A United States Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested last month on drug and gun charges. Recently released court documents reveal that he has also been accused of stockpiling weapons and taking human growth hormone in an attempt to prepare himself for a terrorist-type attack.
Prosecutors wrote, “The defendant intend[ed] to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” Prosecutors described 49-year-old Christopher Paul Hasson as a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life and intended to affect governmental conduct.
In addition to the weapons, controlled substances, and other damning evidence, investigators also recovered what they believe is a “hit list” of well-known media personalities and elected officials, including Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke, Don Lemon, and Chris Hayes.
The Maryland man reportedly searched for key terms including:
- “most liberal senators”
- “where do most senators live in DC”
- “do senators have SS [Secret Service] protection”
- “are Supreme Court justices protected.”
- “best place in dc to see congress people”
Hasson’s electronic record also revealed various emails and notes referencing himself as a white nationalist, a “skinhead” for more than 30 years, and an advocate of “a little focused violence” to create “a white homeland.”
The Hasson indictment further details charges of illegal possession of firearms silencers, possession of firearms by an unlawful drug abuser, and possession of a controlled substance. However, despite the current body of evidence pointing to what appears to have been a plan to commit acts of domestic terrorism, Hasson has not yet been charged with any terrorism-related offense.
Historical handling of these kinds of cases indicates he will not be so charged.
First, Hasson’s planned or intended actions were to take place in the U.S., so they would fall under domestic terrorism laws. Second, domestic terrorism laws are not broad enough to cover his actual conduct. And, finally, accusations of any type of domestic terrorism pose serious challenges to federal prosecutors.
What Does the Law Currently Say about Domestic Terrorism?
In a swift response to 9-11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks, Congress passed the PATRIOT Act in order to strengthen national security. One key component of the Act is that it recognizes a distinction between domestic and international terrorism. The definitions of international and domestic terrorism are identically written except for this legal distinction.
Domestic Terrorism is legally defined as activities that:
- involve acts dangerous to human life and in violation of criminal laws
- appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence government or policy by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping, and
- occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States
The PATRIOT Act, however, did expand the government’s power to investigate terrorism, both international and domestic.
Thus the question inevitably arises as to why this Coast Guard “hit man” in waiting will likely escape a domestic terrorism charge, especially since his plans seem to align perfectly with the legal definition of that crime?
For the same reason the 2012 Aurora mass shooter and the Charlottesville man who mowed down protesters in 2017 were not charged with domestic terrorism. Although the 2001 legislation broadened the definition and scope on acts defining domestic terrorism, the statute does not contain sufficient detail to bring charges in these kinds of cases.
What Is Missing from U.S. Code?
Essentially, there are no specifics outlined in domestic terrorism crime law that apply to the Coast Guard lieutenant’s conduct. Although both international and domestic terrorism are addressed under U.S. Code, federal prosecutors focus on crimes of international terrorism because their purpose and intent are easier to prove.
It is easier for federal prosecutors to establish that white supremacists, like Hasson for example, committed hate crimes or other serious federal crimes instead of domestic terrorism.
For example, domestic terrorism crime laws address those incidents which involve bombs of any kind, but when a crime is committed with a firearm, it’s not considered terrorism, even when it is in the name of an extremist cause like white supremacy. That’s because firearms are not specifically listed within the scope of domestic terrorism law.
The Charlottesville protest attacker’s car was his weapon of choice. Vehicles, like firearms, are not explicitly outlined under the domestic terrorism definition. Use of a vehicle to kill or injure others is simply not considered a federal crime of terrorism, even when done with domestic extremist intent.
Does this mean that those who seemingly engage in acts of “domestic terrorism” get off easy?
Not at all.
No Domestic Terrorism Charges, But Still Incredibly Serious Consequences
While individuals like Hasson are not charged with domestic terrorism, they are charged with serious federal crimes like first-degree murder and federal hate crimes, among others.
Anywhere in the U.S., murder is punishable with life in prison, and in some states, death. Hate crimes that result in death are also punished the same way.
Without legislation that specifically outline offenses like those Hasson planned to commit, it is unlikely federal prosecutors will bring domestic terrorism charges in these kinds of cases.