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Justice Department creates domestic terrorism unit, raising concerns among some in GOP

"We prosecute individuals for engaging in violence and other criminal conduct, not for their beliefs or associations," a DOJ official asserted.

Published: January 11, 2022 11:21pm

Updated: January 12, 2022 8:47pm

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Tuesday it is establishing a specialized domestic terrorism unit in response to what the agency says is a rising increase in threats. Some Republicans are voicing concerns over the plan.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the department's plans to create the new unit. "The number of FBI investigations of suspected domestic violent extremists has more than doubled since the spring of 2020," he said.

Olsen went on to list examples of recent domestic terror and hate attacks including the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree Of Life synagogue shooting and the 2017 Republican congressional baseball shooting, the latter of which the FBI officially reclassified last year from "suicide by cop" to "domestic violent extremist" after outrage from survivors. 

In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Olsen said the DOJ has undertaken an unprecedented effort to prosecute "all who engaged in criminal acts." So far, more than 725 individuals have been arrested and charged by the department over Jan. 6.

Ranking Judiciary Committee Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that President Joe Biden's domestic terrorism strategy ignored leftwing terrorism, including the 2020 riots after George Floyd's death that caused more than $2 billion in damages and killed at least 25 people.

The Domestic Terrorism Unit will consist of attorneys who "will focus on the domestic terrorism threat, helping to ensure that these cases are properly handled and effectively coordinated across DOJ and around the country," Olsen said.

"We prosecute individuals for engaging in violence and other criminal conduct, not for their beliefs or associations. But we will not hesitate to prosecute those who commit acts of violence in violation of federal law," Olsen concluded his opening statement to the committee.

Prosecuting domestic terrorism can be difficult for the federal government, which does not have a single "domestic terrorism" charge. The criminal code does include a definition for "domestic terrorism" that federal authorities use along with other statutes.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee focused on what they see as the "Big Lie" from President Donald Trump and his supporters. "The Intelligence Community also warned that the Big Lie continues to fuel a heightened threat of domestic terrorism, stating that “narratives of fraud in the recent general election…will almost certainly spur some DVEs [domestic violent extremists] to try to engage in violence," the Democrats tweeted.

"While we must condemn violence in all of its forms, we also need to be realistic about what we’re facing here. The intelligence community has made it clear that the most lethal threat comes from violent white supremacists and militia violent extremists," the Senate Judiciary Democrats added.

"First, they labeled parents as domestic terrorists. Now, Biden’s new DOJ unit will investigate his political opponents and anyone with whom the Left disagrees. This is beyond wrong. It’s a time for choosing, America," Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) tweeted.

Grassley (R-Iowa) called on Attorney General Merrick Garland last week to withdraw his controversial memo asking the FBI to investigate threats at school board meetings. 

"Are concerned parents domestic terrorists or not?" Grassley asked Garland in December.

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