DC Protests Catalyze PATRIOT Act-Style Domestic Terrorism Bill

by Vins

Almost twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the January 6th protests that many establishment US news outlets called an ‘insurrection’ shed new light on previously drafted domestic terrorism legislation. The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021 (H.R. 350) aims to provide federal organizations—including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)—license to “monitor, analyze, investigate, and prosecute domestic terrorism,” and would require them to report periodically on their operations. Like the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act, H.R. 350 would grant more surveillance power to the US government. As Alex Emmons reported for the Intercept, “civil liberties advocates are wary of such a move, noting that federal law enforcement already has powerful tools to investigate and prosecute acts of domestic terrorism without any new laws, and that importing the anti-terrorism framework risks creating broad and vague powers that could be used to go after activists or religious minorities.”

Opponents of H.R. 350 cite issues with the increased government power the bill provides, in addition to the potential risk that increased surveillance has on minority groups. These potential dangers hearken back to the sweeping legislation of the USA PATRIOT Act, enacted in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Act increased the federal government’s surveillance capabilities and its ability to go after potential ‘terrorist’ threats. With newly authorized powers, organizations including the FBI increased their surveillance of Muslim Americans. The PATRIOT Act built on previous legislation that negatively impacted minority groups in the name of “national security,” including the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which introduced the concept of “material support,” which provided news tools to prosecute individuals believed to support foreign terrorist organizations, even if those individuals did not intend to facilitate terrorist acts. The Anti-Terrorism Act disproportionately impacted the “mass of mostly poor and working-class people sitting on death rows across the United States” and not terrorists, Chris Gibbons, a reporter for Jacobin magazine, noted. “One thing is certain,” Gibbons wrote, failure to prevent the Capitol attack was not due to “lack of police powers or anti-terrorism measures.”

Many Democrats favor H.R. 350, including President Joe Biden, a longtime supporter of such bills who, as a Senator, famously championed the USA PATRIOT Act. Biden included increased measures in his 2020 campaign messaging. However, as Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, told the Intercept, if legislation such as H.R. 350 had been enacted in the summer of 2020 when Black Lives Protests took place across the nation, then President Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, “would have had the discretion to treat property damage from the anti-racism protests as terrorism. And I don’t think we want to leave that kind of discretion to the attorney general, even when you trust the attorney general.”

This story has received some establishment news coverage; however, most of this is uncritical of the proposed legislation. Reports by the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, for example, outlined previous legislation but reported with little balance merely ‘stating the facts.’ NBC News published an opinion piece by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Hina Shamsi and Manar Waheed, which focused on the harm H.R. 350 would entail for minority groups, but only briefly mentioning the USA PATRIOT Act.

Sources:

Alex Emmons, “Capitol Hill Assault Revives Calls for Domestic Terrorism Law, but Civil Liberties Groups are Wary,” The Intercept, January 10, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/01/10/capitol-hill-riot-domestic-terrorism-legislation/.

Chip Gibbons, “The Capitol Riot Was Bad Enough. New Domestic Terrorism Legislation Would Make It Even Worse,” Jacobin, January 12, 2021, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/01/capitol-hill-riot-domestic-terrorism-laws-surveillance.

Sou Mi, “Patriot Act 2.0 Biden’s Domestic Terrorism Laws Are a Danger to the Working Class,” Left Voice, January 15, 2021, https://www.leftvoice.org/patriot-act-2-0-bidens-domestic-terrorism-laws-are-a-danger-to-the-working-class.

Student Researcher: Samuel Berry (St. Michael’s College)

Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams (St. Michael’s College)