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Homeland Security secretary launches internal probe to root out extremism

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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has launched an internal investigation into the risk of domestic violent extremism within the department. CBS New correspondent Nicole Sganga joins "Red and Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with details of the probe and more on President Biden's nomination of Harris County, Texas Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: The US secretary of Homeland Security is launching an internal investigation to address the threat of extremism within the department. CBS News obtained a memo sent to DHS employees Monday. In it, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said rooting out violent extremism is an urgent priority.

He goes on to cite the January 6 Capitol riot, adding that attack has, quote, "highlighted that domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to our country today." The secretary addressed the probe during a call with reporters Tuesday.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: With respect to domestic violent extremism and the announcement that we made yesterday, it is our responsibility in the service of good government to ensure that the conduct of our personnel adheres to the highest standards, and that is what that effort is all about, that we are seeking to achieve our nation's security and combat the most significant terrorism-related threat to the homeland. And we as a department must reflect the security that we seek to achieve for the country as a whole.

ELAINE QUIJANO: For more, let's bring in CBS News homeland security and justice reporter Nicole Sganga. Hi there, Nicole. So what will this internal DHS investigation entail? And how does it reflect the steps other federal agencies are taking to combat extremism?

NICOLE SGANGA: Hi, Elaine. Well, you heard Secretary Mayorkas there talking about how DHS has to get its own house in order before projecting that measure of security outwards. And speaking to former DHS officials in the wake of this announcement, some of them point out that it's not too different from what we've seen from the service-wide 60-day stand-down within the US military that was ordered in February by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Here is what is different though. CBS News has reported that at least 42 current or previous members of the US military have been arrested in relation to the attack on the US Capitol on January 6. We've not really seen that same sort of trend among DHS personnel. But what we did see in February 2019 was a former lieutenant from the Coast Guard, his name was Christopher Hasson, he was arrested and later sentenced to 13 years in prison after compiling a hit list of Democratic lawmakers and media personalities.

Hasson, who was a member of the Coast Guard which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, described himself as a longtime white nationalist in emails that were obtained by prosecutors. He also harbored a stockpile of guns. And I'm told that this prompted DHS, at least in part, to include insider threats in a September 2019 report that the agency issued under then Secretary Kevin McAleenan. This was not addressed, however, at the time, but today on that call with reporters, Secretary Mayorkas saying, yes, it will be a priority.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security extended a national terrorism advisory system bulletin warning the public of a heightened threat environment across the US. Nicole, what is behind that decision?

NICOLE SGANGA: Yeah, so over the weekend, as you mentioned, Elaine, the Department of Homeland Security making that decision to extend that bulletin for about two weeks. You'll recall that this was actually the first wholly domestic terrorism bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security back in January. It was issued following President Biden's inauguration and, of course, the January 6 assault on the US Capitol.

It was set to expire at the end of April, April 30, but it was pushed back by the secretary to May 15, 2021. This sort of grants officials two extra weeks to reassess the current threat environment, see if they want to amend, extend, or end this threat bulletin, although officials I speak to within the Department of Homeland Security and former officials doubt that it will be ended altogether. You'll recall that in March, US intelligence agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, issued a joint report predicting domestic terrorism is going to pose an elevated threat to the homeland throughout 2021.

They cited some social and political factors that have not gone away, like the coronavirus pandemic, and talked about the emboldening impact of that breach of the US Capitol back in January that might certainly spur domestic violent extremists to engage in further violence this year. So again, Elaine, an extra two weeks for officials to make a decision, a permanent decision about that bulletin, but unlikely they will end it altogether.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Nicole, let's talk about the Southern border. This week, the Biden administration launched a multi-agency effort to target criminal organizations smuggling migrants into the United States. Who is involved in this operation? And how are they going to put the pressure on these human smugglers?

NICOLE SGANGA: Yeah, Elaine, it's called Operation Sentinel, and it's run by the Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with the Department of Justice and the State Department. There are some other acronyms involved there, CBP, Customs and Border Protection, ICE, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, so really what many officials like to call a whole of government approach. And it's going to target criminal gang members, really aiming to disable transnational criminal groups by cutting off their sources of funding and making it really difficult for them to travel.

So for instance, revoking certain travel documents, suspending trade entities, and freezing some of the bank accounts and financial assets within criminal networks. In some ways, the new operation actually mirrors something that the Department of Homeland Security did back in 2014 with the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. They targeted suspicious patterns of deposits and withdrawals within what was known as funnel accounts back then.

But Secretary Mayorkas today on a call with reporters saying that this goes a step further, that it involves more agencies. Now, there are still some questions that remain about the cooperation of foreign partners with the United States, Mexico, countries within the Northern Triangle. Of course, we know yesterday the Biden administration agreed to help train a Guatemalan task force charged with securing its own border, part of Vice President Kamala Harris's ongoing efforts to try to address some of these root causes of migration.

Also on the call today with Secretary Mayorkas and some DHS officials, officials really pointing out what a dangerous journey this is for those that are smuggled. In 2020, agents rescued 5,232 migrants alone. Already in fiscal year 2021, 4,766 migrants have been rescued by border agents.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Finally, Nicole, on Tuesday, President Biden announced his pick to lead US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE has not had a Senate-confirmed leader in years. Tell us more about who the president nominated.

NICOLE SGANGA: Yeah, well, President Biden actually nominated a very outspoken critic of some of President Trump's former immigration policies to run US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez runs the police department in Texas's largest county, Harris County. It's home to Houston and also the third largest sheriff's office in the United States, with about 5,000 employees.

Of course, if confirmed, he'll have 20,000 employees, part of ICE under him. Gonzalez actually withdrew his department from a voluntary federal program that for years had assisted ICE in the detainment and deportation of immigrants, so notable that now he's the pick to lead the agency. ICE is one of the federal government's most polarizing agencies. As you pointed out, it has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since the Obama administration, more than four years. So this is going to make, certainly, for an interesting confirmation hearing.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, Nicole Sganga for us. Nicole, always good to see you. Thank you very much.

NICOLE SGANGA: Thank you.