The new attorney general, Merrick Garland, has outlined an ambitious agenda to fight domestic terrorism in the United States, including white supremacists and hate crimes, while strengthening civil rights and the right to vote, critical areas that were Ignored by the Trump administration, say former federal prosecutors. and members of Congress.
The change in the Justice Department represents one of the toughest changes under Joe Biden of the Trump era. Under former attorney general Bill Barr, the justice department was often seen as at the disposal of Trump, the former president accused of treating him as virtually his own legal service.
But while Garland has garnered high marks for several early initiatives and his priorities, the former high-level judge still has a lot of work to do to rebuild key parts of the agency, Justice Department observers say.
In two congressional appearances this month, Garland indicated that fighting domestic terrorism in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was his “top priority” and has requested new funding for that purpose, while also making some initial moves. to expand civil rights. and the application of voting rights as well.
On May 12, Garland explained some of his first steps in countering domestic terrorism at a Senate hearing where he highlighted efforts to work with foreign allies and tech companies to combat the growing threat of more violence after the Capitol riots, which according to the Washington Post has led to more than 2,000 criminal charges against 411 suspects,
Garland, who in a previous judicial position led the investigation into the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, noted in his testimony that the greatest domestic threat comes from “racially or violently motivated extremists. ethnic “and highlighted” those who defend the superiority of the white race. “
Additionally, in an early civil rights initiative, the day after a grand jury convicted former white police officer Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd, Garland personally announced that the department was opening an investigation into whether the police department Minneapolis had engaged in a possible pattern of discrimination and excessive force.
To oversee civil rights, Biden selected two prominent veterans in the field: Kristen Clarke, who is still awaiting Senate confirmation to become the first black woman to lead the civil rights division, and Pamela Karlan, number two in the division. Both have received praise from former voting rights prosecutors.
Karlan has already jumped into the push from Arizona Senate Republicans to reverse Joe Biden’s election victory there by hiring an inexperienced company, Cyber Ninjas, run by a man who has indicated he is on the same page. wrong conspiracy claims by Trump that the election was stolen. lead a recount of 2.1 million votes in the largest county in the state. Karlan wrote last week to a top Arizona state legislator expressing strong concern that the recount could violate voter intimidation laws and violate ballot safety rules.
Some former top Justice Department attorneys and members of Congress are hopeful that Garland can reorient the policies of Barr and his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, but warn that Garland faces several impediments that could hamper the expansion of civil rights enforcement. and the fight against national terrorism.
Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general of justice, said in an interview that “there were a lot of highly qualified people in the civil rights division who decided they couldn’t stand Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions. [and so left]. I think they will have a personnel problem due to the bleeding of the last years ”.
Similarly, Bromwich notes that shifting the FBI from its two decades of focus on foreign terrorism after 9/11 to domestic terrorism will take some work. “The FBI is like an ocean liner, it’s hard to move it,” Bromwich said.
Still, “everyone now recognizes that foreign terrorism is not as great a threat as domestic terrorism,” he added, noting that FBI Director Chris Wray understood the seriousness of the domestic threat and testified before Congress. last year the main threat comes. of white supremacist and far-right groups.
Some members of Congress see other big challenges ahead to stamp out right-wing extremism.
“Donald Trump threw kerosene on an already growing fire of right-wing extremism,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “Now, the department needs a strategy to look upstream from the Confederate insurgents carrying Jan.6 flags to the funders, organizers and platforms behind them.”
Similarly, Whitehouse sees some roadblocks to curbing growing voter suppression efforts across the country. “One of the top priorities of the big Republican donors is a broad voter suppression campaign funded with dark money. That’s why Republicans are pushing voter suppression bills in every state house across the country, and why the right-wing’s main campaign operation to capture our courts went entirely to suppressing votes last year. .
“The Justice Department needs a strong and talented voting rights team, and the Biden administration as a whole needs a strategy to counter the forces of dark money running that voter suppression operation.” Whitehouse stressed.
To be sure, Garland’s early policy moves and budget requests suggest that he is moving quickly to reorient the department’s priorities.
To bolster civil rights work, Garland asked Congress for $ 209 million, or $ 33 million more than the previous year, which he stressed would be needed to prosecute the wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans during pandemic and ensure voting rights are respected. expanded as Republican efforts to reduce them in many states are now underway.
Additionally, on May 4, Garland said in House testimony that he was seeking an increase of more than $ 100 million in the budget to fund the fight against domestic terrorism – the new budget seeks an additional $ 45 million for the FBI expand your domestic terrorism investigations, and an additional $ 40m for US prosecutors to handle these cases.
Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski said in an interview that the changes to Garland’s watch have been encouraging. “I was very happy to see their moves in Arizona and reestablish historic roles in enforcing civil rights and voting rights.”
Some veterans of the department’s voting rights are also hopeful about the ongoing changes.
“The DoJ was absent from action in the Trump years in terms of civil rights enforcement, especially in the world of voting rights,” said Gerry Hebert, who was a senior attorney in the voting rights section for more than 20 years.
But Karlan and Clarke, Hebert said, are: “superstars in the civil rights community … and they will change the game because they know how vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws improves the lives of all Americans.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism