FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday that the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was a planned act of domestic terrorism, but didn’t have definitive answers in his Senate testimony for why security broke down during the riot.
Wray was testifying at a congressional hearing for the first time since a mob breached the Capitol, apparently bent on disrupting a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote sealing Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in the presidential election.
Here are six key highlights from the second congressional hearing looking into the Capitol riot.
1. ‘Domestic Terrorism’
The attack on the Capitol clearly was an act of domestic terrorism, Wray testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I was appalled, like you, at the violence and destruction that we saw that day. I was appalled that you, our country’s elected leaders, were victimized right here in these very halls,” Wray told senators. “That siege was criminal behavior, plain and simple. It’s behavior 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.”
And, the FBI director said, Jan. 6 “was not an isolated event.”
“The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now. and it’s not going away anytime soon,” he said.
Wray stressed that the FBI is “chasing down leads” and “combing through digital media” to arrest and charge anyone who broke the law at the Capitol:
Our greatest partner in this investigation has been the American people. Citizens from around the country have sent us more than 270,000 digital media tips. Some have even taken the painful step of turning in their friends or their family members. With their help, we’ve identified hundreds of suspects and opened hundreds of investigations in all but one of our 56 field offices. Of those identified, we’ve arrested already more than 270 individuals to date; over 300 when you include the ones by our partners.
Those sought include individuals who identify with the militia movement, as well as offenders who are “racially motivated,” Wray said.
2. No ‘Fake Trump Protesters’ or Antifa
In a well-publicized event, Trump spoke to a huge crowd just south of the White House about the election results as the joint session of Congress convened to count the Electoral College votes.
The mob’s assault on the Capitol began as the president urged supporters to “peacefully and patriotically” walk to the building to cheer on lawmakers challenging electoral votes from certain states.
Judiciary Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., sought to shoot down a view expressed by many Trump backers that the rioters at the Capitol actually were Trump enemies such as Antifa, a far-left group known for spurring violence and rioting.
Durbin called it the “next big lie” that “it was somehow not Trump supporters that invaded the Capitol,” noting that this story has made the rounds on the internet.
“In your investigation so far, do you have any evidence that the Capitol attack was organized by quote, ‘fake Trump protesters?’” Durbin asked.
Wray responded: “We have not seen evidence of that at this stage, certainly.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., later followed up: “I understand from your previous testimony that you did not see Antifa or left-wing groups playing a significant role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.”
He did not, Wray answered, adding:
Certainly, while we are ‘equal opportunity’ in looking for violent extremism of any ideology, we have not to date seen any evidence of anarchist, violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection with the 6th. That doesn’t mean we are not looking, and we will continue to look. But, at the moment, we have not seen that.
3. Won’t ‘Disclose or Confirm’ Cause of Officer’s Death
Wray said the FBI does not know the cause of death for Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who died the night of the riot after being part of the effort to resist the mob’s entry.
Initial news reports were that a rioter fatally injured Sicknick by hitting him in the head with a fire extinguisher. Since then, the officer’s family reportedly has said he wasn’t hit in the head and actually died of a stroke.
“We all want to know what happened to Officer Brian Sicknick, tragic death, as a result of that Jan. 6 assault,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said. “There have been conflicting reports about his cause of death. Have you determined the exact cause of death, and is there a homicide investigation?”
I’ll take the last part of your question first. There is an ongoing investigation into his death. I have to be careful at this stage, because it’s ongoing, not to get out in front of it. But I certainly understand, respect, and appreciate the keen interest in what happened to him. After all, he was here protecting all of you. As soon as there is information we can appropriately share, we want to be able to do that. At the moment, the investigation is still ongoing.
Grassley asked: “Does that mean that since the investigation is going on, you have not determined the exact cause of the death?”
Wray seemed to respond carefully, saying: “That means we can’t yet disclose a cause of death at this stage.”
“But you have determined a cause of death?” Grassley asked.
Wray again replied carefully, saying: “I did not say that. We are not at the point where we can disclose or confirm the cause of death.”
The claim that Sicknick was bludgeoned to death became a popular narrative for Democrats in the Senate’s second impeachment trial for Trump.
4. Unaware of Report on Planning
The FBI field office in Norfolk, Virginia, obtained information about planning for an attack on the Capitol before the riot, Wray testified, but he wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked: “When did you first receive intelligence about the possibility of an attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6? And what happened to the process that people weren’t seeing the warnings?”
Wray said the FBI field office made the information available to other law enforcement agencies, among them the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department.
“I didn’t see that report, which was raw, unverified intelligence, until some number of days after the 6th,” Wray said. “That raw, unverified information was passed within, I think, 40 minutes to an hour to our partners, including the Capitol Police, including Metro PD [the Metropolitan Police Department], and not one, not two, but three different ways. One email, one verbal, and one through the law enforcement portal.”
In a previous Senate hearing, former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who resigned under pressure from congressional leaders days after the riot, testified that he did not learn about the information until weeks after the riot.
Wray said he did not know why other agencies didn’t see it.
“As to why the information didn’t flow to all the people within the various departments [as] they would prefer, I don’t have a good answer for that,” he said.
5. D.C. Mayor and National Guard
Under questioning, Wray said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser made the decision not to call up the National Guard before Jan. 6.
“My understanding is that at one stage of the process, the local government was of the view that it did not need the National Guard’s assistance,” Wray said.
Days before, Defense Department and Justice Department officials offered additional backup to the District of Columbia, anticipating a large crowd. Bowser rejected that offer in a letter opposing federal assistance.
“To be clear, the District of Columbia is not requesting other federal law enforcement personnel and discourages any additional deployment without immediate notification to, and consultation with, MPD if such plans are underway,” Bowser wrote to acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, and Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy.
Wray sounded tepid in identifying who was responsible for the lack of National Guard presence.
“Tell me who had the authority to call out the National Guard?” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked.
“My understanding is that the decision to call out the National Guard in one sense is the responsibility of the secretary of defense, but in another sense … , ” Wray said, before Kennedy interrupted him.
“Mr. Director, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I think we can agree the FBI had credible information that there was likely to be violence on Jan. 6. Can we agree on that?” Kennedy said.
“I don’t know that we had assessed its credibility,” Wray told Kennedy. “We certainly had information that was concerning about the potential for violence in connection with the Jan. 6 events. That certainly has been concerning.”
Kennedy asked who decided not to call up the National Guard, and Wray answered cautiously.
“I would defer to others who were more involved in that discussion,” the FBI director said. “From what I have heard, from what I have read, my understanding is that at one stage of the process, the local government was of the view that it did not need the National Guard’s assistance.”
“Who do you mean by the local government? The mayor?”
“Yes, at the beginning,” Wray said.
The FBI director noted that the D.C. government had turned down offers to use the National Guard “in the day or two leading up to the 6th.”
“Clearly, our people were overrun by the nut jobs. So, we’re making progress,” Kennedy said. “So, the mayor of the city government decided not to have the National Guard.”
The Louisiana Republican then asked about the assessments of the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, as well as the chief of the Capitol Police. All three men, who resigned in the days following the riot, testified at the earlier Senate hearing on the riot.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Wray replied, “but my understanding is that the law enforcement officials here have the responsibility over the Capitol, and there were differing views over whether the National Guard was appropriate and at what level.”
6. Big Tech Liability
Wray talked about how instigators can use social media platforms to promote violence.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked: “Do you think that exposing these [social media] companies to civil liability would force them to take extremist content off of their platforms?”
Wray said he did not want to get ahead of the Biden administration by weighing in on legislation, but would comment in part.
“While the immunity under Section 230 [of federal law] has obviously helped the evolution of the social media industry, it has also allowed it to avoid a lot of the burdens and risks that other, brick-and-mortar companies have had to face,” Wray said, adding:
It means that important decisions that affect many aspects of society—that would normally be made by the people’s representatives—are now being made in corporate offices, in the industry. I can’t comment on specific legislation, [but] I can tell you I see the value of incentivizing online platforms to address both illicit content on their platforms and assist law enforcement in bringing to justice criminals who use those platforms to victimize Americans.
7. Inspiring International Terrorists
The seeming ease of invading the Capitol could inspire international terrorists, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.
“International terrorist groups may have found a way to get closer to the Capitol by integrating themselves into domestic political movements,” Graham said.
Wray responded that although it is possible, he wasn’t aware of such infiltration occurring.
“Well, certainly we think the events on Jan. 6 have been at a minimum an inspiration to a number of terrorist extremists out there and may even have been worse than that,” Wray said.
Graham talked about what some rioters carried into the Capitol with them.
“One of my great concerns was that as people flowed into the Capitol with backpacks on, you had no idea who they were and what they were carrying,” Graham said. “So it would’ve been very easy for some international terrorists to infiltrate this crowd. Do you agree with that?”
Wray responded: “I do think it would have been easy for that to happen. I don’t know that we’ve seen evidence that it did happen, but that’s certainly one of the specific things we’re looking for.”
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