Editor’s Note: Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. While in government, he served in multiple roles, including senior director for counterterrorism on the Trump administration’s National Security Council. Josh Kirshner previously served as a special assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and was on staff for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The views expressed here are theirs. Read more opinion on CNN.
Americans across the country are saddened and outraged at the domestic terrorist attacks in Gilroy, California, and El Paso, Texas – as well as other incidents motivated by similar extremist beliefs in white supremacy and white nationalism, like the attack that occurred last October in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In the aftermath of these traumatic events, a broader public conversation is taking place about what policy measures we need to implement in response. Policymakers and citizens alike are debating whether new laws and authorities are required, what capabilities and resources are needed, and perhaps most importantly, whether enough political will exists to tackle this clear and present security threat.
Recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that 90 individuals had been arrested over the previous several months on domestic terrorism-related matters, and last May the FBI’s chief counterterrorism agent also stated that there were at least 850 ongoing domestic terrorism investigations. These figures suggest that domestic terrorism presents a significant homeland security challenge, but up until now the FBI has been the lead federal agency to analyze, assess, investigate and disrupt this threat. In addition to its efforts to combat domestic terrorism, the FBI is tackling several other priorities like cybersecurity, counterintelligence and counterproliferation, in addition to its traditional focus on a range of important criminal issues. Beyond the FBI, however, there are few federal departments and agencies with the resources, capabilities and authority to do more against domestic terrorism.
With so many possible policy options under discussion but no clear path forward, our country still faces the possibility of additional attacks that will raise the same questions about why the government is not doing more to stop the violence. Now is the time to move past the politics that have prevented needed action, to get started on a comprehensive review of the actual threat and to recommend possible and substantive plans to public officials at the federal, state and local levels.
When faced with large-scale tragedy and trauma in the aftermath of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the US government responded by establishing a bi-partisan commission led by former New Jersey Governor Tom Keane and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton . Known as the 9/11 Commission, it investigated the genesis of the attacks, examined the policies that failed to prevent the attacks and offered a series of recommendations to be implemented across the US government, including the counterterrorism and intelligence communities. The commission’s report led to the groundbreaking changes codified in the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA). Over one million copies of the report sold in book form served as the basis for a much-needed civil discourse about the nature of our democracy and national security. We desperately need that same scope of conversation today.
Recently, Tom Keane and Lee Hamilton raised the possibility of another commission on domestic terrorism similar to the one they oversaw. If such a commission were to be created now, what would it look like?
- First, as with the 9/11 Commission, it should be led by national-level leaders who have a sharp understanding of domestic terrorism, national security or law enforcement – as well as reputations for honesty and integrity.
- Second, the commission should be staffed by professionals in a variety of disciplines who are non-partisan and are there to advance the commission’s mission – not any political purpose.
- Third, the commission’s charter should include the following elements: an objective, fact-based analysis of the domestic terror threat in the United States and the key drivers generating its intensity; a review of the government’s current bureaucratic alignment against domestic terror to determine what additional resources or organizational structures might be needed in the future; and proposed legislation that would provide new authorities for an enhanced focus on domestic terror – similar to that spelled out in IRTPA against the al Qaeda threat back in 2004.
- Fourth, the commission’s mandate and charter should be established by Congress and supported by the Executive Branch, and provided appropriate resources and time needed to accomplish its mission.
- Finally, it should operate with full transparency, including open hearings, so that the American people understand the importance of its work, and its final report should be publicly available for all to see.
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Given the controversial nature of the domestic terrorist threat, and the reluctance in some quarters to address it, a domestic terrorism commission could move forward efforts to improve policies on a vital but difficult national security issue. The 9/11 Commission report provided a road map that helped refocus the government’s efforts against al Qaeda; nearly 20 years later, now is the time for similar action against a very different threat inside the United States.