This is an important first step. The Justice Department has begun an internal review to determine how to remove any extremists from within federal law enforcement after the arrest of current and former police officers for their involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Attorney General Merrick Garland described a review that was in its early stages and is complicated by the need to avoid violating the First Amendment rights of Justice Department employees.
The deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, “has met with the heads of all of our law enforcement agencies to determine how we can carefully vet our own employees,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
We welcome such a review, as should all Americans.
Attacks and plots by domestic extremists are at historic highs, with the majority of them being planned by those on the far right espousing white supremacist and related ideologies. In 2020 alone, white nationalists and like-minded extremists were behind 67% of terrorist plots and attacks in the United States.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy note this week, “We cannot deny we are facing a class of criminals who feel more emboldened than ever. In asking why, we cannot ignore a simple fact. During the past four years, extremists who were once relegated to the fringes of our society and uniformly condemned by our nation’s leaders suddenly felt they had support at the highest levels of the United States government — indeed, from within the Oval Office itself.”
Garland told lawmakers: “The Department of Justice is deeply committed to combating domestic violent extremism and domestic terrorism. We are equally committed to fighting violence and terrorism that is directed or inspired by foreign actors. ... As to both, we will pursue justice in a manner that honors the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States. Thank you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing. And thank you for your partnership with the Justice Department in ensuring that we have the resources we need to carry out this vital mission.”
It was a notable disclosure considering the Justice Department is charged with enforcing federal civil rights laws and oversees the FBI, which is the lead agency in charge of investigating the growing threat posed by violent domestic extremists.
It is also potentially tricky legal ground because of the risk of intrusion on personal beliefs that are protected under the Constitution.
Garland describes those competing interests as “being mindful of First Amendment free associational rights, but at the same time being careful that we don’t have people in our ranks who commit criminal acts or who are not able to carry out their duties.”
The attorney general’s disclosure of an internal review came in response to a question from Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin about the arrest of a retired New York Police Department officer, Thomas Webster, in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in which supporters of President Donald Trump sought to force Congress to overturn the results of the November election.
Webster, who was captured on video tackling a police officer and striking him with a metal flagpole, was charged with six counts. Durbin said Webster’s arrest raises a “painful” question: whether there are others in state, local or federal law enforcement who might be capable of extremist behavior.
Garland suggested that federal grants could be issued to local and state police departments to help them vet potential officers.
Also during the hearing, he described the broader Capitol insurrection investigation, with more than 400 arrests to date, as far from complete as authorities comb through video and other evidence.
“This investigation is not over,” he said. “We will pursue each lead until we’re confident that we will have reached the end.”
According to the Associated Press, Garland called the Jan. 6 attack an attempt to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power, a “fundamental element of our democracy,” and thus worthy of attention. “I have not seen a more dangerous threat to democracy than the invasion of the Capitol.”
An Associated Press survey of law enforcement agencies nationwide found that at least 31 officers in 12 states are being scrutinized by their supervisors for their behavior in Washington either in the riot itself or the march and protest that preceded it.
Officials are looking into whether the officers violated any laws or policies or participated in the violence.
That is too many.
“Let us show the world that America is capable of confronting its greatest challenges while living up to its highest ideals,” Leahy agreed.