Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas joins Yahoo News Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff to discuss the Biden administration’s strategy for combating the growing threat of domestic terror. A document released Tuesday pledges greater information sharing among federal and state agencies and stepped up monitoring of social media in order to thwart “online terrorist recruitment” and identify so-called insider threats, including violent extremists serving in the U.S. military as well as state and local law enforcement agencies.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: You are releasing this new national strategy to combat domestic violent extremism. How serious is this threat?
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: I consider it, and I think we consider it collectively, the most significant terrorism-related threat impacting the Homeland.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: More than the Islamic State radical Jihadism Al-Qaeda?
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Currently, yes. And I will say that I have seen, in my experience of the Department of Homeland Security, the evolution of the threat. Certainly in 2009, 2010, we were focused on the foreign terrorist threat, the individual who might cross our borders to do us harm here. Then that evolved to the homegrown, radicalized extremist, an individual who was, for example, radicalized by the ISIS ideology. And now we’re speaking of the domestic violent extremists.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: But one of the things you don’t do in this strategy is name names. You don’t identify any groups or even any movements. And so it raises the question, how exactly are you defining what is a domestic terrorist threat or organization?
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: One is it’s based on science, the science of this type of work– intelligence gathering, law enforcement information, two, the respect for civil liberties, and three, it is really ideology neutral. It is apolitical. We are taking a look at ideologies that are extremist, that are based on false narratives, and it’s the connectivity between an ideology and the act of violence. So whether it’s a far-right extremism, or it’s the ideology that underlie the 2017 attack at the ballpark of Republican legislators, what we are focused on is violence and– and not so much the particular ideology that underlies it.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, but, that still raises the question. There are groups out there that express views that would seem to fit into your definitions– Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, the QAnon movement. Are these examples of the kind of domestic violent extremism you’re trying to address?
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Well, you’re speaking of violence, which is our focus. We look at ideologies to the extent that they can spur violent activity. But individuals who espouse those ideologies have a right to espouse them, to adhere to them. We are looking at the connectivity between that ideology and unlawful, illegal, antisocial behavior.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: And have you found examples of such with the groups identified?
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We certainly have. There are cases ongoing. So I won’t provide details. But, regrettably, we– we have.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: You mentioned that we monitor, we the Department of Homeland Security, monitors the social media postings of these actors. And that’s something that some folks out there on the civil liberties side have questions about. How are you doing that? Who is doing that in the Department? Do you keep tabs on the social media postings of individuals who express extremist views? Is there a database that you’ve got in which you collect all that?
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We’re very mindful of the sensitivities around civil liberties and the rights of privacy of residents of the United States. That is precisely why we have the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Privacy Office in the Department of Homeland Security around the table, not on the back end of our work, not on the back end of our analyses, but rather on the front end around the table at the formative stage of our work.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I notice on the strategy on– on page 16, you talk about maximizing the government’s understanding of this threat through the appropriate use of analysis performed by entities outside the government. Correct me if– if I’m interpreting that–
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Not exclusively.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right.
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Not exclusively, but–
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: But you will.
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We harness– we harness external and internal expertise and capabilities.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right. But when you let people outside the government do that sort of thing, the potential for abuse does become greater. Are there steps you’re taking to make sure that government contractors who get federal dollars to do this sort of social media monitoring don’t go beyond what they’re supposed to do?
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We have a responsibility to do so, and we absolutely do.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right.
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We have terms of agreement with the United States government. That’s our responsibility.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: You said this is the number one threat right now. Give us a sense of what you see every day when you get your intelligence briefing about what these groups are up to, what they’re talking about. Do you hear and see them talking about plans for further violence? Do you hear about or see stuff that makes you stay up at night?
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We see it all. I will tell you that we see incendiary language that gives us cause for concern, but there’s no explicitly articulated intention to commit violence. But it’s certainly language that worries us. And it’s our job to worry because worry speaks of alertness. Alertness speaks of readiness. And readiness speaks of partnership in our communities across the country.
So we see that, and then we see expressly articulated intention to galvanize people to violence. And whether or not that materializes, we have an obligation to work with people on the ground on the front lines to be ready.