Biden’s domestic terrorism strategy concerns advocates

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Jessica Reznicek’s friends insist on one thing: She is not a terrorist.

On election night 2016, she and fellow activist Ruby Montoya used coffee canisters stuffed with rags and motor oil to light fire to five pieces of machinery at a Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. The fires resulted in about $2.5 million of property damage, according to The Grist.

The women decided it wasn’t enough. So over the ensuing months, they studied welding. And starting in March 2017, they traveled through Iowa and South Dakota using oxy-acetylene torches to cut into empty valves along the pipeline.

She and Montoya later publicly described what they had done.

“[W]e went with our torches and protective gear on, and found numerous sites, feeling out the ‘vibe’ of each situation, and deciding to act then and there, often in broad daylight,” they said in a statement. “Trust your spirit, trust the signs.”


The pair said they chose to go public because the company building the pipeline lied about what had temporarily stalled its progress.

“If there are any regrets, it is that we did not act enough,” their statement concluded. “Please support and stand with us in this journey because we all need this pipeline stopped.”

The admission got the Justice Department’s attention. Reznicek and Montoya were subsequently arrested and charged with a number of crimes. Both women pleaded guilty to conspiring to damage an energy facility.

“She did not harm anyone through her acts,” one of Reznicek’s supporters wrote to the judge overseeing her sentence, “and she is the farthest thing from a domestic terrorist.”

The Justice Department disagreed. Prosecutors argued that the judge should view her as a domestic terrorist when deciding her sentence. Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger sided with DOJ, using a tool called the terrorism enhancement to sentence her to eight years in prison. The judge handed down the sentence on June 30; Reznicek has appealed. She is on pretrial release until she begins serving her sentence on Aug. 11. Montoya’s sentencing is scheduled for later this month.

Reznicek did not injure or kill anyone. But she’s one of the most prominent people dubbed a domestic terrorist by the FBI since the Biden administration rolled out its whole-of-government strategy to combat domestic terror.

The Biden administration has brought an unprecedented focus to the issue, given the growing lethality of white supremacist domestic terror attacks. In recent years, white supremacists have targeted synagogues, Black churchgoers, and Latino shoppers at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. Trump administration officials shied away from addressing the threat, concerned in part that even talking about white supremacist terror would anger the then-president.


The Biden White House, in contrast, has taken a proactive approach, with President Joe Biden directing his National Security Council to put together a governmentwide strategy to combat the threat. That team released a strategy document in June, which called racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — particularly white supremacists — and militia extremists “the most persistent and lethal threats.”

It was a historic recognition of the violence that has terrorized many communities in this country, particularly communities of color. Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tweeted that the news was “overdue, but welcome.”

But administration officials have emphasized that the government will pursue domestic terrorists regardless of their ideological sympathies. And some progressive civil liberties advocates say the Biden strategy likely means people like Reznicek — whose concerns about the environment the Biden administration might share — may increasingly find themselves in law enforcement’s crosshairs. Many already are: A top congressional office says one-fourth of the FBI’s current domestic terror probes are related to the civil unrest last summer that followed the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer.

Notably, the Justice Department did not seek the terrorism enhancement at the sentencing of the first Jan. 6 rioter.


It could present a challenging political dynamic for an administration seeking to appeal to progressives while also strengthening its domestic counterterrorism work across the board. And it all hinges on what comes next: implementation. That includes the FBI’s work to arrest people engaged in domestic terrorism and the Department of Homeland Security’s work to track and prevent radicalization.

“Our domestic terrorism strategy and its implementation are laser-focused on violence and threats of violence that threaten public safety and national security, not constitutionally protected advocacy and freedom of expression in support of political views, whatever they may be,” a senior administration official told POLITICO.

Chip Gibbons, the policy director at Defending Rights and Dissent, put it another way: “It will have collateral consequences.”

“Given the lax guidelines and overall history, I think it’s very likely that these domestic terrorism resources are going to be deployed against people who are engaged not in terrorism but in speech activities,” he added. “And the targets selected for these investigations are going to reflect the same bias the FBI has always had.”

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, preventing terrorism became the FBI’s top priority. The U.S. government created the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to combat threats, while Congress poured money into the growing counterterror infrastructure. Those efforts generated sustained and intense criticism from many progressives. DHS and FBI programs designed to prevent radicalization homed in on American Muslim communities, engaging in surveillance and “countering violent extremism” work that community leaders said egregiously violated their constitutional rights.

Meanwhile, another threat metastasized: In the years after the 9/11 attacks, analysts concluded that white supremacists have been responsible for the most lethal terror attacks on American soil.

On Aug. 12, 2017, a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Va., killed a woman protesting racism. Biden said Trump’s response — saying there were “very fine people on both sides” — convinced him to run for election.

Four years later, a mob of Trump supporters — some carrying Confederate flags and chanting “Hang Mike Pence” — attacked the Capitol building on Jan. 6 to try to stop Congress from certifying that Biden had defeated Trump.

Biden was inaugurated two weeks after the attack and ordered his National Security Council to act. Josh Geltzer, a National Security Council official with an extensive counterterrorism background, worked to helm a governmentwide effort to build a strategy combating the domestic threat.

“Antifa Is A Real Thing”

Released in June, that White House strategy document emphasizes the particularly lethal threat from white supremacists. But it also makes clear that it will seek to counter all domestic terrorism, regardless of perpetrators’ ideological valences. The document includes just one mention of “anarchist violent extremists” — the term the FBI uses when describing terror threats from people who view “capitalism and centralized government to be unnecessary and oppressive,” according to a May 2021 threat assessment.

But in congressional hearings, FBI Director Christopher Wray — who Biden chose to keep in place, restoring a tradition Trump broke — has extensively discussed the bureau’s work investigating people in that category.

In those hearings, Wray discussed the bureau’s investigations of illegal activity that occurred concurrently with last summer’s massive racial justice protests.


“Although the majority of protesters have been peaceful, we have opened investigations on individuals involved in criminal activity at these protests, some of whom adhere to violent extremist agendas designed to sow discord and upheaval,” he said while testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee on Sept. 17, 2020.

“Antifa is a real thing,” Wray added at that hearing. “It’s not a group or an organization, it’s a movement or an ideology, maybe one way of thinking of it, and we have quite a number — and I’ve said this consistently since my first time appearing before this committee — we have any number of properly predicated investigations into what we would describe as violent anarchist extremists. Some of those individuals self-identify with antifa.”

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 2, he said the number of FBI investigations related to this category has surged — with more FBI arrests of anarchist extremists in 2020 than in 2017, 2018 and 2019 combined. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter to the attorney general that the FBI opened 500 domestic terror investigations during “the 2020 riots (comprising 25% of the FBI’s current domestic terrorism investigations).”

Wray has also testified that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country have “quite a number” of probes into anarchist extremism, many involving people “tied either by their own admission or otherwise to the Antifa movement.” He has also testified that FBI investigators are trying “to identify networks, travelers, supply sources” and funding of anarchist extremist groups.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the White House homeland security adviser, fielded a question on antifa and domestic terrorism at an event last month sponsored by the University of Virginia. The questioner asked if the Biden administration “acknowledge[s] that antifa is a domestic terror threat.”

Sherwood-Randall didn’t directly answer the question, instead reiterating the administration’s all-of-the-above approach. “We are looking at any group that uses violence to achieve its political ends,” she replied.

“And we’re not judging by virtue of the group or its political orientation,” she added. “We’re judging by the actions they have taken which may break the law.”

The Biden strategy document listed a number of ideologies that could motivate domestic terrorists to violence, including “single-issue ideologies” related to abortion, animal rights, the environment, and “involuntary celibate violent extremism.”

Andy Stepanian, a progressive communications professional, said the document’s reference to certain topics could discourage activism.

“Whenever I hear animal rights, environmental, or anti-racist activists named within sprawling counter-terrorism strategies, I am concerned about the chilling effect it will have upon activism writ-large,” he told POLITICO. “While in practice the administration’s proposed strategies may only result in a handful of federal charges against activists, the less visible impact on social movements is a chilling of otherwise constitutionally-protected activities.”

Stepanian served three years in federal prison after being charged as a terrorist for his role in a campaign to close down an animal testing laboratory. He spent six months of his sentence in a maximum-security unit created for terrorism detainees, sometimes called Little Gitmo.

“That’s a lot of people”

Civil liberties advocates have raised several concerns about the Biden administration’s plan. DHS’ May announcement that it had set up a team in its intelligence office to focus exclusively on domestic terrorism drew quick opprobrium from the American Civil Liberties Union. The group’s senior legislative and advocacy counsel Manar Waheed released a statement saying the group was “deeply concerned” by the news. Since then, criticisms have continued.


One key goal of the administration’s strategy is pushing back against the proliferation of extremist content on the internet. The strategy document does not detail what new steps the Biden administration plans to take on this front. But it says the government will continue “to enhance the domestic terrorism-related information offered to the private sector, especially the technology sector,” to help people outside government hamstring online efforts to foment terrorism.

“While those who break the law in furtherance of domestic terrorism must face investigation and prosecution for their crimes, it is equally important that the Federal Government engage in efforts to prevent individuals from being drawn into the grip of domestic terrorism in the first instance,” the document reads. “That means reducing both supply and demand of recruitment materials by limiting widespread availability online and bolstering resilience to it by those who nonetheless encounter it, among other measures.”

One way to bolster resilience that the strategy lists: “[W]e will pursue innovative ways to foster and cultivate digital literacy and related programs, including educational materials and interactive online resources such as skills-enhancing online games.”

Another key part is working with community and nongovernmental partners to reach people who could become violent, and to then deradicalize them. Advocates worry that some indicators the U.S. Intelligence Community has floated as possible terrorism risk factors, such as social isolation and inability to cope with professional failure, would put tens of millions of Americans under government suspicion.

Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said it’s almost impossible to predict when someone is about to become violent. She also said programs aimed at identifying would-be domestic terrorists can be overly broad.

“What these programs basically try to do is, they say, ‘Well, we’re going to try and focus on the risk factors and indicators of somebody who might become violent,’” said Patel. “And those are super broad: people who have mental health issues, people who are socially alienated, people who have a grievance — that’s a lot of people!”

Patel added that she finds many of the national security tools pioneered during the war on terror to be troubling — regardless of what threat they aim to counter.

“One of the things for me that was disappointing about the strategy was it felt very much like more of the same, but directed toward a different threat,” she said. “These tools have become entrenched over the last 20 years, and this will just entrench them further and give them a gloss of legitimacy.”

Advocates pointed to a host of law enforcement and national security tools as threats to civil liberties: the practices of putting people on secret watchlists and no-fly lists, monitoring social media and protests, and surveilling political dissidents. DHS’ intelligence arm drew scorching criticism last summer for issuing intelligence reports related to protesters and journalists. Those reports were connected to protests in Portland, Ore., in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer.

Back in 2019, when lawyers at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded its National Counterterrorism Center could also work on domestic threats, one civil liberties advocate raised concerns that it would abuse its “hyped-up superpowers.”

Those concerns persist.

“Instead of trying to craft and use authorities for what is actual, identifiable wrongful conduct, the administration is doubling down on expansive surveillance and investigative powers that over the last 20-plus years have caused particular harm to communities of color and our privacy, equal protection, and due process rights,” said Hina Shamsi, who helms the ACLU’s National Security Project.

Wa’el Alzayat, the CEO of the American Muslim group Emgage, has seen prior administrations overreach, but said his group welcomes the administration’s efforts to combat domestic terrorism.

“Historically, we have witnessed Muslim American communities, and those racialized as Muslims, being disproportionately targeted by domestic counterterror efforts,” Alzayat said in a statement. “CVE utilized pseudoscientific theories to conflate normal markers of Muslim identity, with being on a path to radicalization. We are vigilant about ensuring that this racial profiling and problematic scutinization of our community does not repeat itself in the Biden administration’s proposed programs for combatting domestic terrorism.”

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said officials there have taken concrete steps to prevent abuses.

“Our experts from the offices of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Privacy, and General Counsel are closely involved to ensure every initiative the Department undertakes is consistent with privacy protections, civil rights and civil liberties, First Amendment rights, and other applicable laws,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

‘A mixed record’

The Biden strategy document signals that administration officials share advocates’ concerns. It highlights the administration’s focus on “safeguarding constitutionally protected activity” and notes that the First Amendment “protects a wide range of expression — even expression that many might disagree with or find abhorrent.”

And the strategy’s section on prevention efforts even contains a bit of a mea culpa.

“Past U.S. Government prevention efforts have had a mixed record,” it reads. “We need to do better — better at protecting rights and freedoms while still pursuing the goal of preventing individuals from harming their fellow Americans through terrorism or other criminal activity.”

Will the new plan actually do better? Ryan Greer, the Anti-Defamation League’s national security director, says that remains to be seen.

“How I would characterize the strategy as a whole is, it signals many if not all of the right signals,” he said. “They are prioritizing addressing violence, they are prioritizing addressing hate crimes, they are prioritizing protecting civil liberties.”

Greer said federal efforts to support terror prevention programs need maximum transparency and oversight. But he added that work to use behavioral health and community support strategies to prevent extremism can reduce the responsibility of police — in his view, a good thing.

“We think they’re going in the right direction,” he added. “But they have to share a lot more on how they’re going to get there for us to assess whether they’re going the right way or not.”

Meanwhile, Reznicek’s co-defendant Montoya is set to be sentenced later this month. It is unclear if she will receive the same terrorist designation as Reznicek. The Rev. Ben Jimenez, a Catholic priest from Cleveland who knows Reznicek, urged the judge overseeing the cases to be lenient.

“While ‘imprudent and impatient’ accurately describe [Reznicek and Montoya], there is a phrase which is inaccurate: domestic terrorists,” he wrote in a letter to the judge. “Your honor, you and I know that designation belongs to Timothy McVeigh, The Unabomber, Antifa, the boogaloo bois and anyone else who uses violent means against the U.S. government. Jessica and Ruby did not have this in mind at all.”



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