Assistant Attorney General for National Security Division Matthew Olsen
© Associated Press
Assistant Attorney General for National Security Division Matthew Olsen, seen from a video monitor, testifies remotely before a Senate Judiciary Committee during a virtual hearing to examine the domestic terrorism threat one year after January 6, 2021.
New domestic terrorism unit to combat 'elevated threat'

The Justice Department a created a new domestic terrorism unit to address what the executive branch has deemed an "elevated threat" to American democracy.

Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Matthew G. Olsen, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, said the FBI has fielded a large uptick in domestic extremism reports, with the number of investigations into such incidents having doubled since the spring of 2020.

The unit's goal is to "augment our existing approach" and expand prosecution of these cases, which the Justice Department already engages in on a domestic and international level, Olsen confirmed.

Olsen said intelligence agencies believe the nation faces "an elevated threat from domestic violent extremists — that is, individuals in the United States who seek to commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of domestic social or political goals."

"This group of dedicated attorneys will focus on the domestic terrorism threat, helping to ensure that these cases are handled properly and effectively coordinated across the Department of Justice and across the country," he added.

Many Democrats and a few Republicans point to the January 6 Capitol riot in calling for a crackdown on domestic extremism, with some, including members of the Biden administration going so far as to suggest that white supremacist groups represent the most significant threat to national security.

In March, FBI director Christopher Wray warned of "metastasizing" episodes of domestic terrorism, claiming that his agency was dealing with a steep spike in such cases.

Democrats in Congress have since launched a committee dedicated to investigating the riot, issuing subpoenas and requesting testimony from a number of former Trump allies and far-right organization members believed to have been involved. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disallowed certain Republican nominations to the panel, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy canceled all GOP representation, dismissing it as a purely partisan project.

During the hearing with Olsen, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin presented video footage from the riot, criticizing Republicans for not taking it seriously enough. "They are normalizing the use of violence to achieve political goals," he said.

Some Republicans, such as Senator Charles Grassley, slammed their colleagues for selective outrage, given that racial justice protests ravaged cities throughout the country during the summer of 2020 but Democrats did not declare the same sweeping condemnations and calls to action.

"These anti-police riots rocked our nation for seven full months, just like the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol rocked the nation," he said.

Conservative lawmakers also demanded that Olsen explain a memo Attorney General Merrick Garland wrote last year directing the FBI to investigate parents for alleged threats against school-board members. The letter, which Republicans have argued was designed to have a chilling effect on parents' speech, was prompted by a letter from the National School Board Association which likened parents to terrorists. The group later apologized for the wording of the letter, which many of their state chapters had not signed off on, though Garland has refused to rescind his memo.
Caroline Downey is a news writer for National Review Online. @carolinedowney_