FBI Director Wray calls Jan. 6 'domestic terrorism,' defends intel

FBI Director Christopher Wray arrives Tuesday to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
FBI Director Christopher Wray arrives Tuesday to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Mandel Ngan | Pool, AFP via Getty Images

Updated: 3:26 p.m.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, testifying before a Senate panel about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, said Tuesday that "quite a number" of those arrested so far had militia or white supremacist connections and that "we have not to date seen any evidence of anarchist violence or people subscribing to antifa" involved in the assault.

Wray also told the Senate Judiciary Committee "we have not seen evidence" that fake Trump supporters were involved, as some on the right have alleged. (Watch Wray's opening remarks.)

Wray appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his first public testimony before Congress since a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol almost two months ago. The hearing largely focused on what the FBI knew leading up to the attack, its response and its efforts generally on domestic extremism.

While a handful of Republican lawmakers sought to draw attention to left-wing extremists and other threats, Wray was clear that the evidence around the Jan. 6 attack shows a connection to right-wing extremism, particularly militia groups.

The January assault left at least five people dead, caused millions of dollars in damage to the historic building and led to then-President Donald Trump's second impeachment. Federal prosecutors have opened a massive nationwide investigation to find those who took part in the violence and hold them responsible.

So far, authorities have arrested some 280 people and charged more than 300 in connection with the attack.

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In their opening remarks, the Democratic chair and top Republican on the panel painted different pictures of the threat posed by domestic extremism, with Democrats focusing on the Jan. 6 attack while Republicans pointed to last summer's unrest protesting police violence following the death of George Floyd.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that while he unequivocally condemns left-wing violence, "let's stop pretending that the threat of antifa is equivalent to the white supremacist threat. Vandalizing a federal courthouse in Portland is a crime. It should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

"But it is not equivalent to a violent attempt to overthrow the results of elections, nor is it equivalent to mass shootings targeting minority communities."

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, retorted in his own opening statement, "We're not serious about attacking extremism if we care about some government buildings being attacked but not others. We're not serious about attacking domestic extremism if we only focus on white supremacy movements, which isn't the only ideology that's responsible for murders and violence."

Wray reemphasized the growing threat of domestic extremism in his remarks, noting that white supremacy was the largest chunk of "racially motivated" violent extremism, which makes up the largest subset of domestic extremism overall.

Durbin and the panel's other Democrats sent Wray a letter last week expressing concerns about the FBI's approach to white supremacists and other homegrown far-right extremists.

"Unfortunately, the FBI appears to have taken steps in recent years that minimize 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," the letter says.

The Democrats say public reporting suggests the FBI, at the direction of Trump administration appointees, shifted resources from investigating right-wing extremists to instead focus on left-wing movements. Wray testified Tuesday that was not the case — that he in fact moved to elevate such threats as a priority for the FBI.

On Tuesday and in previous testimony, Wray has defended the FBI's approach to domestic terrorism threats of all stripes and stressed that the bureau investigates violence, not ideology.

The FBI director said domestic terrorism is "metastasizing across the country," noting that the number of investigations of domestic terrorism the bureau has undertaken had more than doubled, to 2,000, since he took office in 2017.

Wray has spoken publicly only once since the riot, prior to Tuesday's hearing. In those remarks, eight days after the attack, he said the FBI was aggressively tracking down suspects and monitoring potential threats.

While social media has been a tool in that effort, it has also presented a challenge for law enforcement trying to thwart attacks.

"I sometimes say terrorism today, and we saw it on Jan. 6, moves at the speed of social media," he said.

Wray reiterated warnings about the use of encrypted messaging platforms, saying that violent extremists as well as "other bad actors" are taking advantage of encrypted platforms to evade law enforcement.

"If we don't collectively come up with some kind of solution, it's not going to matter how bulletproof the legal process is, or how horrific the crime is, or how heartbreaking the victims are," Wray said. "We will not be able to get access to the content that we need to protect the American people. And then I think we will all rue the day."

Wray testified a week after three former top congressional security officials — the ex-sergeants at arms of the House and Senate plus the ex-U.S. Capitol Police chief — blamed what they called a lack of actionable intelligence for the security failure on Jan. 6.

They pointed the finger at intelligence despite the fact that the Capitol Police Department had produced its own assessment on Jan. 3 that Congress would be a likely target for the crowd on Jan. 6. Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testified last week, "None of the intelligence we received predicted what actually occurred."

All three officials resigned after the Capitol attack.

Wray said Tuesday that he believed the FBI followed the proper protocols and could not pinpoint a specific action that could have been done differently given the circumstances. He said a memo from the FBI's Norfolk, Va., field office warning of possible violence Jan. 6 was sent "not one, not two but three different ways" to other law enforcement agencies, including the Capitol Police and Washington, D.C.'s, Metropolitan Police Department.

He said the warning, which he called raw intelligence, was sent by email, was part of a command post briefing and put on a law enforcement Internet portal.

"Having said that, I do not consider what happened Jan. 6 to be an acceptable result," Wray said.

He also said the FBI is "not aware of any widespread evidence of voter fraud" in the November election, "much less that would have affected the outcome in the presidential election," rebutting false claims by former President Trump and other Republicans that the election was "stolen" by Democrats.

NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales contributed to this report.

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