WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr said on Friday that he had created a task force to investigate antigovernment extremists on the far right and left who have used the nationwide policing protests as cover to attack law enforcement officers and destroy property, according to a Justice Department memo.
Mr. Barr said that violent extremists have undermined public order and sought to “become a law unto themselves” through violence, and that some may be supported by “foreign entities seeking to sow chaos and disorder.” He did not cite evidence.
“Amid peaceful demonstrations protected by the First Amendment, we have seen antigovernment extremists engaged in indefensible acts of violence,” Mr. Barr said, noting attacks on police officers and other government officials, destruction of public and private property and threats to bystanders.
“The ultimate goal of the task force will be not only to enable prosecutions of extremists who engage in violence, but to understand these groups well enough that we can stop such violence before it occurs and ultimately eliminate it as a threat to public safety,” Mr. Barr said.
Law enforcement officials have said that ideological adherents and anarchists have promoted rioting during the nation’s largely peaceful protests. Mr. Barr mentioned two groups in his memo: boogaloo, a right-wing extremist group that seeks to bring about a second civil war to overthrow the United States government, and antifa, a loosely organized far-left ideology whose supporters generally seek to fight groups they deem fascist and racist.
“Although these extremists profess a variety of ideologies, they are united in their opposition to the core constitutional values of a democratic society governed by law,” Mr. Barr said. “They are in fact forces of anarchy, destruction and coercion.”
Shortly after the killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died while being detained by the police, demonstrations against police violence were held in cities across the country, and in some places people took advantage of the unrest to loot and riot.
Mr. Barr and the department drew criticism for only naming antifa when it initially blamed extremists for some of the violence around protests. In the weeks that followed, federal prosecutors cited affiliations with boogaloo in filing charges over protest-related crimes but did not accuse defendants of being affiliated with antifa.
Mr. Barr said in an interview on Thursday with NPR that arrests had been made of people with connections to antifa but that prosecutors had not cited those connections in individual cases.
”We don’t charge them for being a member of antifa,” he said. “We charge them for throwing a Molotov cocktail, or we charge them for possession of a gun, or possession of gasoline and things to make bombs with.”
He said that the department was obtaining more information about those suspects.
Mr. Barr chose Erin Nealy Cox, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, to lead the task force alongside Craig Carpenito, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey.
Mr. Carpenito was Mr. Barr’s first pick to be the acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan, after he initially asked the chief of that office, Geoffrey S. Berman, to resign last week. Mr. Barr was forced to change course after Mr. Berman refused to step down, and in the end, he replaced Mr. Berman with his top deputy, Audrey Strauss, on an acting basis.
The task force will treat the antigovernment groups in the same way that it does organized criminal or terrorist networks, Mr. Barr said, “by disrupting their violent activities and ultimately dismantling their capability to threaten the rule of law.”
Investigators will gather information about the extremists from federal prosecutors, the F.B.I. and other parts of the Justice Department and share it with other federal, state and local law enforcement offices.