White House orders assessment on violent extremism in US

Tear gas is released into a crowd of protesters during clashes with police at the US Capitol in Washington on Jan 6, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President Joe Biden on Friday (Jan 22) ordered the director of national intelligence to work with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the threat from domestic violent extremism, a sign of how seriously the new administration is taking the issue in the aftermath of the Jan 6 riot at the Capitol.

The request comes only days after Avril Haines, newly installed director of national intelligence, pledged to members of Congress during her confirmation hearing that she would help with just such an assessment.

The new intelligence work began as people charged in the mob attack on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump continued to appear in court. On Friday, a federal magistrate judge in Dayton, Ohio, ordered Donovan Crowl, an accused rioter linked to the far-right group the Oath Keepers, detained until his trial, citing the safety of the community.

Domestic terrorism and violent groups are a thorny issue for intelligence agencies like the CIA, which are limited to tracking attempts by foreign governments or organisations to influence extremist groups in America. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have more leeway to investigate domestic groups and homegrown terrorism.

But Friday's order will have practical as well as symbolic import. Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the assessment would help Biden hone his policies aimed at curbing violent extremism in the United States.

"This assessment will draw on the analysis from across the government and, as appropriate, non-governmental organisations," Psaki said. "The key point here is that we want fact-based analysis upon which we can shape policy." In recent years, some parts of the intelligence community have been working to increase their focus on the threat of domestic terrorism, particularly by doing more to track growing foreign influence operations on domestic groups. The CIA also has officers in its counter-terrorism section who specialise in tracking racially motivated violent extremists overseas.

During the last two Congressional sessions, lawmakers passed a measure requiring intelligence agencies to work on annual reports and strategic assessments of domestic extremism.

"Far-right, white supremacist extremism, nurtured on online platforms, has become one of the most dangerous threats to our nation," said Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California, chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

The domestic terrorism order is the second assignment in two days for Haines, who was confirmed by the Senate Wednesday evening. On Thursday, the White House ordered a new intelligence assessment of Russia and its role in a broad hacking of government computers.

The new order on domestic extremism, and growing interest on Capitol Hill, could also push intelligence agencies and law enforcement to look for ways to work more closely on tracking and countering extremist groups in the country.

The growing concern about these groups is also reflected in the tough stances judges have taken with those arrested in connection with the Jan 6 riot.

Crowl, the suspect denied bail in Ohio, was part of a group dressed in paramilitary equipment that approached the Capitol "in an organised and practiced fashion" to move their way to the front of the crowd, according to court papers.

In a New Yorker article about the riot, Crowl, a 50-year-old Ohio resident, acknowledged that he had entered the Capitol but claimed that he had travelled to Washington to "do security" for "VIPs," whom he did not name, and that his intentions had been peaceful. But court filings made clear that prosecutors did not believe that.

"This defendant, through force and violence, attempted to disrupt the process that our country's been engaged in for over 200 years," said the prosecutor, Nicholas Dingeldein, during the hearing Friday. "He's been preparing for literal war because that's what this organisation, the Oath Keepers, has told him he has to do." The judge, Sharon Ovington, noted that Crowl had a criminal record and said she saw "clear and convincing evidence" that there were no conditions that would reasonably assure Crowl's appearance in court or the safety of the community.

Supporters of Donald Trump clash with police as they storm the US Capitol in Washington on Jan 6, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Citing the weapons that authorities found at the place where Crowl suggested he would stay if released, she said, "The suggestion that I release him to a residence containing at least nine firearms is a non-starter." On Friday in Arkansas, a magistrate judge denied bail to Peter F. Stager of Conway, Arkansas, ordering that he remain in custody until trial.

Stager, 41, was taken into custody Jan 14 and charged with obstructing law enforcement officers, a felony, after officials identified him as the person seen attacking a police officer on the steps of the Capitol in a widely viewed video, according to the criminal complaint.

"It was a crime of violence against a helpless victim," Judge J. Thomas Ray said of the video that showed Stager using a flagpole to beat an officer in uniform, who was being held down by others in the crowd.

In a second video, Stager is heard saying, "Everybody in there is a treasonous traitor," referring to occupants of the Capitol.

Another accused rioter, Scott Kevin Fairlamb, was arrested Friday in New Jersey, after various tipsters submitted evidence to law enforcement. In one video, a man later identified as Fairlamb shoved and punched an officer on the West Front of the Capitol, according to an affidavit from the FBI. In a video posted on Fairlamb's Facebook page, he could be seen carrying a collapsible baton and saying, "What Patriots do?" Using two expletives, he then continued: we "disarm them and then we storm" the Capitol.

And in New York, a federal magistrate judge denied bail Friday for Jeffrey Sabol, a geophysicist from Colorado who was accused of dragging a police officer down the stairs outside the Capitol and allowing another rioter to beat the officer with an American flag.

At his bail hearing, a prosecutor suggested Sabol had tried to flee the country after the riot; he had purchased a plane ticket to Switzerland, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. Sabol also tried to take his own life after the riot, the prosecutor said, and spent several days recovering at the hospital.

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