Last week, a Senate committee issued a scathing appraisal of the government’s response to white supremacist violence. This conclusion from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee isn’t a surprise. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, the agencies primarily responsible for investigating domestic terrorism and gathering intelligence to prevent it, have been repeatedly criticized for their inattention to white supremacist violence.
Even stalwart defenders of the FBI have recognized that its failure to treat far-right violence as a serious concern contributed to the lack of preparation for the January 6 Capitol attack and have called on the bureau to conduct an internal review of its domestic terrorism program.
But the new Senate report makes clear that the FBI is not willing to critically examine its performance in combatting white supremacist violence and instead has taken steps to obscure the data necessary to conduct such an appraisal. Public concerns regarding far-right violence increased in the aftermath of the 2015 racially motivated mass shooting at the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which then-FBI Director James Comey refused to call an act of terrorism. Concerns intensified after law enforcement failed to stop multiple incidents of white supremacist violence committed at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a leaked FBI report revealed it had created a new domestic terrorism category called “Black Identity Extremists” that labeled Black activists protesting racist police violence as threats.
Congress took note, and starting in 2018, several committees began holding hearings focused on white supremacist and far-right militant violence, the first since the FBI and DHS declared counterterrorism their number one priority in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Throughout this time, the FBI failed to provide basic facts about its domestic terrorism program that would enable an assessment of whether it was appropriately targeting its counterterrorism resources. This lack of transparency triggered several legislative efforts to compel the FBI to publish data documenting each domestic terrorism incident, the number of investigations it initiated, and the number of convictions, all broken down by the various categories the FBI used to manage its work, which then included white supremacists, so-called Black Identity Extremists, animal rights extremists, and others.
Even before the law requiring the FBI to produce this data was enacted in 2019, bureau managers took measures to prevent Congress from getting the information it sought. The FBI rearranged its domestic terrorism categories, combining white supremacists with Black Identity Extremists and far-right militants with anarchists, reorganizations that made little operational sense but would obscure which groups in each category committed the most deadly violence and which the bureau most frequently targeted for investigation.
In the end, it mattered little, as the report notes, because the FBI simply refused to comply with the requirements of the law. In reports filed in 2021 and 2022, the FBI argued that while it could provide topline statistics regarding the number of investigations it opened, it couldn’t provide data regarding domestic terrorism incidents because the bureau didn’t collect it and no law required state and local law enforcement agencies to report it.
The bureau also said it was unable to provide data regarding domestic terrorism prosecutions because “the number of federal charges with a nexus to [domestic terrorism] is not currently maintained by the FBI or DOJ in a comprehensive manner.” It would be reasonable to assume that an agency that calls counterterrorism its number one priority would want to know how many domestic terrorist incidents occur in the United States each year, and who commits them. Further, an agency that operates 200 Joint Terrorism Task Forces and employs thousands of investigators and analysts across the country presumably has the capability to catalog these incidents. So why doesn’t it?
A clue was revealed at a Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing the following day. When Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) asked what the FBI was doing about reports of violence targeting anti-abortion activists, Director Christopher Wray responded that since the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, “probably in the neighborhood of 70 percent of our abortion-related violence cases or threats cases are cases . . . where the victims are pro-life organizations.”
This answer likely assuaged Scott’s concern, but on its own, it is a meaningless statistic. The evidentiary threshold for opening FBI investigations is extremely low, so agents can open as many investigations as they desire. Without knowing the number of incidents and the number of resulting convictions within different categories of terrorism cases, information about what investigations the FBI is pursuing can give a misleading impression of the prevalence of different types of terrorist activity. More problematically, it can hide the fact that FBI resources are not being allocated toward the greatest threats.
Wray’s response highlights how the lack of data regarding domestic terrorism incidents and convictions allows the FBI to use domestic terrorism investigations as a political tool, wielded to satisfy the demands of politicians or driven by the biases of agents. While recent reports of arsons targeting anti-abortion facilities deserve investigation, serious abortion-related violence has historically been committed predominately by anti-abortion militants, and that trend has only increased in recent years. Whether having 70 percent of the FBI’s abortion-related investigations address violence and threats against anti-abortion activists represents an appropriate division of resources can only be known if we know the number of acts of violence and threats made against pro-choice activists as well. Indeed, far-right militants have increasingly threatened election workers, school administrators, and even members of Congress with violence, so it is important to know which threats draw FBI scrutiny and which do not. Congress can only determine whether the FBI is using its domestic terrorism authorities appropriately and without bias if it has the data to demonstrate it.
The Senate report makes several recommendations to address these concerns. Most importantly, it calls for Congress to require a government-wide examination of federal counterterrorism programs and policies to ensure domestic terror threats are identified and properly prioritized. A comprehensive review of the FBI’s post-9/11 counterterrorism programs, which have been fraught with error and abuse, is long overdue. Clearly, the FBI is unwilling or unable to do this work itself, and it now appears unlikely that the House January 6 committee will release its findings regarding the intelligence failures by the FBI, DHS, and other federal law enforcement agencies. Now Congress must ensure that those records are retained to inform the broader evaluation the committee has called for.