WASHINGTON – Dozens of people on a terrorist watch list were in Washington for pro-Trump events Jan. 6, a day that ended in a chaotic crime rampage when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, according to people familiar with evidence gathered in the FBI’s investigation.
The majority of the watchlisted individuals in Washington that day are suspected white supremacists whose past conduct so alarmed investigators that their names had been previously entered into the national Terrorist Screening Database, or TSDB, a massive set of names flagged as potential security risks, these people said. The watch list is larger and separate from the “no-fly” list the government maintains to prevent terrorism suspects from boarding airplanes, and those listed are not automatically barred from any public or commercial spaces, current and former officials said.
The presence of so many watch-listed individuals in one place – without more robust security measures to protect the public – is another example of the intelligence failures preceding last week’s assault that sent lawmakers running for their lives and left five others dead, some current and former law enforcement officials argued. The revelation follows a Washington Post report earlier this week detailing the FBI’s failure to act aggressively on an internal intelligence report of internet discussions about plans to attack Congress, smash windows, break down doors and “get violent . . . go there ready for war.”
Other current and former officials said the presence of those individuals is an unsurprising consequence of having thousands of fervent Trump supporters gathered for what was billed as a final chance to voice opposition to Joe Biden’s certification as the next president. Still, the revelation underscores the limitations of such watch lists. Although they are meant to improve information gathering and sharing among investigative agencies, they are far from a foolproof means of detecting threats ahead of time.
Since its creation, the terrorist watch list, which is maintained by the FBI, has grown to include hundreds of thousands of names. Placing someone’s name on the watch list does not mean they will be watched all of the time, or even much of the time, for reasons of both practicality and fairness. But it can alert different parts of the government, like border agents or state police, to look more closely at certain people they encounter.
It’s unclear whether any of the dozens of people already arrested for alleged crimes at the Capitol are on the terrorist watch list.
“The U.S. Government is committed to protecting the United States from terrorist threats and attacks and seeks to do this in a manner that protects the freedoms, privacy and civil rights and liberties of U.S. persons and other individuals with rights under U.S. law,” a U.S. official said, adding that because of security concerns, the government has a policy of neither confirming nor denying a person’s watch list status.
The FBI declined to comment.
The riot’s political aftershocks led the House of Representatives on Wednesday to impeach President Donald Trump for allegedly inciting the violence – his second impeachment in a single four-year term – and may have significant consequences within law enforcement and national security agencies.
Inside the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, officials are grappling with thorny questions about race, terrorism and free-speech rights as some investigators question whether more could have been done to prevent last week’s violence.
While some federal officials think the government should more aggressively investigate domestic terrorism and extremists, others are concerned the FBI, DHS and other agencies may overreact to the recent violence by going too far in surveilling First Amendment activity like online discussions.
Several law enforcement officials said they are shocked by the backgrounds of some individuals under investigation in connection with the Capitol riot, a pool of suspects that includes current and former law enforcement and military personnel, senior business executives and middle-aged business owners.
“I can’t believe some of the people I’m seeing,” one official said.
The TSDB, often referred to within government as simply “the watch list,” is overseen by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, which was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks carried out by al-Qaida. The watch list can be used as both an investigative and early warning tool, but its primary purpose is to help various government agencies keep abreast of what individuals seen as potential risks are doing and where they travel, according to people familiar with the work who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the work is sensitive.
Often that can be done as a “silent hit,” meaning if someone on the watch list is stopped for speeding, that information is typically entered into the database without the individual or even the officer who wrote the ticket ever knowing, one person said.
After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, the FBI quickly searched a similar database to see which people on it had recently traveled to that city or raised other suspicions about possible involvement.
Before the Jan. 6 gathering of pro-Trump protesters, FBI agents visited a number of suspected extremists and advised them against traveling to the nation’s capital. Many complied, but according to people familiar with the sprawling investigation, dozens of others whose names appear in the terrorist watch list apparently attended, based on information reviewed by the FBI.
Separately, while the FBI is hunting hundreds of rioting suspects who have dispersed back to their hometowns, federal agents are increasingly focused on alleged leaders, members, and supporters of the Proud Boys, a male-chauvinist group with ties to white nationalism, these people said.
The Proud Boys participated in last week’s protests, and FBI agents are taking a close look at what roles, if any, their adherents may have had in organizing, directing or carrying out violence, according to people familiar with the matter.
The group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, had planned to attend Trump’s Jan. 6 rally but was arrested when he arrived in D.C. and charged with misdemeanor destruction of property in connection with the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner taken from a Black church during an earlier protest in Washington. He is also accused of felony possession of two extended gun magazines.
Tarrio told The Post on Wednesday that his group did not organize the Capitol siege.
“If they think we were organizing going into the Capitol, they’re going to be sadly mistaken,” he said. “Our plan was to stay together as a group and just enjoy the day. We weren’t going to do a night march, anything like that. That’s it as far as our day.”
Tarrio said he’s actively discouraging members from attending planned armed marches scheduled Sunday, and the Million Militia March next week when Biden is inaugurated. Proud Boys, he said, are on a “rally freeze and will not be organizing any events for the next month or so.”
It is unclear how many Proud Boys devotees will abide by the freeze, or if such a shutdown might lessen the FBI’s interest in the group. Even before the Jan. 6 riot, federal and local investigators were working to understand the group’s plans, goals and activities. Privately, some federal law enforcement officials have described the group as roughly equivalent to a nascent street gang that has garnered an unusual degree of national attention, in part because Trump mentioned them specifically during one his televised debates with Biden during the campaign. Other officials have expressed concern that the group may be growing rapidly into something more dangerous and directed.
The FBI already has arrested dozens of accused rioters, and officials have pledged that in cases of the most egregious conduct, they will seek to file tough, rarely used charges like seditious conspiracy, which carries a potential 20-year prison sentence.
The bureau continues to face criticism over its handling of a Jan. 5 internal report warning of discussions of violence at Congress the next day. Steven D’Antuono, the head of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, claimed in the days after the riot that the bureau did not have intelligence ahead of time indicating the rally would be anything other than a peaceful demonstration.
The Jan. 5 FBI report, written by the bureau’s office in Norfolk, Va., and reviewed by The Post, shows that was not the case, and the Justice Department took other steps indicating officials were at least somewhat concerned about possible violence the next day. The Bureau of Prisons sent 100 officers to D.C. to supplement security at the Justice Department building, an unusual move similar to what the department did in June to respond to civil unrest stemming from racial justice protests.
Mindful of the criticism that law enforcement took a heavy-handed, all-hands-on-deck approach to Black Lives Matters protests in D.C. in the spring and summer, Justice Department officials deferred to the Capitol Police to defend their building and lawmakers there. Some former officials have questioned whether the FBI and Justice Department should have done more.
“It would not have been enough for the bureau simply to share information, if it did so, with state and local law enforcement or federal partner agencies,” said David Laufman, a former Justice Department national security official. “It was the bureau’s responsibility to quarterback a coordinated federal response as the crisis was unfolding and in the days thereafter. And it’s presently not clear to what extent the FBI asserted itself in that fashion during the exigencies of January 6 and in the immediate aftermath.”
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The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.