WASHINGTON – The FBI director on Tuesday warned senators that domestic terrorism was “metastasizing across the country,” reaffirming the threat of racist-motivated extremists while largely avoiding any tough questions about the actions of the office ahead of the Capitol siege .
Director Christopher A. Wray, who had remained largely out of public sight since the January 6 riot, condemned supporters of former President Donald J. Trump who ransacked the Capitol, killing five and dozens wounded among the police. .
“This attack, this siege, was criminal behavior, outright, and it was behavior that we, the FBI, consider to be domestic terrorism,” Mr. Wray said. “It has no place in our democracy.”
He also revealed that the number of domestic terrorism investigations at the FBI had increased to 2,000 since he became its director in 2017. The Capitol Riot was part of a larger threat that had dramatically increased these. past years, Mr Wray said.
He did not shatter investigations along an ideological divide, but the New York Times reported that agents opened more than 400 domestic terrorism investigations last year as violence erupted during racial justice protests. , including about 40 cases concerning possible members of the extreme left. anti-fascist movement known as antifa and 40 others in Boogaloo, a far-right movement seeking to start a civil war. The FBI also investigated white supremacists suspected of threatening protesters.
Mr Wray’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was his first before Congress since the assault on Capitol Hill. He was free from drama after similar testimony last year, when Mr Trump – who appointed Mr Wray to his post – attacked him for detailing the threat from far-right extremists and fueled a false narrative that the anti-fascists were the real danger. . In contrast, the Biden administration has made the fight against domestic terrorism a priority.
Following last year’s violence, the FBI and the Justice Department have decided to increase the threat posed by anti-government and anti-authority extremists such as militias and anarchists. Yet officials in the office have marked the threat lower than that presented by racially motivated violent extremists like the neo-Nazis.
The FBI and the Department of Justice make these decisions based on violent attacks such as shootings or bombings and use the levels to decide where to focus resources.
Mr Wray pointed to another alarming trend: The number of white supremacists arrested in 2020 had nearly tripled since he took over as head of the FBI three years earlier.
White supremacists have killed dozens of people in the United States since 2015, opening fire at a black church in South Carolina and synagogues in Pittsburgh and California, and targeting Hispanic shoppers at a Walmart in Texas.
The political implications of the threats were manifested during the hearing. While Republicans condemned the attack on the Capitol, some were quick to point out last year’s unrest in Portland, Ore., And other cities, highlighting property destruction and attacks. against the police. In a spasm of violence, a self-proclaimed antifa supporter gunned down a pro-Trump protester in Portland in August.
Yet it was the first murder in more than 20 years by what the bureau calls “violent extremist anarchist.”
Mr Wray has repeatedly said in response to questions from Democratic senators that those associated with the antifa were not involved in the assault on Capitol Hill and that the rioters were genuinely supporters of Trump, not mistakenly posing as them.
Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Democratic chairman of the committee, accused the Trump administration of downplaying the threat from white supremacists while fueling a narrative that left-wing anarchists such as those who identify with the antifa posed the greatest danger to the country. .
Echoing the litany of mass shootings, Mr Durbin added, “Let’s stop pretending that the threat of antifa equals the threat of white supremacy.”
Capitol police largely took responsibility for the January 6 attack. Its interim leader, Yogananda D. Pittman, admitted to Congress that the authorities had not done enough to thwart “the terrorist attack”.
Indeed, there were several indicators of the potential for violence on January 6. Federal law enforcement officials knew that members of militias such as the Oath Keepers and far-right groups such as the Proud Boys were planning to come to Washington, some potentially with weapons. . Many followers of QAnon, a dangerous conspiracy theory that has emerged as a possible threat of domestic terrorism, were also scheduled to attend a protest rally where Mr. Trump spoke before the attack.
In addition, the FBI office in Norfolk, Virginia produced a report a day earlier warning of possible violence and mentioned people sharing a map of the tunnels at the Capitol complex. However, the information was not verified and part citing a warning of an impending “war” appeared to come from a single thread online.
The FBI provided the report to the Capitol Police, although its former boss, Steven A. Sund, said he never rose through the ranks.
Mr Wray said FBI officials relayed information from Norfolk on at least three occasions to other law enforcement agencies. He said he only saw the report after the riot, but his handling was typical of this intelligence.
South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham asked what Capitol Police officials should have done if they had seen the Jan.5 report.
“I really want to be careful not to be a wheelchair quarterback,” Wray said. He later said he did not have a “correct answer” as to why Mr. Sund had not received the report.
With the signs pointing to violence or worse, on Jan.6 Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, insisted on Mr Wray as to why the FBI had not “sounded the alarm in a more visible and more sound”.
Mr Wray said the office had for months released intelligence reports related to domestic terrorism – some specifically linked to the election – publicly and to other law enforcement agencies such as the Capitol Police.
He said the office was reviewing his actions but agreed that the insurgency was not an “acceptable outcome”.
“We’re aiming to beat a thousand,” Mr. Wray said.
But it was clear that federal law enforcement underestimated the potential for January 6 violence among Trump supporters, many of whom presented themselves as supporters of law enforcement.
The focus on antifa among Mr Trump and some of his cabinet officials and the relocation of law enforcement sources this past spring and summer may have contributed to the FBI ignoring growing anger among supporters of Mr. Trump over the false allegations of successful electoral fraud. in the storming of the Capitol, current and former law enforcement officials have said. Mr. Trump himself had pushed this conspiracy theory, influencing his supporters with the baseless idea that the election had been stolen.