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Wray Stresses Role Of Right-Wing Extremism In Hearing About Jan. 6 Riot

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
FBI Director Christopher Wray arrives Tuesday to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Updated at 6:41 p.m. ET

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday condemned the attack on the U.S. Capitol as "domestic terrorism," defended the bureau's handling of intelligence about potential threats ahead of the event and rejected conspiracy theories blaming left-wing extremists for the violence on Jan. 6.

Wray's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee marked his first public testimony since the deadly Capitol insurrection by Trump supporters two months ago. It comes as lawmakers--and the public--seek answers about what led to the spectacular security failure on that day.

Tuesday's hearing focused in part on what the FBI knew leading up to the attack, and its response more broadly to the rising threat from domestic violent extremists.

"Unfortunately, January 6 was not an isolated event," Wray said. "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 the number of FBI domestic terrorism investigations has doubled since he took office in 2017 to more than 2,000. The number of investigations into white supremacists has tripled in that time frame, while the number of probes into anarchist extremists has risen significantly as well, he said.

Before And After Jan. 6

Wray defended the FBI's handling of intelligence in the run-up to Jan. 6. He said the bureau had warned several times of the possibility of extremist violence through the Jan. 20 inauguration.

He pointed to a much discussed Jan. 5 report from and FBI field office flagging online chatter that discussed possible "war" in Washington on Jan. 6.

Wray said that information was shared within an hour of receiving it "not one, not two but three different ways" with 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 verbal briefing and put on a law enforcement Internet portal.

"As to why the information didn't flow to all the people within the various departments that they would prefer, I don't have a good answer for that," he said.

Wray testimony comes 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. In his testimony, former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said "none of the intelligence we received predicted what actually occurred."

He also acknowledged that the Capitol Police had received the FBI report but that information was not passed up the chain to him.

All three officials resigned after the Capitol attack.

Wray also said the FBI had found no evidence that would support the conspiracy theory pushed by allies of former President Trump that the attack on the Capitol was staged by left-wing extremists such as antifa to try to frame Trump supporters.

"We have not to date seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to antifa in connection with the sixth," he said. That doesn't mean we're not looking, and we'll continue to look, but at the moment we have not seen that."

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.

He said violent extremists with ties to right-wing militias and white supremacy were involved in the violence, and are facing federal charges for their alleged roles.

So far, more than 300 people have been charged in connection with the insurrection. They include members of the Oath Keepers paramilitary group and the Proud Boys.

Watch Wray's opening remarks below.

In their opening remarks, the Democratic chairman 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.

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."

NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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