The FBI considers domestic terrorism a serious and persistent threat, and it is investigating some 850 cases, including actions by white supremacist groups, but the First Amendment frustrates any notion of defining U.S. groups as terrorist organizations, the FBI’s assistant director told the House Committee on Homeland Security, NPR reports.
The U.S. has designated about 60 groups as terrorist organizations. But most are Islamist, and all are based abroad. The Patriot Act does define domestic terrorism, which gives law enforcement some additional authority to investigate, but this does not include an actual criminal charge of domestic terrorism.
“A white supremacist organization is an ideology, it’s a belief,” the FBI’s Michael McGarrity told the committee. “But they’re not designated as a terrorist organization.”
High-profile attacks in recent years, including mass shootings at synagogues and churches, have prompted calls for a domestic terrorism law. “We would welcome a discussion,” the Justice Department’s Brad Wiegmann told the committee.
But he added, “designating domestic groups as domestic terrorism organizations and picking out particular groups that you say you disagree with their views and so forth is going to be highly problematic.”
Law enforcement officials generally say they already have plenty of tools to prosecute extremists. The large number of FBI investigations points to both the extent of the challenge, and to the extensive resources the bureau has devoted to the issue, McGarrity said.
At the same time, there’s a growing debate among civil rights advocates and terrorism experts about whether violence committed by white supremacists and similar groups should be treated as a hate crime.