In the lead-up to the Capitol siege, the FBI received at least a dozen warnings about the possibility of violence that day (see timeline below.) When the day came and the Capitol barricades fell, it became evident the FBI largely ignored them all.
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The warnings came from all sides: regional law enforcement, social media platforms, Congress (specifically the House and Senate intelligence committees), a top defense official, extremist watchdogs, right-wing experts, journalists and even three different components within the FBI itself.
Grid reviewed every public statement FBI officials made about the bureau’s intelligence leading up to the siege to understand how the FBI explained its posture on Jan. 6. We read hundreds of pages of FBI briefings and press statements, FBI officials’ testimony before Congress and public comments in news reports.
We found that the FBI has given at least five different explanations for why it failed to heed these warnings and take steps to foil the Capitol attack or help other agencies prepare a sufficient response. Some of them support arguments the FBI should get more money and legal authorities. But given what we now know, none of them holds up.
“They’re following the same blueprint as 9/11,” said Mike German, a former undercover FBI agent and author of “Disrupt, Discredit and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy.” He is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “First they say, ‘We had no intelligence,’ then say, ‘Our authorities prevented us from getting the intelligence,’ which is not true.”
German echoed the comments of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) from a June 2001 Judiciary Committee hearing: Nearly every time the bureau fails, Grassley marveled, it “ends up with a bigger budget, more jurisdiction, and the director walks out of this room with a nice pat on the back.”
“This is what the FBI is good at,” German said. “Taking its failures and turning them into opportunities for more resources.”
The institutional lack of introspection, while unsurprising, is deeply worrisome, German and others agree. The threat of political violence — particularly from the right, and targeting democratic institutions and political leaders — is higher than at any point in modern history. Many key indicators point in one direction: Extremist violence is reportedly surging, and threats against election officials and members of Congress are increasing. The threat of lethality from domestic violent extremist groups “is higher than it ever was,” Attorney General Merrick Garland told Congress last May.
If the FBI remains blinkered to the most serious and likely threats, Jan. 6 might not be its last major failure. American democracy has largely survived the violence of Jan. 6, and the Department of Justice has undertaken a historic effort to investigate, indict and prosecute hundreds of participants — who might never have stormed the Capitol in the first place if the FBI had heeded clear warnings and taken proper steps to prevent the attack. The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
A credible explanation for the FBI’s failures around Jan. 6 may yet come from other quarters. Multiple accountability probes into the events of Jan. 6 are scrutinizing the bureau’s woefully insufficient response. The Department of Justice Inspector General has an active probe that reportedly examines the FBI’s troubling inaction; the House Jan. 6 Committee has an entire “blue team” of investigators trying to answer the questions around the security and intelligence failures that preceded the Capitol breach.
A bureau spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Grid that “while the FBI had information that was concerning about the potential for violence in connection with the January 6th events, the FBI was not aware of actionable intelligence that indicated that hundreds of people were planning to violently breach the U.S. Capitol.”
Here are the bureau’s five public explanations for failing to take seriously the intel on Jan. 6, and an assessment of the veracity of its claims.
1. Nothing we saw suggested violence was possible on Jan. 6.
Just hours before the attack, FBI National Security Division personnel assured the acting deputy attorney general that there were “no credible threats,” according to an email obtained by BuzzFeed News. Shortly after the siege, the FBI echoed the internal communication, repeating that it had worked with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies to detect potential threats, and no one saw the Capitol siege coming. “There was no indication there was nothing other than First Amendment protected activity,” Steven D’Antuono, FBI assistant director in charge of the Washington Field Office, said on a call with reporters on Jan. 8. “We worked diligently with our partners on this.”
Less than a week later, the FBI appeared to contradict itself. “We developed some intelligence that a number of individuals were planning to travel to the D.C. area with intentions to cause violence,” D’Antuono told reporters on Jan. 12. An FBI official told NBC News that agents traveled around to people’s homes to dissuade them from attending the protest. To date, no outlet has confirmed the details of any visit.
In March, another senior FBI official repeated the canard that the bureau had seen no indication of possible violence. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Jill Sanborn, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, told lawmakers, “None of us had any intelligence suggesting that individuals were going to storm and breach the Capitol.”
As we now know, this is not true. Many within the FBI had intelligence suggesting violence related to Congress’ election certification. In addition to the many warnings from outside and within the FBI (see timeline below), the bureau should have been privy to alerts on travel to Washington by any one of the dozens of watchlisted individuals who reportedly came to the District for the day of the siege.
“Why didn’t that trigger anything?” asked German.
2. We didn’t have sufficient visibility into the violent groups involved.
At a Senate Judiciary hearing in March, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) expressed surprise at the detailed planning the violent right-wing Proud Boys extremist group employed when preparing for its Jan. 6 assault on Capitol Hill. She asked FBI Director Christopher Wray if he ever wished the FBI had kept closer tabs on the Proud Boys in advance of Jan. 6.
The Proud Boys had left a trail of violent altercations across the country before Jan. 6, including in Washington, D.C., and were central actors at some of the worst flashpoints of violence at the Capitol that day. The group’s members were among some of the first to breach the Capitol windows. At least 27 Proud Boy members or associates have been arrested in connection with the attack, with at least 17 indicted on a charge of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, according to NPR’s database of charged individuals.
“There must be moments where you think, ‘If we would have known. If we could have infiltrated this group, or found out what they were doing,’” Klobuchar said. “Do you have those moments?”
“Absolutely,” Wray responded. “I will tell you, senator, and this is something I feel passionately about: Any time there’s an attack, our standard at the FBI is, we aim to bat a thousand.”
We now know that the FBI was in regular contact with the Proud Boys in the days and months leading up to Jan. 6 — to gather intelligence on left-wing activists. According to Reuters, the FBI cultivated Proud Boys not to inform on their own activities, but to act as intelligence sources about antifa, a loosely organized group of anti-fascist street protesters.
Proud Boys leader Joseph Biggs faces six criminal charges in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol siege. He is accused of directing some of the first acts of violence that precipitated the siege, accusations he denies. Two days before the attack, Biggs told a Reuters reporter that he had been talking with the FBI for months and was willing to tell his bureau contact about his plans for the day, if they asked.
At least four members of the group had communicated with the FBI prior to the attack, Reuters reported. One member of the group was even texting his FBI handler a real time account of the attack, according to the New York Times.
Another member of the group has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the riot and is cooperating with the government.
The FBI spokesperson told Grid in a written statement: “The FBI has no comment on the news reports you mentioned. The FBI does not comment on sources and methods.”
The Proud Boys weren’t the only violent far-right group that appeared to plan ahead for violence. The government has identified at least 21 riot defendants as members of or associates of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia group founded in 2009 and incorporated in Nevada. The group claims to have 30,000 members, and recruits from active and former military and law enforcement. According to federal prosecutors, Oath Keepers arrived at the Capitol in armor and helmets, with firearms and radios, and “forcibly storm[ed] past exterior barricades, Capitol Police and other law enforcement officers and enter[ed] the Capitol in executing the Jan. 6 operation.”
Prior to the Capitol violence, members of the militia provided security for Trump ally Roger Stone, as first reported by the New York Times. The group’s founder, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating Jan. 6. Rhodes told the New York Times that the alleged Oath Keepers charged in the Capitol breach had “gone off mission,” and that they entered only to render aid to others. On Thursday the Department of Justice charged Rhodes and 10 others with seditious conspiracy, some of the first sedition charges made in the investigation. Prosecutors accused the group of stashing firearms on the outskirts of D.C., to be used “in support of their plot to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power.”
Although many Americans first heard of the Oath Keepers in relation to Jan. 6, the organization is well known to the FBI. The bureau has kept tabs on it since at least 2013. The FBI has identified the Oath Keepers as “domestic terrorism sovereign citizen extremists” in internal documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to reporter Emma North-Best in 2018, and observed that “various individuals associated with the Oath Keepers have engaged in well-publicized criminal acts which appear linked to violence and terrorism.”
3. The Constitution tied our hands.
Even though journalists, watchdog groups and even social media platforms themselves were able to spot the clearly emerging threat, and the FBI itself was reportedly in contact with members of key participant groups of the day’s events, FBI leaders have repeatedly told Congress that the Constitution ties their hands — a claim that baffles legal experts.
When grilled on the issue by lawmakers last March, the FBI’s Sanborn said the bureau couldn’t monitor social media in the absence of “a lead or a tip” from a citizen or outside agency. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) expressed his disappointment with the answer, citing the FBI’s lackluster response to earlier questions after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly.
But according to the Justice Department’s own domestic investigation guidelines, agents are allowed to “conduct proactive Internet searches of ‘publicly available information’ to process observations or other information for authorized purposes.”
In June, Wray seemed to repeat the red herring, telling lawmakers repeatedly that department regulations forbid agents from monitoring social media without “proper predication.” Wray told Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) the bureau did not have “proper predication and authorized purpose” in advance of Jan. 6 to dig into the social media posts.
“That’s completely false,” the Brennan Center’s German said of Wray’s claims. “Their rules are public, you can read them. It’s ridiculous that stuff even gets reported, or that policymakers don’t immediately debunk it.”
4. It’s hard to distinguish “intentional” posts, which presage actual violence, from the “aspirational” or mere bluster.
At the same June hearing, Wray described the difficulty the FBI had determining whether threatening online posts were “aspirational versus the intentional.”
“There is all kinds of just unspeakably horrific rhetoric out there across the spectrum, and trying to figure out which individuals are just using hateful horrible language with no intent to act versus which ones actually have an intention to commit violence,” Wray told the committee, “especially in a country where we have the First Amendment and there are all kinds of policies that the Justice Department has had in place for years and years and years that govern our safe space or our ability to operate in social media is a real challenge.”
That’s just wrong, experts say. Andrew Weissmann, former top lawyer for the FBI, called Wray’s explanations “stingy” and “deeply unsatisfying” in a joint op-ed. Weissman and his co-author, law professor Ryan Goodman, pointed out that the FBI “routinely takes actions to prepare for highly sensitive events such as the Jan. 6 certification of the Electoral College results.”
“Indeed,” wrote Weissman and Goodman, ”although Wray did not mention this to lawmakers, the FBI’s role in preparing for such events allows the bureau, in accordance with the attorney general’s guidelines, to engage in ‘proactively surfing the Internet to find publicly accessible websites and services’ through which the ‘promotion of terrorist crimes is openly taking place.’”
“What is clear,” the two concluded, “is that the FBI knew enough to take further action, but failed to do so.”
In fact, two recent cases suggest the FBI does believe it can distinguish between the two and bring charges against speech it finds intentional.
One example is the case of Daniel Baker, a self-described leftist from Florida. Baker wrote on Facebook shortly after Jan. 6, calling for armed civilians to help defend the Florida Capitol building against potentially threatening far-right groups. He was recently sentenced to 44 months in federal prison for the posts, more than most Capitol rioters will face, including those who made specific threats against members of Congress and traveled with weaponry to D.C.
“There is a long history in this country of police, prosecutors, and courts targeting anarchists for trumped up charges and excessive sentences. This legacy goes back to Haymarket and continues to today, with Dan’s case being the most recent example,” Brad Thomson, a civil rights attorney at People’s Law Office told the Intercept.
“The FBI’s approach of de-emphasizing investigations of white supremacist and right-wing militia violence while targeting resources at social justice movements and calling that extremism has existed for some time,” Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, told Desmog earlier this year.
Another example involved Missouri activist Mike Avery. After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in May 2020, Avery posted calls to action on Facebook. Avery encouraged people to gather outside of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department to protest.
Soon after, FBI agents showed up at Avery’s home and arrested him. They charged Avery under the Anti-Riot Act, a 1968 law that is rarely invoked. According to the affidavit, Avery’s Facebook posts were spotted by FBI agents online who were attempting to “identify potential flashpoints for violence” by “monitor[ing] social media for imminent acts of violence.” The FBI cited a post where Avery encourages people in the St. Louis area to gather for a “RED ACTION” and specifically encouraged “shooters” to turn out, which the FBI believed was encouraging people to assault police officers. Avery’s attorneys argued that “shooters” is a slang term for men, and that “red action” is a commonly used term in activist circles to describe protests that may involve pepper spray, rubber bullets and other crowd control measures.
According to reporting by NBC News, Avery was one of four people charged on incitement to riot charges based on social media posts. His charges were dropped several weeks later, after Avery was held without bail. To date, no Capitol insurrection defendant has been charged with inciting a riot.
This case, though dismissed, showed the willingness of the FBI to proactively arrest and detain individuals it saw as planning violence on social media.
The FBI issued joint intelligence bulletins to law enforcement agencies in 2020 based on social media activity before demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, protests in Portland and Black Lives Matter protests in Washington.
The FBI issued no such bulletin prior to Jan. 6, according to a Senate report on the insurrection published in June. It was not until Jan. 13, a week after the attack, that the FBI issued a joint intelligence briefing warning of possible continued violence. “Since the 6 January event, violent online rhetoric regarding the 20 January Presidential Inauguration has increased,” the FBI document says, citing “open source reporting.”
5. Our tools failed us.
The FBI claims it needs better tools to sort through social media data. “The volume — as you said, the volume of this stuff is just massive, and the ability to have the right tools to get through it and sift through it in a way that is, again, separating the wheat from the chaff is key,” Wray told lawmakers in June.
Last October, unnamed sources with apparent deep knowledge of the bureau gave potentially more detail to Wray’s claim. The sources told the Washington Post that an “end-of-the-year changeover” from one social media monitoring service, Dataminr, to another, ZeroFox, left the bureau blind to obvious threat indicators online.
The FBI has never made this claim publicly and for attribution. German dismisses it out of hand, along with the bureau’s other excuses, which profess a lack of intelligence or awareness of extremist threats before the Capitol siege.
“It just doesn’t fly,” German said of the FBI’s complaints. For starters, German noted, news media were reporting threats of violence in advance of Jan. 6: “Even if FBI leaders are somehow unable to see the threat information reported up from below, they can certainly read the front page of the local paper.”
On Jan. 5, 2021, the Washington Post ran a story headlined, “Pro-Trump forums erupt with violent threats ahead of Wednesday’s rally against the 2020 election.” The article noted that the forum members discussed “potential bloodshed and advice on sneaking guns into D.C.”
What’s more, ZeroFox apparently has a history of aggressive social media exploitation to identify potentially violent threats, one that suggests the FBI’s criticism of the service’s thoroughness may be misplaced. Unfortunately, ZeroFox’s apparent zeal appeared as misdirected as the FBI’s could be — instead of focusing exclusively on actual violent threats, the company appears to have aggressively probed and reported nonviolent, progressive protest organizers.
In April 2015, amid protests and rioting in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, ZeroFox sent Baltimore city officials an unsolicited report that labeled prominent Black activists with large Twitter followings as “threat actors,” according to Mother Jones and the Baltimore Business Journal. Under a section of the report titled “THREAT ACTORS: #MOSTWANTED,” the report listed movement organizers DeRay McKesson, Johnetta Elzie and others as physical threats subject to “continuous monitoring.”
The report, which was subsequently released to media through a public records request, categorized both McKesson and Elzie as “Severity: HIGH” and “Threat Type: PHYSICAL.” ZeroFox said in its report they were among 187 “influencers” and 62 “actors” the company was monitoring ahead of the protests.
More than a year after ZeroFox’s report, FBI agents visited McKesson’s home and the home of some of Elzie’s relatives to ask questions, the two told Grid. It could not be determined if the alleged visits were prompted by ZeroFox’s reporting.
“This is just so insane to me. Who would look at [my] photo and think, ‘Oh, she is a threat’?” Johnetta Elzie told Grid. “I never incite violence. If anything I documented the violence of the police,” said Elzie. “I care more about people’s safety than the police did at the time.”
When the FBI agents came calling, Elzie said her aged relatives “trolled” the agents hard. “They’ve lived through Malcom [X], Martin [Luther King, Jr.]. They know about the FBI,” Elzie said. “They asked, ‘Why did you kill MLK?’ and it made the agents uncomfortable.” The FBI spied on King and in 1964 attempted to convince the civil rights legend to kill himself.
According to emails obtained by the Baltimore Sun, ZeroFox CEO James C. Foster sent the report to contacts in Baltimore city government on April 27, 2015, saying he had “immediate intelligence” to pass along.
“Our system also supported the NYC PD during their riots and protests,” Foster wrote. “The alerts and data are alarming and we briefed our classified partners at Fort Meade this morning.” Foster and ZeroFox did not respond to requests for comment.
In a public address the day before the anniversary of the siege, Garland delivered a speech vowing to hold accountable the many people involved in the day’s events and planning “at any level.” Noticeably absent from the 3,316-word speech was a recognition that any responsibility for the day’s events could lie with the bureau, or that the lens of accountability could be appropriately turned inward on his department.
Asked what the bureau had learned from the insurrection, the spokesperson replied: “The FBI has increased our focus on swift information sharing with all our state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement partners throughout the United States. We also have improved automated systems established to assist investigators and analysts in all our field offices throughout the investigative process.”
Steve Reilly contributed to this report.