Fabrice Coffrini/Pool Photo via AP

Agencies to Boost Hiring, Tighten Internal Screening to Root Out Domestic Terrorism

Biden administration launches new strategy to tackle domestic extremism, including by looking in house.

The Biden administration launched a new governmentwide strategy to crack down on domestic terrorism that will include increased interagency collaboration, funding for the hiring of new personnel to confront the challenge and an update to hiring and screening processes to root extremists out of government.

The White House unveiled its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism on Tuesday following a 100-day review of existing efforts, which President Biden initiated on his first day in office. The administration has consistently referred to domestic extremists as the most significant terrorism threat the country faces. As part of the new policy, the Office of Personnel Management is reviewing screening questionnaires for civilian employees in “sensitive” positions to consider requesting additional information to “assist investigators in identifying potential domestic terrorism threats.” The Defense Department is also considering updates to the prohibited extremist activities for its civilian and contract workers. 

“This effort can help to ensure that new applicants and employees undergoing re–investigations are abiding by legal obligations, including in providing candid and forthright representations, and to prevent individuals who pose domestic terrorism threats from being placed in positions of trust,” the White House said in its strategy. 

A senior administration official added the federal government has a "special responsibility" to ensure it is addressing insider threats, especially those in the military and law enforcement. 

As part of the strategy development, the White House identified more than $100 million for the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to hire attorneys, officers and agents to confront domestic terrorism. Justice plans to spend $40 million bringing on 100 U.S. attorneys to confront domestic terrorism, while the FBI is looking for $45 million in funding to hire 179 new FBI agents to do the same. DHS is planning to dole out $77 million to state, local and tribal governments to root out domestic extremism through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s homeland security grant program. 

A senior administration official said the threat from domestic terrorism is "elevated" according to a previous review and "tackling it means ensuring that we do have the resources and personnel to address that elevated threat." 

Other agencies will also have new responsibilities under the new strategy. The departments of State and Treasury will both review existing authorities to determine whether they can label certain domestic groups as terrorist organizations. In addition to its new policies on prohibited activities, Defense is developing trainings for service members on how extremist groups target current and former military members for recruitment. Several agencies are developing new threat assessment tools and other resources to help the private sector and local governments uncover potential dangerous actors. 

DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate is looking to spend $10 million on researching the root causes of domestic radicalization, while its Centers for Prevention Programs and Partnerships requested $7 million to boost its coordination with federal and local partners. DHS is working to enhance its information sharing across government related to domestic terrorism and previously announced a probe into its own workforce to root out domestic extremists. 

“This is a project that should unite all Americans,” Biden said of the new strategy. “Together we must affirm that domestic terrorism has no place in our society. We must work to root out the hatreds that can too often drive violence.”

The White House stressed it would undertake its new initiatives while preserving the civil rights and liberties of all Americans. Justice, for example, said it is “closely examining” whether it needs new legislative authorities to keep Americans safe while still preserving the rights of all citizens. The administration pledged to crack down on recruitment materials online while still protecting the “American tradition of robust speech.” 

“Throughout the process, we embraced the protection of civil rights and civil liberties as a national security imperative,” the White House said. “The strategy we are releasing today is carefully tailored to address violence and reduce the factors that lead to violence, threaten public safety, and infringe on the free expression of ideas.”

The FBI Agents Association praised the Biden administration for releasing the strategy and called on it to follow through on making domestic terrorism a crime accompanied with a specific penalty. 

“Making domestic terrorism a federal crime would not result in the targeting of specific ideas or groups,” said Brian O’Hare, FBIAA president. “Rather, it would target acts of violence that have no place in the political discourse secured by our Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland echoed that notion on Tuesday, highlighting violent domestic events that targeted political, religious and ethnic groups of all stripes. He said Justice is already in the process of implementing the new strategy, emphasizing it would require a whole-of-government approach. In describing its plan to better screen federal applicants and employees for signs of domestic terrorism, the White House also stressed it would not target any specific ideology. 

“Those who protect and defend this nation should reflect the nation, including its vast spectrum of experiences and viewpoints,” it said. “Consistent with that, no one should be allowed to abuse or exploit the trust and responsibility or the often sensitive accesses and resources that are a part of such professions.”