Nessel seeks more aid from feds to combat 'deluge' of domestic terror threats
Washington — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel asked Congress on Wednesday for federal funding for state law enforcement offices so they may dedicate more staff and resources to investigating and prosecuting the "serious and growing threat" of domestic terrorism.
"We need help. We need finances," Nessel told lawmakers. "And for us to be able to do our job, we just need more in the way of funding because the problem is greater than ever, and it's going to involve more resources than ever."
The Department of Attorney General specifically needs more analysts, investigators and prosecutors, she said. To assist with a spike in threats to public officials, her office has even partnered with undergraduate cybersecurity students to help track the threats online, in part because "we don't have the funding available to do this on our own."
Nessel, a Democrat, appeared remotely Wednesday morning before the U.S. House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence & Counterterrorism, which is chaired by Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly. Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm also testified.
The hearing comes amid a conversation in Congress and nationwide about how to handle the threat posed by domestic terrorists, following the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in which five people died.
In light of the threat, Nessel said she's expanded her department's hate crimes unit to include domestic terrorism, due to the "overlap" in extremist ideologies. She also has directed her staff to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Michigan State Police, and prioritize the cases for prosecution.
"My experience in Michigan has demonstrated that acts of domestic terrorism are not focused on one political party, or even one branch of government, and the threat they present is ever-rising," Nessel testified.
"Moreover, anti-government extremism and racially motivated violent extremism is not unique to Michigan."
She highlighted comments this month by FBI Director Christopher Wray that far-right extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the country and, at any given time, his agency has about 2,000 domestic terror investigations.
Nessel said Michigan in many ways has served as "ground zero" for anti-government militia extremism, dating to the 1990s when investigators uncovered Michigan Militia's ties to Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
More recently, her office has led the prosecution of eight members of a militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen for their alleged role in a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year and take state lawmakers hostage in the state Capitol for days "before destroying it," she said.
Nessel said the extremists her office has encountered in Michigan often adhere to conspiracy-based theories that are both white supremacy or right-wing ideology in nature.
“While we have seen left-wing anarchists that sometimes join militias promoting constitutionalist or libertarian values, more often than not what we see is that it's, again, it's race-based, white-supremacy based and right-wing based," she said.
Nessel said Michigan has recently seen a "deluge" of threats to legislators, judges and other government officials on both sides of the political aisle.
Her office has been asked to review so many cases regarding threats against public officials, she said, that the department had to establish a special procedure for complaint intake and add additional prosecutorial resources to handle complaint review.
"In just the past six months, we have issued charges against individuals and five separate cases for threatening public officials, and that is honestly just the tip of the iceberg," Nessel said.
Republican Rep. Van Drew of New Jersey asked how the attorneys general on the panel would have responded to a death threat that he received from a newspaper columnist and whether it would have been considered a form of terrorism.
"The bar has been lowered recently," he said.
Nessel in response said she's pursued charges in similar cases under a Michigan statute that prohibits using an electronic device to threaten someone.
"I've charged over and over again, involving a number of public officials all the way from President Biden to Rep. Slotkin to a judge on Court of Claims to a Republican member of our state House," Nessel said.
"We have been very aggressive in terms of making sure that people understand the difference between what is acceptable First Amendment protected activity and what is a crime."
Several lawmakers asked Nessel about Michigan's Anti-Terrorism Act, which was adopted with bipartisan support shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and which she said has been "invaluable" in allowing prosecutors to go after alleged acts of domestic terrorism against targets in the state.
It was recently used to charge an individual accused of threatening to blow up the state Capitol, she noted.
"There are aspects of this law that allow us to prosecute, in a litany of different circumstances that — but for this specific Act — either we wouldn't be able to charge at all, or we would have to charge very, very minor offenses that I honestly don't think would be fitting for the conduct," she said.
Nessl recommended implementing a similar statute to Michigan's Anti-Terrorism Act at the federal level because the U.S. government does not have a laws addressing domestic terrorists or "homegrown" violent extremists.
She said that, had the plot against Whitmer been only to execute the governor, federal authorities might not have had any charges to bring at all, noting that the federal charges in the case included conspiracy to kidnap.
"This is a gap that my department has used our state laws to fill, but to fully combat domestic terrorism across the country, changes to federal criminal laws must be made," Nessel said.
Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat, asked if Michigan's law has been "abused" by law enforcement to go after civil rights protesters or Black Lives Matters activists.
Nessel responded that she understands the civil liberties concerns, but that she has not seen evidence of that, saying the statute has been "used very well in my state," in part because the law is "pretty specific" in what it involves.
"We simply haven’t seen that in the state of Michigan. We have not seen egregious violations of people’s liberties and civil rights," Nessel said.
"I desperately want to make sure that we are protecting peaceful protesters that are members of Black Lives Matter," Nessel added in a later exchange with Jackson Lee.
"But I need the tools to be able to protect Black lives, and that is what is critical to me here in the state of Michigan."
Nessel was also asked about the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys — both groups whose members have been charged in the Jan. 6 attack.
Democratic New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer expressed concerns about the difficulty in winning convictions in sedition cases, worrying about the message it would send other would-be extremists if those charged get off. He asked if the legal tools available on the state and federal levels are a deterrent to domestic terrorists.
Nessel said Michigan's gang-related statutes have allowed the state go to after groups such as the Proud Boys and a white-supremacy group known as The Base.
"We do have these types of statutes in place. They've worked for years. And traditionally, they've been used against street gangs," she said, noting the laws have been upheld against First Amendment-related challenges.
"Do you need to have something similar to this at the federal level? I would indicate I believe so. ... It is a useful tool. and it's a tool that you don't currently have."
Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, asked Nessel about her experience with cooperation by the federal government in combating acts of extremist violence.
Nessel said her experience in working with two Republican federal prosecutors on the Wolverine Watchmen-linked plot was "great" cooperation, but "that's not always the case."
A weakness she identified is intelligence-sharing between local and state police, saying outreach and education to local law enforcement is "badly needed."
"Sometimes the locals fail to properly assess and identify risk factors, like individual behavior of local extremists at the early stages, so that it can be passed up so that we can evaluate whether this is a person, truly, inherently dangerous," Nessel said.
Meijer noted that local and state law enforcement sometimes complain that that intelligence sharing with the feds is a "one-way information flow," so that they're feeding information up the chain federal agencies are not reciprocating.
"The lack of information flow goes both ways," Nessel replied.
She spoke vaguely of several circumstances where investigators found out later on in a case that there were indicators that an individual was dangerous or had aberrant behavior "but we just never found out about it because nobody passed it up to us."