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U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson raised concerns Wednesday that a key federal program that fights homegrown violent extremism is without a leader and is on the budget chopping block as the nation tries to cope with violent weekend demonstrations in Virginia.
“In a time of heightened domestic incidents, the agency charged with addressing it has no leadership and less money,” Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, told Mississippi Today in an interview.
Thompson noted that the leadership and funding vacuum comes as the nation reels from last weekend’s march led by white nationalists, neo-Nazis and right-wing groups in Charlottesville, Va., that ended in tragedy and reports of similar demonstrations being planned in the coming days.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program “aims to address the root causes of violent extremism” through anti-terrorism grants and promoting “counter-narratives to confront violent extremist messaging” states the agency’s mission statement on the web.
In his first proposed budget earlier this year, President Donald Trump’s administration did away with funding for the anti-extremism program, which began under President George W. Bush. The program’s original goal was to focus on radical Islamic terrorism.
Later in the summer, the White House slashed funding for 12 groups, including a nonprofit called Life After Hate, which focuses on white-supremacist extremists.
Following those moves and the departure of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to become Trump’s chief of staff, the director of the agency’s countering violent extremism program also stepped down in early August. George Selim, who served three presidents, told NPR that he could no longer be effective in his job because the political climate had become toxic.
Thompson said he has expressed his concerns about the need for for stable leadership and resources at the counter-terrorism office to acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke.
This week, House Democrats called for the House Homeland Security Committee to hold at least one hearing to “investigate white supremacy domestic terrorism in America.”
In a statement condemning “extremist activity” in Charlottesville, Thompson described violence carried out by members of the so-called alt-right “terrorism, plain and simple.” However, he said it’s not so plain to his Republican colleagues, who don’t seem to want to lump right-wing extremists with foreign terrorists.
“You know the Ku Klux Klan were domestic terrorists. They carried out terroristic activities from the beginning even though they say they’re Christians or even patriots,” Thompson said. “You can’t gloss over it. You have to call it for what it is.”
“There is a serious reluctance on the part of a lot of leaders in this country (to) just say ‘domestic terrorism,’ especially when those acts are carried out by whites,” he said.
The Dallas Morning News reported that U.S. Rep. Mike McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, will not have separate hearings on radical right-wing extremism but will allow members of the committee to raise concerns in an upcoming assessment of homeland-security threats, including border security and Russia.