Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., boasted on Twitter Wednesday that she had effectively schooled the FBI on its handling of domestic terrorism.
Referring to her questioning of the bureau’s leaders at a House Oversight subcommittee hearing on white supremacy Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez claimed to have proved that “Neo-Nazis are getting off the hook.” By contrast, she said, Muslims attackers are “routinely treated” as terrorists.
This hearing was wild.
First the FBI witness tried to say I was wrong. I tried to be generous + give benefit of doubt, but then we checked. I wasn’t.
Violence by Muslims is routinely treated as “terrorism,” White Supremacist violence isn’t.
Neo-Nazis are getting off the hook. https://t.co/RCjp4687by
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 5, 2019
A NowThis clip that Ocasio-Cortez shared in her tweet indeed makes her look pretty good. But the complete C-SPAN video of her performance at the three-hour hearing tells another story. In reality, FBI officials had to repeatedly explain to the congresswoman why she was wrong.
Like many of her Democratic colleagues, Ocasio-Cortez, who chaired the hearing, used her five minutes to challenge agency leaders on why right-wing terrorism is treated differently than the radical Islamist type. She directed most of her questions to Michael McGarrity, the assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division.
Ocasio-Cortez noted the 2015 Charleston church shooting and last year’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting were prosecuted as hate crimes. By contrast, she complained, the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino and 2016 Orlando nightclub attacks were charged as terrorists, which she suggested meant their crimes were taken more seriously.
“Doesn’t it seem that because the perpetrator was Muslim that the designation would say it’s a foreign organization?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“That is not correct,” McGarrity interrupted, using a phrase he had to repeat often during their back-and-forth. “Doesn’t matter what religion.”
Ocasio-Cortez then asked him if white supremacy was not a global issue, as she has often warned.
“It is a global issue,” McGarrity responded.
“So why are they not charged with foreign terror?” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“Because the United States Congress doesn’t have a statute for us for domestic terrorism like we do for a foreign terrorist organization like we do for ISIS, al Qaeda and Al-Shabaab,” he said.
The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez terrorism doctrine
On Twitter the next day, Ocasio-Cortez claimed to have come to the hearing with an open mind. But in fact, she has repeatedly tried to make an issue out of how the FBI handles white supremacist terrorism.
In a now-familiar feedback loop, Ocasio-Cortez last month retweeted another NowThis video of herself questioning a congressional witness. In that case, it was a sympathetic Anti-Defamation League official about the same point.
As Pluralist noted at the time – and McGarrity alluded to Tuesday – the 2001 Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as a “dangerous” act that violates the law in an attempt to intimidate civilians or influence government policy. But rather than creating a new crime, it gives law enforcement officials broader powers to investigate and prosecute existing crimes.
American terrorists have often been charged under a federal law against providing material support to terrorists. But in most cases, the law only applies to attacks carried out on behalf of one of the nearly 60 foreign terrorist organization recognized by the State Department. Almost all the groups on the list are Islamist; none are white supremacist.
A comparable list of domestic terrorist groups does not exist because it could violate the First Amendment by criminalizing unpopular ideas.
The upshot is that it’s much harder to charge a white supremacist with crimes related to domestic terrorism compared to a Muslim extremist.
Neither Dylann Roof, who was convicted of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, nor Robert Gregory Bowers, who has been charged with last year’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, could have been prosecuted under the material support law. Still, Roof was sentenced to death, and federal prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty for Bowers as well.