The January 6 attack on the US Capitol shocked the nation. Now, as so often occurs in the wake of tragedy, some Washington politicians are using the opportunity to push for an expansion of their power—hoping Americans are too shell-shocked to object.
A bipartisan group in Congress has introduced the so-called “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act Of 2021.” It would expand the surveillance and police powers of the national security state in the name of combatting dangerous extremism.
“America must be vigilant to combat those radicalized to violence, and the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act gives our government the tools to identify, monitor and thwart their illegal activities,” Congressman Brad Schneider, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said. “Combatting the threat of domestic terrorism and white supremacy is not a Democratic or Republican issue, not left versus right or urban versus rural. Domestic Terrorism is an American issue, a serious threat that we can and must address together.”
The Bill Is Drawing Backlash
We all surely agree that true domestic terrorism is reprehensible. But many progressive lawmakers are speaking out against the hasty push to expand government power and warning of the threat it poses to civil liberties. They warn these powers will undoubtedly be used against many more people and disfavored groups than just violent radicals like those who attacked the Capitol.
Former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a progressive Democrat, called this push “so dangerous” in a Fox News interview.
“We don’t have to guess about where this goes or where it ends,” Gabbard argues, “When you have people like former CIA Director John Brennan openly talking about how he’s spoken with appointees and nominees in the Biden administration who are already starting to look across our country for these types of movements… that in his words make up this ‘unholy alliance’ of ‘religious extremists,’ ‘racists,’ ‘bigots’ … even ‘libertarians.’”
.@joebiden Your leadership is needed now to denounce those like John Brennan & Rep Schiff who are advocating for targeting half the country as potential domestic terrorists. Truly unite the American people around our Constitution & the rights that are endowed to us by our Creator pic.twitter.com/OpemBm4biS— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) January 24, 2021
.@JohnBrennan: Biden intel community “are moving in laser-like fashion to try to uncover as much as they can about” the pro-Trump “insurgency” that harbors “religious extremists, authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, nativists, even libertarians” pic.twitter.com/SjVXWhPhR8— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) January 20, 2021
“So, when you look at their process as they’re building this profile of a potential ‘extremist,’ what are we talking about?” she asked. “Are we talking about evangelical Christians? Somebody who is pro-life? Libertarians? People who attended a Trump rally?”
“[This would] lead to a very dangerous undermining of our civil liberties… and a targeting of almost half the country,” Gabbard concluded.
The concern is that government powers authorized ostensibly for use against “domestic terrorists” would wind up being wielded against much broader swaths of society.
A letter signed by 10 progressive House Democrats, including Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ro Khanna, calls on leadership to “reject reactionary demands to further erode the rights and liberties of the American people."
I’m leading the call for national security powers to not be expanded in light of the attack on our nation’s Capitol that occurred two weeks ago, as such measures often lead to the erosion of Americans’ civil liberties. pic.twitter.com/K6IHTPQzne— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) January 19, 2021
“History is littered with examples of initiatives sold as being necessary to fight extremism that quickly devolve into tools used for the mass violation of the human and civil rights of the American people," the letter warns.
Why Progressive Critics Are Right to Oppose New ‘Domestic Terrorism’ Powers
There is simply no need to expand the government’s police powers. According to New York University’s law school, “existing statutes have long provided substantial authority for the federal government to investigate and prosecute acts of domestic terrorism."
Indeed, at least 150 people have been charged with crimes related to the attack on the Capitol. The government already has vast powers to surveil, pursue, and prosecute Americans who commit crimes or plot violence. After all, law enforcement already knew from intelligence that the planned demonstration at the Capitol could turn violent. Their failure to adequately prepare for it was not due to a lack of information or authority.
Some might wonder, well, how could it hurt to give them more tools? Better safe than sorry, right?
This is an understandable impulse but deeply naive as a permanent conclusion. There’s good reason to think that “domestic terrorism” government powers would wind up targeting many Americans—because we’ve seen the same dynamic play out before, time and time again.
Passed in the wake of the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act gave the federal government enormous surveillance powers.
For example, it authorized “sneak and peek” searches, allowing government officials to search someone’s home or office, take pictures, and even sometimes confiscate property, yet only inform them after-the-fact. According to the ACLU, 76 percent of sneak-and-peak searches have occurred in drug enforcement cases, with less than 1 percent actually happening in terrorism-related-cases.
The Patriot Act also created a new pathway for FBI agents to access Americans’ personal information, such as phone records, computer records, credit history, and banking information. Per the ACLU, of the 192,500 such records examinations the FBI made from 2003 to 2006, only one led to a terrorism conviction. (And the ACLU says that conviction would have been obtained without Patriot Act.)
All of this doesn’t even touch on the way post-Patriot-Act mass surveillance caught up millions of innocent Americans, as exposed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
There’s plenty of precedent that suggests these abuses can be explicitly political, too.
“Government agencies—including the FBI and the Department of Defense—have conducted their own spying on innocent and law-abiding Americans,” the ACLU reports. “Through the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU learned the FBI had been consistently monitoring peaceful groups such Quakers, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace, the Arab American Anti-Defamation Committee and, indeed, the ACLU itself.”
We might give the government vast new powers to fight “domestic terrorism.” But it’s inevitable that these same powers will eventually be used against millions of Americans who have nothing to do with such extremism.
The Big Picture: We Must Resist Rushing Through Bad Ideas Amid Emergencies
There’s a lesson here that extends beyond the specific debate over surveillance powers and the War on Terror. In times of crisis and emergency, enterprising politicians will always seek to exploit the situation to expand their own power. Too often, scared citizens go along with these power grabs.
This is the danger economist Robert Higgs identified in his seminal work Crisis and Leviathan as “the Ratchet Effect.”
Higgs showed how throughout history, crises have been used to excuse government power grabs. After each crisis, the government lets go of some of the power, but never all of it. As a result, the federal government’s power (the Leviathan) has “ratcheted up,” crisis after crisis, throughout the last hundred years.
Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians alike must stand firm against the latest push to infringe on civil liberties in the name of combating “domestic terror.” Otherwise, sweeping powers granted amid crisis will undoubtedly be used against millions of Americans who did nothing wrong on January 6.