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President Trump's rhetoric has helped “create a space" for extremism to bloom in America, the kind that led to the violent riot at the United States’ Capitol on Jan. 6, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told VICE News in an exclusive interview.
His agency now considers domestic extremism a top threat.
“It is the most significant terrorism-related threat to our homeland right now,” he told VICE News last week.
Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor whose family brought him to the U.S. from Cuba as an infant, is the first immigrant and Latino to lead DHS. He was also one of the first Cabinet members confirmed in the nascent Biden administration.
Since taking office, Mayorkas has made combating domestic violent extremism one of the agency’s top priorities. VICE News sat down with him to discuss why—and whether social media platforms are helping or not.
VICE News: How did domestic violent extremism in this country get to this point that we're at right now?
Alejandro Mayorkas: So that's a very profound question. I think that the causes of it are very much the subject of study. We have seen socioeconomic challenges and issues of divisiveness in our country really rise to the surface. They have been given greater space than we have experienced in many, many years, if not decades, by reason of the rhetoric of leaders.
Is it worse now than it was four years ago?
I would say it is. We did not understand it to be one of the greatest threats that we face domestically to our homeland. And now I think we do.
Your job is to assess threats to the homeland. Is domestic violent extremism the biggest threat to democracy right now?
I would say it is the most significant terrorism-related threat to our homeland right now.
If it's a threat to the homeland, then does that mean it’s a threat to our way of life, or the democratic process?
If I may, I will tell you my personal view. I came to this country as an infant. We were a family of political refugees. There are icons in our country that represent the reasons why my family came here. The Capitol is one of them. Jan. 6 was an extraordinarily tragic day for our country, and it profoundly impacted me because of my upbringing, that we cannot rally around that event, understand it for what it is. And the threat it posed to our democracy, I think speaks volumes about the gravity of the threat that we're speaking of now.
What are you actually doing on a day-to-day basis to curb this kind of violence?
So we're doing a number of things. One, for example, is collecting information, gathering intelligence, analyzing it, and disseminating our analysis to our state, local, tribal, territorial partners. That's a critical element of what we do, because really it's the first responders in the communities that are best positioned to address the connectivity between ideologies of hate, false narratives and acts of violence.
We're also, frankly, taking a look at programs that are already in place in communities and seeing how we can best partner with them, how we can resource and equip them. And we're also building those programs where they didn't previously exist. It's a multipart effort across the entire federal government.
How are you working with Facebook, with Twitter, and with some of these dark web platforms we're seeing kind of pop up, like Gab?
So the dark web is an extraordinary challenge. Its genesis originally was to give a platform for dissidents in authoritarian regimes to give a channel for free speech and cries for freedom and democracy and liberty. Of course, we've seen the dark web continue in that regard.
Regrettably and tragically, it is also a vehicle, an instrument, a platform of criminality, child pornography, child exploitation and the like. Drawing the line between speech and the connectivity between speech and violence is not always easy. But that's our responsibility. And we do it always guided by our constitutional principles.
Do you find that places like Facebook and Twitter are helpful?
We are partnering with them. Yes, because they share information that they have. I think it's a work in progress, quite frankly.
It doesn't sound like they're super helpful.
I don't mean to cast aspersions on their commitment to shared goals of eradicating domestic violent extremism, the connectivity between speech and violence. But I think they share the challenge that we do in embracing and championing free speech and identifying when a line is crossed between that speech and antisocial behavior that endangers others.
There has been a sort of rewriting of history that has happened around Jan. 6. Former president Donald Trump said that there was such love at that rally and they were “peaceful” people. Does he endanger the nation further?
So, words matter, the words of leaders matter a lot. Those are very injurious words. In my opinion, they create a space that should not be created. We should be united in our condemnation of hate, we should be united in our condemnation of acts of violence, whether born of hate or not, but acutely if born of hate. And those words I find to be quite injurious and false.
Does the former president fan the flames of domestic extremism?
There certainly is that potential for those words to fan the flames.
DHS put out a bulletin at the end of last month about extremism attacks potentially happening this summer, especially around August, because Trump has said that he believes he could be reinstated and his supporters believe that. Are you making specific security preparations in case something happens next month?
We're watching the threat landscape very carefully. We are harnessing the studies to which I referred earlier from academics, from think tanks, from other legitimate sources. We're learning from our state, local, tribal, territorial partners. They feed information to us and we spread it out throughout the country.
Should you be telling the public more about how you are preparing?
We should. And we are. So you mentioned the bulletin. That was the first such bulletin in quite a long time. And it was not influenced by politics. It was defined by data, by facts. We have issued information bulletins since. One of the things that I heard from local law enforcement was we need to hear from you. The Department of Homeland Security has a vantage point of knowing what's going on across the country. And so we pull from across the country and we feed that information to communities, whether it be fusion centers, joint terrorism task forces, whatever the architecture might be. We are pushing that information out in unprecedented ways.
I know part of this national strategy is to look at extremism in the military. Have you found anyone within DHS who shouldn't be there, who adhere to extremist views?
Our internal review, which I directed, is ongoing, and so we don't have any conclusions yet. The line between the principle of free speech and the ability to adhere to the ideologies one chooses is something that we respect and understand. It's grounded in our Constitution. So, for example, if somebody's in a back room somewhere in the Department of Homeland Security [and] espouses a language of hate, that might be protected from any disciplinary action, because it does not impair that individual's ability to carry out her or his duties in an impartial way. And yet there might be, for example, an immigration officer in the street who, if he or she espouses anti-immigrant rhetoric, may impair the objectivity.
If the former president continues to lie about what happened in the 2020 elections, do you think that Americans are going to have confidence in what happens in the 2022 midterms and in the 2024 presidential election?
As I mentioned before, language matters, and the language of leaders matters a lot. President Biden spoke extraordinarily powerfully on this precise point, and we have to counter false narratives and counter false narratives specific to the 2020 election as a president so powerfully did. Yesterday [last Wednesday] I spoke to state and local election leaders who are responsible for the security of upcoming elections. And I commended them for their extraordinary work in protecting the integrity of the 2020 elections.
Those people are getting a lot of threats, though.
You know, sometimes the work we do is tough for different reasons, and we do the tough work because it makes us very proud and we contribute to our country's highest ideals. And that's why I wanted to speak to those individuals and commend them. They deserve recognition.