On Tuesday, the FBI director defended his bureau’s handling of intelligence ahead of the January 6 US Capitol riot, while telling lawmakers of an alarming recent spike in domestic terrorism cases.
Christopher Wray faced a grilling from members of Congress in his first testimony since the deadly insurrection by supporters of then-president Donald Trump, particularly over whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation underestimated the danger. As he sought to show the bureau was taking the threat seriously, he said it has dramatically increased its probes of domestic extremist groups including those advocating white supremacy, and that his agents were now pursuing 2,000 extremism cases- double the number since he became FBI director in 2017.
Wray stood by his agency’s handling of raw intelligence gathered on the eve of the Capitol unrest, after law enforcement personnel testified to Congress last month that they were not sufficiently briefed by the intelligence community of the January 6 threat.
“The way in which it was handled at least as I understand it strikes me as consistent with our normal process,” Wray told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Wray was referring to a report of raw, unverified intelligence compiled by the FBI’s Norfolk, Virginia field office on January 5 and emailed to US Capitol Police and other security offices.
The intelligence report cited social media chatter warning that Trump supporters were planning to storm the Capitol, with extremists “ready for war.” Wray said police were also verbally briefed about the threat, and it was posted on a portal made available to law enforcement personnel in the national capital region and around the country.
He said the email went to multiple US Capitol Police task force officers. When asked why the report did not flow up to police leadership ahead of the riot, Wray said “I don’t have a good answer for that” and acknowledged that he himself did not see the report until days after January 6. “We are focused very, very hard on how can we get better sources, better information, better analysis, so that we can make sure that something like what happened on January 6 never happens again,” he said.
Militant violent extremism has grown in the United States, Wray stressed. There were about 1,000 domestic terrorism investigations when he took over in mid-2017. The figure grew to about 1,400 at the end of last year, and has spiked to 2,000 now, Wray said. And racially motivated violent extremism, mainly promoting white supremacy, “is the biggest chunk of our domestic terrorism portfolio overall,” according to Wray.
Arrests in racially motivated extremism nearly tripled in 2020 compared to 2017, he said.
Wray had a challenging relationship with Trump, who chastised Wray’s approach to election security and the bureau’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Several Republicans have insinuated that it was not Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, but left-wing groups including Antifa. Wray shot that theory down. “We have not to date seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection with the 6th,” he said.
Charging documents show that many of those arrested have openly described being inspired by Trump.
The former president spent four years “downplaying the threat posed by white supremacists,” said the panel’s Democratic chairman, Senator Dick Durbin. “As the January 6th attack on the Capitol demonstrated, for far too long our federal government has failed to address the growing terrorist menace in our own backyard.”