FBI chief defends agency’s handling of Capitol riots

Bureau ‘alerted law enforcement personnel’ of potential hazards on eve of demonstration

Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray has defended its handling of the January 6th Capitol riots, stating that the agency warned law enforcement personnel in Washington of possible threats on the eve of the protest.

Questioned by members of the senate judiciary committee on Tuesday – the latest in a series of hearings on Capitol Hill into those events – Mr Wray confirmed that the FBI’s office in Norfolk, Virginia, compiled a report on January 5th that found evidence of threats against members of congress, maps of the tunnel system under the Capitol complex and other information. While the intelligence was uncorroborated, Mr Wray said the FBI had communicated it in three ways to Capitol Police and the Washington DC police force, including by email and on an internal internet forum.

Testifying before Congress last week, the head of the Washington police said that the information had arrived in an email at 7pm and should have warranted a phone call. But Mr Wray said the intelligence was communicated along proper channels, including to members of the Capitol police joint terrorism task force.

In opening testimony – his first public commentary on the events – Mr Wray said he was “appalled” at what had occurred.

“I was appalled that you, our country’s elected leaders were victimised right here in these very halls,” he said. “That attack, that siege was criminal behaviour, plain and simple and behaviour that we, the FBI, view as domestic terrorism. It’s got no place in our democracy and tolerating it would make a mockery of our nation’s rule of law.”

He said that more than 300 people had been charged in connection with the attack, and more than 50 FBI field offices were involved in the investigations.

The bureau had received more than 200,000 tips from the public, mostly involving social media posts, he said. And he encouraged anyone with further information to come forward.

Under questioning by Democrats, Mr Wray said there was no evidence that left-wing supporters associated with the Antifa movement were involved in the riots. It follows unsubstantiated claims in right-wing media that many of the protesters were in fact Antifa members posing as Trump supporters.

“We have not to date seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection with the 6th,” said Mr Wray. He added: “That doesn’t mean we’re not looking and we’ll continue to look. But at the moment we have not seen that.”

Instead, he said that most of those who participated were associated with militia groups such as Oath Keepers or racially-motivated extremists, specifically white supremacists.

Myriad investigations

Amid suggestions from some Democrats that the FBI has historically not taken the threat of white supremacy and domestic terrorism seriously, Mr Wray replied that the number of ongoing investigations into domestic terrorism now stand at 2,000, compared to 1,000 when he took over in 2017. Three times the number of white supremacists had been arrested than three years ago, he said.

"Let's stop pretending that the threat of Antifa is equivalent to the white supremacist threat," said Senator Dick Durbin.

But several Republican senators in their questioning pointed to the role left-wing protesters had played in last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

"We must examine forms of domestic extremism that span the ideological spectrum," said Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the committee.

“We’re not serious about tackling domestic extremism if we tolerate mobs that attack some police officers but not others . . . We’re not serious about tackling domestic extremism if we only focus on white supremacy movements, which isn’t the only ideology that’s responsible for murders and violence,” he said.

Two senate committees are set to continue their hearings on Wednesday when they are due to hear again from the FBI as well as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defence. In particular, politicians are expected to investigate defence officials about accusations from Capitol police that their request for back-up personnel was not taken seriously as the riot escalated on that afternoon.

About 5,000 National Guard members remain in place in Washington DC, almost two months after the attack on the Capitol. The White House and the Capitol Hill complex are also under heightened security.