called Irving and Stenger to ask them to declare an emergency and call in the guard at 1:09 p.m. that day. In his written testimony, he said that Irving told him he would need to "run it up the chain of command" first.

Irving disputed that too. He said he granted the request as soon as Sund made it and Irving simply told congressional "leadership" they "might" be calling in the guard.

Sund also said in his written testimony that as they were waiting for the guard, Stenger offered to ask McConnell to "call the Secretary of the Army to expedite the request."

Asked about his conversations with Congress, Stenger said only that he "mentioned it to Leader McConnell's staff" on January 6. No one asked him to elaborate.

In an emailed response to questions, Hammill said that at approximately 1:40 p.m. on January 6, Irving approached Pelosi's staff near the House chamber, asking for permission to call in the guard. Pelosi approved the request and was told they needed McConnell's approval, too. Pelosi's chief of staff then went to Stenger's office, where McConnell's staff was already meeting with the sergeants-at-arms.

Hammill said there was shared frustration at the meeting. "It was made clear to make the request immediately," he said. "Security professionals are expected to make security decisions."

A spokesman for McConnell did not answer questions about whether he was in fact asked to call the Army secretary, as Sund's written testimony suggested. He referred ProPublica to an article in The New York Times. The story describes McConnell's staff learning of the guard request for the first time at the meeting with Stenger and staffers being confused and frustrated that it was not made sooner.

3. Was law enforcement unprepared for the attack because of an intelligence failure?

Last week, FBI leaders told Congress that the bureau provided intelligence on the threat to both the Capitol Police and local D.C. police. They also referenced more general warnings they've issued for years about the rise of right-wing extremism.

Jill Sanborn, assistant director of the bureau's counterterrorism division, told Congress that leading up to the riot, the FBI had made January 6 a priority for all 56 of its field offices.

But acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman told Congress on February 25 that the agency had received no actionable intelligence.

"No credible threat indicated that tens of thousands would attack the U.S. Capitol," Pittman said, echoing a common position among law enforcement on the lack of persuasive intelligence going into January 6. As a result, she said, her department was ready for isolated violence, not a coordinated attack.

A Jan. 5 intelligence bulletin from an FBI field office in Norfolk, Virginia, has generated significant attention. First reported by The Washington Post, it described individuals sharing a map of tunnels beneath the Capitol complex and locations of potential rally points, and quoted an online thread calling for war: "Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in .... Get violent." But the FBI itself has emphasized that the intelligence had not been fully vetted.

Pittman, who helped oversee the Capitol Police intelligence division at the time but was not yet the acting chief, also downplayed the memo. She said that while her department received the bulletin the evening before the riot, it never reached anyone in leadership. Reviewing the document later, though, she said the information was consistent with what the department already knew and that the memo specifically requested that agencies receiving it not "take action" based on its contents. "We do not believe that based on the information in that document, we would have changed our posture," Pittman said.

4. Or was it a security failure?

Congress has not focused as much on the culpability of Capitol Police leadership.

Last month, ProPublica published an investigation drawing on interviews with 19 current and former members of the Capitol Police. The officers described how internal failures put hundreds of Capitol cops at risk and allowed rioters to get dangerously close to members of Congress.

"We went to work like it was a normal fucking day," said one officer. Another said his main instruction was to be on the lookout for counterprotesters.

On February 25, Pittman acknowledged that the department's communication system became overwhelmed during the riot. But fending off a mob of thousands would have required "physical infrastructure or a regiment of soldiers," she said, and no law enforcement agency could have handled the crowd on its own.

She said that on January 6, the department had roughly 1,200 officers on duty out of a total of over 1,800. On a normal Wednesday, she said, there are more than 1,000 officers on duty.

5. Was the National Guard ready?

Last week, Walker, the National Guard commander, offered startling testimony on what he called "unusual" restrictions limiting what he could do on January 6.

He said that on January 4 and 5, he was told he would need approval from top defense officials to issue body armor to his troops, use a "quick reaction force" of 40 guardsmen, or move troops stationed at traffic posts around the city.

In his testimony, Walker said he had never experienced anything like it in his nearly four decades in the guard.

At one point, the Metropolitan Police, D.C.'s police force, asked Walker to move three unarmed guardsmen one block to help with traffic control. To do it, he had to get permission from McCarthy, the man running the entire U.S. Army.

More frustrating, Walker said, was that he could have sent roughly 150 National Guard members to the Capitol within 20 minutes if he had received immediate approval. That "could have made a difference," he said. "Seconds mattered. Minutes mattered."

So far, the only Pentagon official who has testified publicly is Salesses, who had little direct involvement in the January 6 response.

"I was not on the calls, any of the calls," Salesses said.

Instead, Salesses stated that acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller was at the top of the chain of command and "wanted to make the decisions."

"Clearly he wanted to," Sen. Rob Portman said. "The question is why."

6. How did officer Brian Sicknick die?

Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick died the day after the insurrection. That evening, the Capitol Police released a statement saying he had died from injuries sustained in the riot. Law enforcement officials initially said Sicknick had been hit in the head with a fire extinguisher. Several Capitol Police officers told ProPublica the same. ProPublica also spoke with members of Sicknick's family shortly after he died. They said Sicknick texted them after fending off the mob to tell them he had been hit with pepper spray. The family told ProPublica that Sicknick later suffered a blood clot and a stroke. "This political climate got my brother killed," his eldest brother said.

But the exact cause of Sicknick's death remains unclear. On February 2, CNN published a report citing an anonymous law enforcement official who told the news outlet that medical examiners did not find signs of blunt force trauma, reportedly leading investigators to believe he was not fatally struck by a fire extinguisher. On February 26, The New York Times reported that the FBI has "homed in on the potential role of an irritant as a primary factor in his death" and has identified a suspected assailant who attacked several officers, including Sicknick, with bear spray. The D.C. medical examiner has yet to conclude its investigation into the exact cause of Sicknick's death.

On March 2, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), asked FBI Director Christopher Wray if a cause of death had been determined and if there was a homicide investigation.

Wray said there is an active investigation into Sicknick's death, but the bureau was "not at a point where we can disclose or confirm the cause of death." He did not specify whether it was a homicide investigation.

Pittman was also questioned about Sicknick.

"I just want to be absolutely clear for the record," said Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Virginia Democrat. "Do you acknowledge that the death of officer Brian Sicknick was a line-of-duty death?"

"Yes ma'am, I do," Pittman responded.

Kirsten Berg contributed reporting.