Nessel to testify before U.S. House panel on domestic terror threat

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is set to testify during a U.S. House panel hearing Wednesday about state and local responses to the growing threat of domestic terrorism in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. 

The forum will be the first public hearing led by U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat who is the new chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence & Counterterrorism.

Nessel's office has led the prosecution of eight members of a Michigan militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen for their alleged role in a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged six other individuals as part of the same investigation.

Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, U.S. Representative for Michigan's 8th congressional district makes an appearance at the capitol building in Lansing, January 17, 2021, amid rumors of violent protests.

Over the weekend, another alleged member of the Watchmen group from Clarkston was charged with converting a semiautomatic weapon to an automatic weapon and one count of possessing a silencer device. 

"Obviously, these issues are deeply personal to me, coming from Michigan, where just over the weekend we've continued to have more news of arrests being made," Slotkin said. 

"Most of the folks arrested in that plot are my constituents. They come from areas 15 minutes down the road," she added.

"So, not only is this an important policy issue but, for many of us, it is a matter of security, of topical interest in our home states, and you'll see that across the board from the committee members."

Slotkin is a former Central Intelligence Agency officer with a career in national security before her election to Congress. She said Michigan has some of the most robust domestic terrorism and anti-militia laws, but other states don't have strong statutes in this area or are sorely lacking in personnel and resources. 

"Even if a state has laws on the books, like Michigan does, doesn’t mean we are actually sourced to investigate and then get to prosecutions on all of these cases and actually use the law on the books," Slotkin told reporters Tuesday.  

"You will hear Attorney General Nessel speak about the need for resources and how, when it comes to hate crimes in the state of Michigan, we have one individual who works on hate crimes full time."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel provides an update on COVID-19 in Michigan on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.

The patchwork of state laws and under-resourced investigators poses a problem for prosecutors.

"That became an apparent problem very, very quickly when we started to research this issue, and it speaks to a fundamental question that everyone's asking right now in Washington, which is, do we need additional federal law to counter domestic terrorism?" Slotkin said.

"And I thought it was important to have the conversation in public, as we will have tomorrow."

Nessel will testify Wednesday alongside Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. Both, like Nessel, are Democrats.

Slotkin said since January, the subcommittee members spearheaded an intelligence assessment of the domestic terror threat, meeting privately with officials from the Department of Justice, the White House, Department of Homeland Security, regional FBI agents and states attorneys general for briefings about the scope of the  issue. 

She said part of the reason the committee did such thorough prep work is the "very politically sensitive" nature of the issue.

"It's very controversial for many people, and it was important to me that as we set the tone with the committee that we had our facts straight," she added. 

"Members of the committee on both sides were able to hear over and over again that the greatest threats come from racially motivated groups, and the largest chunk of those are white supremacists."

Slotkin said she was surprised to learn how many domestic terror groups have had conversations with foreign extremist groups — for example, American extremists communicating with foreign white supremacist organizations in the eastern Ukraine or Eastern Europe more broadly. 

"I was a little bit skeptical of these links until I was exposed to how many of them have had those conversations," Slotkin said. 

She has written to Secretary of State Tony Blinken urging him to designate these extremist organizations abroad as foreign terror groups, so that groups engaging with them from the U.S. could be sought after by prosecutors. 

"I’m interested in the designation of a whole bunch of groups," Slotkin said. "But I was surprised how many of these groups had basic correspondence with these foreign terror groups."

She noted the recent designation by the Canadian government of the Proud Boys as a terror organization — a group with members who have been charged with participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"I've gone into my own town here and seen people wearing Proud Boys jackets and bracelets, and we know that they've been a significant group on the rise," she said.

In non-COVID times, Michiganians would be going back and forth across the Canadian border often for entertainment or dining out or to visit friends or property. 

"So what does it mean if someone is a member of the Proud Boys and they go across the border?" Slotkin said. "And what responsibilities are we expected to carry out for the Canadian government, if any? It just opens a ton of these questions."