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Coast Guard officer described by prosecutors as ‘domestic terrorist’ not facing terrorism charges

Chris Hasson's case demonstrates the pitfalls prosecutors face when dealing with far-right extremists.

The collection of weapons and ammunition federal agents say they found in Christopher Paul Hasson's Silver Spring apartment are shown in Maryland. A member of the U.S. Coast Guard, 49-year-old Hasson, was arrested on weapons and drugs violations and is accused of plotting a major terror attack against Americans. (Photo credit: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland via Getty Images)
The collection of weapons and ammunition federal agents say they found in Christopher Paul Hasson's Silver Spring apartment are shown in Maryland. A member of the U.S. Coast Guard, 49-year-old Hasson, was arrested on weapons and drugs violations and is accused of plotting a major terror attack against Americans. (Photo credit: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland via Getty Images)

The Coast Guard lieutenant who allegedly plotted the murder of prominent Democrats and journalists is facing up to 31 years behind bars — but has not been charged with terrorism.

Christopher Hasson, 49, was arrested last month by federal agents on drugs and weapons charges. In the initial federal detention motion, prosecutors said the charges were the “proverbial tip of the iceberg” and described Hasson as a “domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect governmental conduct.”

The motion went on to describe the hallmarks of far-right extremism which Hasson had allegedly displayed. He was obsessed with Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian far-right terrorist who killed 77 people — mostly teenagers — during an attack in Norway in 2011. Hasson also allegedly made thousands of online searches for neo-fascist and neo-Nazi literature, compiled a hit list of prominent Democrats and journalists, and researched their locations and security arrangements.

Hasson also allegedly amassed an arsenal of rifles, handguns, bulletproof vests and over a thousand rounds of ammunition. He also allegedly acquired the opioid Tramadol and more than 30 bottles of Human Growth Hormone.

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Despite this evidence, and despite prosecutors’ description of Hasson as a domestic terrorist, he was only arraigned Monday on one count of unlawful possession of two improperly registered silencers, possession of 17 firearms by an unlawful user, and possession of a controlled substance.

A spokeswoman for the U.S Attorney’s office in Maryland stressed that the investigation was ongoing, and that law enforcement was still combing through a number of seized items, which could lead to additional charges later on.

Law enforcement officials frequently struggle to bring domestic terrorism charges, even in seemingly obvious cases like Hasson’s. When dealing with alleged extremists tied to ISIS, for example, federal prosecutors are allowed to present a wide-range of “evidence” proving the individual’s support for the group — including retweets or re-posted gifs from social media accounts belonging to other sympathizers — in order to bring terrorism charges.

But domestic groups, including far-right extremists, enjoy First Amendment protections which means that professing support for them technically does not constitute “terrorism” in the same sense. It also means online searches for neo-Nazis, or the manifestos of lone wolves like Breivik, do not constitute support for terrorism in the same way.

Julie Stelzig, Hasson’s former public defender, made this argument in a separate court hearing last month.

“It is not a crime to think negative thoughts about people,” Stelzig said. “We are not yet in a society that criminalizes people for their thoughts…or detains people for their internet searches.”

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Some analysts say Hasson’s case showcases the need for stronger domestic terrorism laws. Former federal prosecutor Elie Hong told CNN the case was a “poster child” for stronger legislation.

But Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and former FBI agent, told ThinkProgress the issue was less about new laws, noting that there were 51 federal statutes which could be used in domestic terrorism cases, as well as hate crime and local criminal statutes. Instead, he said, it was more an issue of finding the political will to prioritize far-right extremism — one on which the Trump administration has consistently dragged its feet.

“Last year the Trump administration issued its National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which identified two neo-Nazi groups [the British National Action and the Nordic Resistance Movement],” German noted. “It’s kind of strange — these groups are identified [in] this paper yet they aren’t designated terrorist groups.”

He added, “It creates imbalance in what you’re trying to prioritize. Are you just targeting certain groups through political decisions or inattention?”

New “terrorism” legislation would also give law enforcement greater leeway to investigate a broader array of domestic groups. However, this could become problematic, as the FBI recently investigated both a black guns rights activist and indigenous environmental activists at Standing Rock under the guise of “domestic terrorism.”

German suggested officials focus their efforts instead on documenting the many hate crimes committed each year, rather than pushing for new legislation.

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“I’m more concerned about the hate crimes or aggregated assaults that aren’t even being documented [as opposed to new domestic terror legislation],” he said. “We’re so concerned about future crimes we give little insight into the actual number of hate crimes being committed.”