FBI director Chris Wray has condemned the January riot at the US Capitol as “domestic terrorism” as he defended the bureau’s handling of intelligence indicating the prospect for violence.
He told legislators the information was properly shared with other law enforcement agencies even though it was raw and unverified.
His comments in his first public appearance before Congress since the deadly Capitol attack two months ago amounted to the FBI’s most vigorous defence against the suggestion that it did not adequately communicate to police agencies that there was a distinct possibility of violence as legislators gathered to certify the results of the presidential election.
A January 5 report from the FBI’s field office in Norfolk, Virginia, warned of online posts foreshadowing a “war” in Washington the following day.
However, Capitol Police leaders have said they were unaware of that report and received no intelligence from the FBI that would have led them to expect the sort of violence that besieged the Capitol that day, when five people died.
Asked about the handling of the report, Mr Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that it was shared though the FBI’s joint terrorism taskforce, discussed at a command post and posted on an internet portal available to other law enforcement agencies.
The information was raw and unverified the FBI would ideally have had more time to try to corroborate it, he said.
“Our folks made the judgment to get that to the relevant people as quickly as possible.”
It’s behaviour 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 lawChris Wray
He highlighted the FBI’s growing concern about an increase in extremist violence in the US, including from militia groups, white supremacists and anarchists. The threat they pose is being treated with the same urgency as that from international terror groups like so-called Islamic State or al Qaida, he said.
The violence at the Capitol made clear that a law enforcement agency that remade itself after the September 11 attacks in 2001 to deal with international terrorism is now scrambling to address homegrown violence from white Americans.
President Joe Biden’s administration has tasked his national intelligence director to work with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to assess the threat.
“It’s behaviour 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,” Mr Wray said of January 6.
He has kept a low profile since the Capitol attack. Although he has briefed legislators privately and shared information with local law enforcement, Tuesday’s oversight hearing marked his first public appearance before Congress since before November’s presidential election.
Committee chairman Dick Durbin asked if there was any evidence the attack was organised by “fake Trump protesters”, after claims that left-wing activists dressed as Trump supporters to attack the Capitol.
Mr Wray replied the FBI had “not seen evidence of that”.
“January 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasising across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away any time soon,” he added.
Mr Wray said the number of domestic terrorism investigations has increased from around 1,000 since he became FBI director in 2017 to about 2,000 now. The number of white supremacist arrests has almost tripled, he added.