White supremacy is top security threat, Garland says

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WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick Garland told Congress on Wednesday that violence incited by white supremacists poses “the most dangerous threat to our democracy.” That assertion reflects near-universal consensus among national security experts, including those who worked for the Trump administration.

Garland’s warning came during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, which was conducted by supporters of then-President Donald Trump and incited by white supremacist groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. Five people died as a result of the attack.

“In my career as a judge and in law enforcement, I have not seen a more dangerous threat to democracy than the invasion of the Capitol,” Garland said, calling the attack an “attempt to interfere with a fundamental element of our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power.” The attorney general went on to say that “there has to be a hierarchy of things that we prioritize. This would be the one we’d prioritize.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies before the Senate Appropriations committee hearing to examine domestic extremism, Wednesday, May 12, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Pool via AP)
Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies on domestic extremism before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Pool via AP)

In 1995, Garland investigated the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City by white supremacists, an attack that killed 168 people, including 19 children. The bombing came at a time when militants were galvanized by violent encounters with federal authorities in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

The threat of domestic terrorism receded in the public imagination after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia and other nations. But as that threat has diminished in recent years, militant white nationalism has returned as a top concern.

The north side of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City is pictured after an explosion that killed 168 people and injured hundreds on April 19, 1995. (AP)
The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, after an explosion that killed 168 people and injured hundreds. (AP)

“The horror of domestic violent extremism is still with us,” Garland said in his opening remarks, discussing his work on the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber case. He noted that encrypted internet messaging and the increased availability and sophistication of “lethal weaponry” make the threat of domestic terror greater than it has ever been.

Some of the Trump administration’s own top advisers came to the same conclusions. Last fall, the FBI warned about extremists planning violent actions to coincide with November’s presidential election. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security tried to get Trump to pay attention to white nationalist groups, some of which expressed open affinity for him and his political movement.

Trump infamously told one such group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” during a presidential debate when a moderator confronted him on the topic. But instead of taking meaningful steps to address the white supremacist threat, Trump urged officials in his administration to focus on antifa, a loosely organized network of leftist radicals that is not widely considered a threat to national security.

Republicans continue to insist that antifa and Black Lives Matter are as great a threat to national security as white supremacy, though research has shown that most of last summer’s Black Lives Matter-inspired protests were peaceful. While some violence and looting did occur, intense media coverage — in particular by conservative outlets like Fox News — may have provided a distorted image of those protests.

President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Julio Cortez/AP)
Then-President Donald Trump at a presidential debate on Sept. 29, 2020. (Julio Cortez/AP)

That strategy was evident on Wednesday, with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., wondering if what he called last summer’s “rioting and pilfering” should have been subject to federal prosecution. Garland noted that violence and destruction of property were, in fact, crimes — but not necessarily ones deserving scrutiny from the Department of Justice.

Testifying alongside Garland was Alejandro Mayorkas, who heads the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans questioned him intensely about the situation on the border with Mexico, in what appeared to be another attempt to turn the hearing away from Jan. 6.

“The foreign threats persist,” Mayorkas said at one point. “It’s not as though they have disappeared. But the threat landscape is always evolving.” Much like Garland, he plainly sees that evolution favoring the continued emergence of homegrown terrorists with white nationalist ties.


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