WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to expand grants from the Department of Homeland Security to study and try to prevent domestic violent extremism, two DHS officials said, as part of a departmentwide effort to make combating the kind of violence seen last month at the U.S. Capitol “a top priority.”
“We have successfully advocated for additional funds. We intend to keep building on preventing domestic terrorism departmentwide,” one of the officials said.
The new grants would expand on those funded at the end of the Trump administration by DHS’ Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, which included over $500,000 for a project at American University that studies the “growing threat of violent white supremacist extremist disinformation.” The program is aimed at preventing spread of the disinformation through what researchers call “attitudinal inoculation.”
Similar grants, including one to study neo-Nazis, had been awarded by the Obama administration, but they were canceled by the Trump administration in 2017.
The idea of attitudinal inoculation is to give people who may be vulnerable to disinformation the skills to recognize it and argue against it, much as a vaccine builds antibodies to a virus before the body encounters it.
The prevention model helps people who may be susceptible to believing disinformation that would lead them to violence develop what researcher Kurt Braddock calls “psychological antibodies.”
“They develop their own counterarguments against those messages on their own,” Braddock said.
Although DHS did fund the grants like Braddock’s during the Trump administration, officials there say they were met with resistance when they tried to make fighting domestic terrorism a priority.
During the Trump administration, DHS officials refrained from even using the term “domestic terrorism” at White House meetings and were told instead to refer more generally to “violence prevention,” said Elizabeth Neumann, who was DHS’ assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention before she left the department in April. She eventually endorsed Joe Biden for president.
“We did expand domestic terrorism prevention under Trump, but when it came to questions of how we could change the domestic terrorism statute to charge people more easily, there were no adults at the White House who were willing to go there, nor was anyone willing to define the threat,” Neumann said.
By contrast, Biden’s DHS is outspoken about naming and preventing domestic violent extremism.
“Domestic violent extremism poses one of the gravest threats to our homeland, and Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas has made clear that combatting it is a top priority. Our primary responsibility is to protect the safety and security of the American people, which means taking actions to prevent violence before it occurs,” a DHS spokesperson said.
In September, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that domestic terrorism cases are on the rise and that racially motivated extremists are the biggest piece of that group, particularly those with white supremacist ideologies.
On Jan. 27, just a week after Biden took office, DHS issued a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin warning of the threat of domestic violent extremists who may have been “emboldened” by the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
The models Braddock and others are using to target and stop potential domestic terrorists before they engage in violence are similar to those developed during the Obama administration, most notably to prevent would-be jihadis from traveling overseas to support the Islamic State terrorist group or carrying out attacks at home.
Many of the programs were criticized for violating the trust of the Muslim community, as some were run by U.S. attorney’s offices, the same offices that would prosecute people for turning to violence or supporting terrorist organizations.
Preventing domestic terrorism carries the burden of not violating free speech protections, as membership in or espousing beliefs in the ideology of a domestic group that has committed violence is not in and of itself a crime.
Another challenge, experts say, is the much larger pool of disinformation and followers of that disinformation that fuel right-wing extremist groups compared to jihadi ideologies.
The trick, some believe, is to cut off those sources of information through “deplatforming,” much as Twitter did when it shut down former President Donald Trump’s account after it determined that the disinformation he spread about the election led to violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
But there is a widespread belief within DHS that it should not be the federal government’s role to censor people or organizations, especially if the pressure is exerted by a Democratic administration on conservative media.
“Hopefully we are reaching people before they ruin their lives and make sure disinformation and conspiracy theories don’t take root,” a DHS official said.
Julia Ainsley is a correspondent covering the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the NBC News Investigative Unit.