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How Biden Administration May Address Domestic Extremism


Try to walk towards the U.S. Capitol or the White House today, and blocks before you get there, you will hit a security perimeter - concrete barriers, armored trucks, armed security. The city is braced, of course, for disruptions in the run-up to Joe Biden's swearing in, braced for a possible repeat of violence from right-wing rioters.

Well, whatever happens - or hopefully does not happen - with the inauguration, the challenge of combating domestic violent extremism is not going away. And as of two days from now, it will, like every other national security challenge, fall to the incoming Biden team, which prompts us now to take a look at what new ideas the Biden team may bring to the table. And for that, we are joined by Mary McCord. She was acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department.

Mary McCord, welcome.

MARY MCCORD: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: I'm going to start broad and then get specific. Do we know yet whether the Biden administration might take a dramatically different approach to this threat than the outgoing administration has?

MCCORD: I think we know that the new administration will simply because if you think back to the launch of Biden's campaign, he launched by talking about Charlottesville's Unite the Right rally, which, of course, was a key and devastating example of domestic political violence and extremism. And so although we haven't heard any specific announcements yet, I think from the very beginning, you will see an emphasis on the threat that is posed by domestic violent extremism.

KELLY: Yeah. This will, of course, be an area that various agencies and departments across the federal government will be working on. But I want to call attention to one person who will be playing a prominent role - Russ Travers, the incoming deputy homeland security director for President Biden. He was head of the National Counterterrorism Center until he was fired last year under the Trump administration. And over the summer - this past summer, he made what now appears a very prescient prediction. He said if the president loses the presidential election, Russ Travers said, I wouldn't be surprised if right-wing domestic terrorist groups stage attacks, which, of course, is exactly what we've now seen.

MCCORD: That's right. And, of course, I think Russ is a great appointment. You know, he understands that you need to bring a whole-of-government and, frankly, whole-of-community - not just government and certainly not just federal government but also state, local, et cetera - you need to bring that approach to this problem set. Kind of like in international terrorism - you had to bring a whole of the international community as well as the U.S. community to the problem set.

And, you know, although he was prescient, he wasn't the only one. I mean, there's been a lot of us that have been talking for some time now about the danger of the - you know, the expanding recruitment and, you know, propagandizing of the far-right in this country and some of the radicalization toward violence that we've seen. And we've seen it escalating through this year.

KELLY: Yeah. You're talking about a whole-of-government approach, but, of course, ultimately, someone has to take the lead. Wandering around downtown D.C. this past weekend, I was struck by all the big wanted posters at bus stops which read, seeking information on the assault at the U.S. Capitol. And they give the number to call, and it is 1-800-CALL-FBI because the FBI currently has the lead role in countering terrorism in the U.S. Is that the right setup? Is that something that the incoming team might look at changing, maybe standing up a new agency to deal with an emerging threat?

MCCORD: I don't know that we need a new agency, but I think what we're going to see is the - so much information is going to come out of these current investigations, and this information needs to be shared broadly because there are lots of tools that can be used. And we need to have accountability, whether it's federal-level accountability, state-level accountability, local-level accountability. And we have to have prevention, and we're going to learn a lot. You know, if you just read the complaints that have been filed so far in federal court and in state and local court, you're going to learn a lot about the sources and roots of the problem.

KELLY: OK. That is Mary McCord. She was an acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department. She's now at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

Mary McCord, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

MCCORD: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.