WASHINGTON – FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday defended the bureau’s handling of alarming intelligence leading up to the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, saying he has long warned about the rising tide of such threats as the domestic terrorism caseload roughly doubled over the past year.
“We have significantly grown the number of investigations and arrests,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee, his first testimony since the riot involving supporters of President Donald Trump. The FBI director testified in September that the number of such cases was about 1,000. By the end of 2020, there were about 1,400 such cases, and after Jan. 6 the figure ballooned again, the director said.
Domestic terrorism “has been metastasizing around the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon,” Wray said. “Whenever we’ve had the chance, we’ve tried to emphasize that this is a top concern.”
Wray defended the bureau’s handling of intelligence in advance of the attack carried out by Trump supporters intent on disrupting Congress’s certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win. The director said agents followed procedure by rapidly sharing what they were learning with other law enforcement agencies, but he conceded that FBI officials will review internal practices because what unfolded at the Capitol was not, in his words, “an acceptable result.”
Wray’s appearance on Capitol Hill was the latest high-profile congressional hearing to examine security and intelligence failures leading up to the riot, and what the federal government will do to counter the growing threat of violence from domestic extremists. On Wednesday, FBI and military officials are slated to testify before a separate panel looking into the events of that day.
The questioning of senior officials comes amid a sprawling cross-country Justice Department investigation into the failed insurrection, which resulted in five deaths and has already led to criminal charges against more than 270 people. Law enforcement officials estimate that about 800 people were in the mob that forced its way into the Capitol.
Lawmakers questioning Wray were at turns supportive of his efforts, skeptical that the FBI had done all it could to prevent the riot, and concerned that further politically motivated violence could be unleashed in coming days. In testimony last week, the acting Capitol Police chief warned that extremists have discussed another attack on the Capitol during President Biden’s first address to Congress.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Judiciary Committee chairman, pressed Wray on how the bureau shared a situational information report, prepared by the FBI’s Norfolk, Va., field office a day before the riot, which warned of specific appeals for violence – including a call for “war” at the Capitol. The District of Columbia police chief and the former Capitol Police chief acknowledged last week that their agencies had received the warning, but they suggested the FBI should have more aggressively sounded the alarm.
“I would certainly think that something as violent as an insurrection at the Capitol would warrant a phone call or something,” District Police Chief Robert Contee III told lawmakers.
Wray said the report was shared in three ways – sent by email to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes the District and Capitol Police; posted on a law enforcement web portal; and mentioned in a command center briefing in the District.
“It was unverified,” Wray said of the intelligence. “In a perfect world, we would have taken longer to be able to figure out whether it was reliable. But we made the judgment, our folks made the judgment, to get that information to the relevant people as quickly as possible.”
Wray did not specifically address why no one had phoned the District police chief, and said that he, too, had not been briefed on the information before the attack. Lawmakers did not ask Wray why it was that, in the aftermath, a senior FBI official said there had been no intelligence indicating the potential for violence that day.
The FBI’s warning, which was first reported by The Washington Post on Jan. 12 but has yet to be shared with lawmakers, warned of social media chatter indicating Trump’s supporters were talking about creating a perimeter around the U.S. Capitol and storming inside.
The document quoted one person urging other Trump supporters to go to Washington “ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”
BLM is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice. Pantifa is a derogatory term for antifa, a far-left anti-fascist movement whose adherents sometimes engage in violent clashes with right-wing extremists.
Those comments and similar calls for violence were posted on TheDonald.win, a popular discussion board among Trump supporters strategizing how to keep him in the White House even though he lost the electoral college and popular vote by substantial margins, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a still-unfolding investigation.
While many of the senators seemed sympathetic to the difficulty of preventing acts of domestic terrorism before they occur, others found Wray’s answers unconvincing.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. said the Norfolk report seemed to be “beyond aspirational.”
“It seems like some of these reports that we now know exist out there were specific in terms of these plans that were going on,” she said, asking Wray if he felt sending an email to other law enforcement agencies was a sufficiently aggressive response.
Wray said the bureau had also briefed the report in a command post, and suggested it is the responsibility of personnel assigned there to notify their superiors when intelligence of this nature is shared among agencies.
“The whole idea is they’re supposed to go back and pass it up their chain of command,” Wray said, later adding, “I do not consider what happened on Jan. 6 to be an acceptable result. And that’s why we’re looking so hard at figuring out how can the process be improved.”
Overall, Wray sought to downplay the significance of the memo, despite the fact that many things mentioned in the document – out-of-state rally points, a mob surrounding the Capitol, breaking windows, pushing through doors, and fighting with police officers – wound up happening less than 24 hours after its distribution.
When Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., said, “I think we can agree that the FBI had credible information that there was likely to be violence on Jan. 6,” Wray replied, “I don’t know that we had assessed its credibility. We certainly had information that was concerning.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he understood Wray’s answers, but added: “What I don’t understand is why this chatter, raw intelligence, didn’t prompt a stronger warning and alarm going to the very top of the United States Congress, because clearly the United States Congress was under severe threat.”
Blumenthal also pressed Wray on the QAnon conspiracy theory that prosecutors say motivated some of the Capitol rioters, but Wray demurred when the senator tried to get the director to criticize elected officials embracing or encouraging such dark fantasies.
“We’re concerned about any source that stimulates or motivates violent extremism,” Wray replied.
Blumenthal said he was “frankly disappointed that you’re not discouraging one of the sources of incitement, which is prominent public officials endorsing a theory that in turn resulted in storming the United States Capitol.”
Republicans pressed Wray on the FBI’s response to the violence over the summer connected to racial justice protests, which Wray said remained of concern. The bureau, he added, had seen a “huge uptick” in anti-government extremism. Wray said the bureau’s response was similar to the investigation of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
“We’re trying to look at sources of funding, planning, coordination, trying to learn more about tradecraft and tactics and things like that so that we can be better prepared to prevent it and feed information to our state and local partners so they can be better prepared to prevent it,” Wray said.
Asked by Durbin if there was any evidence that some of the violence at the Capitol was committed by “fake Trump protesters,” as some prominent conservatives have suggested, Wray said he had not seen evidence of that, nor had he seen evidence of left-wing “antifa” infiltration.
“We have not to date seeing any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to antifa in connection with the 6th. That doesn’t mean we’re not looking and we’ll continue to look. But at the moment, we have not seen that,” Wray said.
The committee’s senior Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, said the FBI should pursue domestic terrorism “very broadly, to include all forms of political extremism.”
Wray’s appearance before Congress was his first since the failed insurrection, and his first as a part of Biden’s administration. Wray had a fraught relationship with Trump, who publicly attacked him and the FBI over its approach to racial justice demonstrations, election security, and the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Durbin has criticized the Justice Department and FBI over their approach to the threat of violence posed by right-wing extremists during Trump’s tenure. In a letter to Wray last week co-signed by nine other Senate Democrats, he accused the bureau of having minimized “the threat of white supremacist and far-right violence, a grave concern that some of us have raised with you on numerous occasions in recent years.”
In federal law enforcement circles, some have argued that the events of Jan. 6 represent a drastic failure of security and intelligence-gathering, while others have maintained that it was not an intelligence failure as much as failure to act on the intelligence they had.