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Months before latest mass shootings, federal agencies acknowledged they don't have tools to prevent domestic terrorism

Michael McGarrity, FBI assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division, left; Calvin Shivers, FBI deputy assistant director in the Criminal Investigative Division; and Elizabeth Neumann Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary of threat prevention and security policy, are sworn in at the start of a a House Oversight and Reform Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee hearing on confronting white supremacy and the adequacy of the federal response, Tuesday June 4, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
Elizabeth Neumann, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary of threat prevention and security policy, testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee hearing on confronting white supremacy and the adequacy of the federal response, Tuesday June 4, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
Calvin Shivers, FBI deputy assistant director in the Criminal Investigative Division, center, testifies next to Michael McGarrity, FBI assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division, left, and Elizabeth Neumann, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary of threat prevention and security policy, testify during a House Oversight and Reform Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee hearing on confronting white supremacy and the adequacy of the federal response, Tuesday June 4, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Long before this month's latest mass killings, federal officials acknowledged to a House committee that their agencies lack the tools and support from all branches of government to combat white supremacy and the violence it can inspire.

"We know we're not doing enough," Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary of threat prevention and security policy at the Department of Homeland Security, testified on June 4.

Members of Congress and criminal justice experts have criticized federal law enforcement for not giving domestic terrorism, which includes violence committed by white supremacists, the attention and resources international terrorism commands.

But she also told the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties that the department is developing a "prevention framework that DHS will implement over the coming years."

On Monday, subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., tweeted that his committee is monitoring that progress.

"We are long overdue for a serious strategy from DHS," Raskin wrote. "Asst. Secretary for Threat Prevention & Security Policy Elizabeth Neumann promised a plan at the end of the summer & we hold her to that promise. The time to stop the next massacre is now."

Neumann's testimony came nearly two months to the day before a gunman shot up a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and injuring scores of others. Police say the suspect, who was arrested, had earlier posted a racist screed online, but they haven't directly linked it to the shooting. Later that night, another young man shot and killed nine people, including his sister, in a night life area of Dayton, Ohio, before he was fatally shot by police. The FBI said it is investigating the shooter's interest in violent ideology, the Associated Press reported.

And the weekend before, a lone gunman killed three people at a festival in Gilroy, California, before killing himself after officers shot him. The shooter had urged his Instagram followers on the day of the attack to read a 19th-century book popular with white supremacists on extremist websites.

"In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy," President Donald Trump said from the White House Monday. "These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America."

Trump also directed the FBI to "identify all further resources they need to investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism — whatever they need," according to The New York Times.

Low priority

At a hearing of Raskin's subcommittee in May, former FBI agent Michael German, now a fellow at New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, testified that Justice Department policies rank all hate crimes fifth out of eight investigative priorities.

"This has significant consequences for how federal officials frame these crimes in public statements, how they prioritize and track them, and whether they will investigate and prosecute them," he said.

“In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.”

President Donald Trump

The policies can also determine whether a hate crime committed by a white supremacist falls under the terrorism classification, which is a well-funded, top priority for the FBI.

But Raskin noted that even under the terrorism category, the FBI places a higher priority on international terrorism than domestic terrorism, which would include crimes by white supremacists. He cited statistics from the Anti-Defamation League showing international terrorism accounting for 23 percent of murders caused by extremist violence in the United States from 2009 to 2018, while domestic terrorism was responsible for 73 percent of the fatalities caused by extremist violence during that same period.

"Yet, the FBI devotes its resources almost exactly backwards to these proportions," Raskin said. "The FBI apparently spends 80 percent of its resources addressing international terrorism and only 20 percent addressing domestic terrorism."

FBI assistant director for counterterrorism Michael McGarrity responded in June, saying that arrests disrupting potential domestic attacks in the past several months outnumbered those arrested prior to attacks in international terror cases.

Calvin Shivers, FBI deputy assistant director in the Criminal Investigative Division, center, testifies next to Michael McGarrity, FBI assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division, left, and Elizabeth Neumann, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary of threat prevention and security policy, testify during a House Oversight and Reform Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee hearing on confronting white supremacy and the adequacy of the federal response, Tuesday June 4, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin, AP

Calvin Shivers, FBI deputy assistant director in the Criminal Investigative Division, center, testifies next to Michael McGarrity, FBI assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division, left, and Elizabeth Neumann, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary of threat prevention and security policy, testify during a House Oversight and Reform Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee hearing on confronting white supremacy and the adequacy of the federal response, Tuesday June 4, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"In fiscal year 2018 FBI (Joint Terrorism Task Forces) across the country proactively arrested approximately 115 subjects of FBI domestic terrorism investigations before they could mobilize into violence," McGarrity said. "So far (since Oct. 1 of last year), our JTTFs have disrupted approximately 66 subjects of FBI domestic terrorism investigations by arrest."

ABC News reported that the FBI doesn't have the legal and investigative tools to pursue domestic terror.

"Domestic terrorism is about political violence," Tom O'Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, said in a statement to ABC. "Congress must do everything in its power to provide law enforcement with the tools needed to combat this threat to our country."

According to a New York Times report on the difficulty of prosecuting domestic terrorism, federal law defines domestic terrorism but carries no penalties. "The First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, makes stopping terrorist acts committed by Americans before they happen more challenging."

The FBI can employ hate crimes statutes to investigate some domestic terror cases involving white supremacists, but experts testified in May that local reporting of hate crimes is too inconsistent to reveal the scope of the problem and how to address it.

"Disappointingly, we do not have the slightest idea how many hate crimes there are in America. And we have never known," Roy Austin, a former hate crimes prosecutor who also worked in the Obama White House, told the committee. "The numbers currently kept by the FBI are largely useless."

The FBI has reportedly launched a program to better train local law enforcement in identifying and reporting hate and bias crimes to improve the reliability of its hate crimes data.

Institutional solution

Raskin has also focused on Homeland Security, claiming it dismantled the infrastructure built during the Obama administration to fulfill its charge of preventing domestic terrorism.

But Neumann explained in June that the agency, which was primarily focused on international terrorism threats, has created an Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention that will better address the domestic threats.

"Our post 9/11 (counter-terrorism) capabilities … as robust as they are, were not designed to deal with this type of threat," she said of domestic terrorism fueled by white supremacy and other forms of extremism. "And, while we have made progress in developing the tools necessary for this new threat, the solutions need to be scaled to be effective."

Neumann said that while her agency's prevention tools are designed to be "agnostic to the ideology" behind the violence, it has participated in local programs and trainings specifically addressing the white supremacy movement.

Elizabeth Neumann, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary of threat prevention and security policy, testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee hearing on confronting white supremacy and the adequacy of the federal response, Tuesday June 4, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin, AP

Elizabeth Neumann, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary of threat prevention and security policy, testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee hearing on confronting white supremacy and the adequacy of the federal response, Tuesday June 4, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The Anti-Defamation League has called the movement the most deadly in the United States in the past decade, responsible for 76 percent of those killed by extremists between 2009 to 2018. The total number of deaths attributed to extremists during that period was 313 people.

Neumann said combatting domestic terrorism must be embraced throughout the federal government to be effective.

"We know we're not doing enough," she testified, according to ABC News. "Things haven't been institutionalized. In order for government to work, we have to institutionalize it, you either need to authorize it through Congress or you need to get it in executive order or national security presidential memoranda."

Whether Trump's statement Monday is a move to institutionalize combatting the threat of domestic terror remains to be seen.

Responses to the president's statement criticized its absence of support for gun control measures and its emphasis on mental health, video games and media coverage as causes for extremist violence.

Others pointed at the president himself for fueling white supremacist violence through his rhetoric that has divided Americans along racial lines.

"In the past, the president's calls to the nation's better angels, without renouncing his own divisive language about immigrants and political opponents, have proved fleeting," AP reported. "His path to the White House was built on the politics of division, and aides say he views his road to reelection on again sowing discord and unease about cultural, economic and demographic changes" — a strategy that could be at odds with efforts to combat white supremacy.