FBI Head Says Domestic Extremists Are Top Threat To US : The NPR Politics Podcast FBI Director Christopher Wray defended his department saying it warned law enforcement ahead of the insurrection at the capitol. He also emphasized the ongoing threat to the United States posed by domestic extremists—including militia members and white supremacists.

This episode: White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, and congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales.

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FBI Head Says Domestic Extremists Are Top Threat To US

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JAMES: Hello. This is James (ph) from Fort Worth, Texas. I finally got the amateur audio gear I got for Christmas set up and thought there would be no better way to christen it than with an NPR POLITICS PODCAST time stamp. This podcast was recorded at...


2:06 p.m., March 2, 2021.

JAMES: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. OK, enjoy the show.


RASCOE: I don't know if I want any competition with more podcasts out there. Although, there are a lot of them.


RASCOE: But best of luck.


RASCOE: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

RASCOE: So today, the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, testified at a hearing in the Senate about the attack on the Capitol on January 6. Ryan, when we talked about the hearing with the Capitol Police and sergeants-at-arms, when they testified before the Senate, they pointed the finger at the intelligence community, saying that they didn't know or they didn't have any way to know that things might get violent at the scale that it did. How did Wray address those sorts of accusations today?

LUCAS: Well, he did it a couple of ways. One is he said that back - stepping back in November and even December, he said that the FBI was warning its partners in law enforcement of the potential for violence from domestic violent extremists surrounding the election and then leading up through Joe Biden's inauguration on January 20. So he said that they were letting people know that there was the potential for violence.

But then he also talked about one report in particular that came up in the hearings last week. And that is a report that the FBI provided its partners on January 5, so the eve of the January 6 attack. This report was raw intelligence. It hadn't been verified. It hadn't been vetted by FBI analysts. But Wray says that they sent it as quickly as an hour after they discovered this material online about chatter warning of war at the Capitol on January 6. He says that they shared that information in an email. He says that they shared that information in a verbal briefing at a command post that the FBI had set up with its partners, including Metro Police and Capitol Police. And he says that it was also shared through a law enforcement portal that those entities had access to as well.

And this was pushing back on something that we heard last week from the Capitol Police - well, now former Capitol Police chief, as well as the acting police chief for D.C. Metro Police, who said that, well, yes, we got that information, it turns out. We got it on the 5, but the FBI didn't let us know that it was really urgent or that it was a big deal. The acting D.C. Police chief said that we only got it in an email. If it was important, they should have called. And so what Wray's doing here is saying that, well, you know what? You got it the way that you should have received this information. If it was not passed up the chain to you, that's not on the FBI. That's on your people.

RASCOE: So it seems like a lot of people are - as seems to happen with cases like this, everyone's kind of pointing the finger at everyone else. Claudia, how did this information - how was this information received by lawmakers?

GRISALES: This wasn't as combative as we saw last week with this hearing that Ryan just mentioned that featured the former U.S. Capitol Police chief and former sergeant-at-arms. They really took a grilling. Also, the acting U.S. Capitol Police chief - this is Yogananda Pittman - and the acting House sergeant-at-arms, Timothy Blodgett - they testified before a House panel a few days later, and that was also combative. So we did not see that tone today as Wray testified. This is a - one of many hearings. By week's end, we could be at about half a dozen of these hearings at both sides at the Capitol, at the House and Senate, looking into the insurrection. That said, some of these lawmakers are clearly frustrated. They think that there are many questions that remain unanswered even today by the FBI on the insurrection and more. They want these details from the agency because it's yet another reminder that we're just at the beginning of this investigation.

RASCOE: And one thing that a lot of people have focused on and a lot of lawmakers have focused on is, who was actually, you know, involved in storming the Capitol? There has been talk that now we can say is inaccurate or inaccurate based on the information that Wray presented today, that somehow this was a false flag or that, you know, this was really Antifa dressed up in MAGA clothing. But Wray said that they don't have evidence of that, right, Ryan?

LUCAS: That's right. Well, that whole talk of it being a false flag operation on January 6 and Antifa actually being responsible is a conspiracy theory that has been pushed by allies of now former President Trump. And Wray was asked outright several times today whether they had any evidence of that.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY: Certainly, while we're equal opportunity and looking for violent extremism of any ideology, we have not to date seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection with the 6. That doesn't mean we're not looking, and we'll continue to look. But at the moment, we have not seen that.

RASCOE: So who was actually there? I know you talked about there kind of being three buckets or three different types of people that were at this - involved in this insurrection.

LUCAS: Right. So Wray broke it down into, as you said, three buckets. He said that the largest group was a group of people who showed up intending to be peaceful. They may have gotten a little rowdy, but they didn't ultimately break any laws. The second group, which was smaller, is a group that showed up intending to be peaceful, he said, but ended up getting kind of swept up in the moment and ended up actually breaking some laws. Often, you would have something like, say, trespassing on U.S. Capitol grounds. And then the third group - this is the most concerning one. It's also the smallest, he said - is a group of people who came to Washington, D.C., on January 6 planning to engage in violence, planning to, in some instances, storm into the Capitol. And we have seen indications of that group in the, well, more than 300 people who have been charged so far in connection with the 6. These are the sorts of folks who belong to extremist groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. Some of these people are facing conspiracy charges in which prosecutors in court documents have alleged that these individuals were planning beforehand travel to D.C., what to wear to D.C. and, in some instances, actions to take at the Capitol to get inside.

GRISALES: And if I could add, the numbers were reported out a little bit in this past week. Pittman, the acting U.S. Capitol Police chief, said she estimated that about 10,000 of the attendants at the rally at the Ellipse that day made their way to the Capitol, but only an estimated 800 made their way inside. So that really correlates with what Ryan is pointing out, that this is a smaller group that really broke laws that day when we look at the larger picture.

LUCAS: And Wray said of that group, what they have seen in terms of extremists would be what he called militia extremists; people who belong to militia groups, hold perhaps anti-government or anti-authority views. And then there was also a group of people who, he said, would espouse what amount to white supremacist views as well.

RASCOE: All right. Let's take a quick break. And we'll talk more about what Wray had to say at this hearing when we get back.

And we're back. Now, what we didn't get out of this hearing was much in the way of revelations about - more revelations about what happened on January 6, right? Like, we - I mean, having gone through the impeachment trial where there was really this case laid out that these were people that were kind of whipped into a frenzy by former President Trump - or then-President Trump - and then they stormed the Capitol. We didn't get a taste of that today or any other revelations about how this was organized or how people were, you know, corresponding and coming up with plans for attack.

LUCAS: We did not. We did not. We got a few tidbits on sort of the intelligence-sharing process leading up to January 6. And one of the big questions is whether this is an intelligence failure or a failure to act on the intelligence that authorities had. But, no, there were no big revelations today. And in part, that's because these are ongoing criminal investigations, and the FBI is not going to be, you know, passing out new information willy-nilly. This is stuff that will come out in court documents as these investigations proceed.

RASCOE: Is there any update? I know we ask you this every time, but is there any update on where things stand with the arrests and all of that, all those things going forward with January 6?

LUCAS: Well, the latest figures that we have stand up more than 300 people charged in connection with January 6, and more than 280 people have been arrested so far. But these are numbers that are constantly in flux. There are more people being identified, arrested and charged almost on a daily basis, and so those numbers will continue to go up. And that's something that authorities continue to emphasize, which is that we are not done bringing cases at this point.

RASCOE: Claudia, one way to get to the bottom of what happened here that some lawmakers are suggesting is that there be a 9/11-style commission to look at this, you know, look at what happened on January 6 and identify the failures. Is something like that in the offing? And, I guess, first, we should explain to the younger viewers - or not viewers because y'all are not watching this - to the younger listeners...


RASCOE: ...To the younger listeners out there, what was the 9/11 commission? Like, what did they do? What was that?

GRISALES: This was created by Congress and then-President George W. Bush more than a year after the 9/11 attacks. This involved a panel of independent members that oversaw this report, which was issued about two years later. So this is an idea that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought up in the wake of the insurrection. So if we think about the timing comparison here, they're really trying to move the clock at lightning speed, trying to put this together so quickly.

And as we touched on earlier, it is so politically charged here. And it was such an ambitious move to try and get this done so quickly. They thought perhaps they could introduce legislation as early as last week. However, we have not seen the text. We know it was shared with Republicans. And since that time, we've heard complaints from Republicans. They don't know if going this route of creating this commission is the correct route. They have some input, they say, in terms of who to appoint to the panel. And there's some concerns of, well, if Republicans are going to be appointing members to this independent commission, you know, what kind of a probe could they help direct here? Could it be allies of former President Trump that will take this commission idea and derail it when it comes to the insurrection? And so at the other side of that, we're hearing Democrats who are very supportive of this, but they are concerned about how it could be politicized.

And, again, there's this massive trust gap between the parties on, well, OK, we allow Republicans to appoint members. What are they going to say in terms of how this investigation should proceed? But at the same time, there's some Republicans saying that there's distrust on their end in terms of not being able to appoint members to the commission. So this is really getting bogged down right now in the politics here. And so it's not clear if we're going to see this commission recreated.

RASCOE: You know, this seems like such a different moment - or this is such a different moment then though - then after 9/11. You know, the parties are not coming together like that. You know, and that idea of having a bipartisan commission that would be respected by both parties at this point does seem to be a bit far-fetched.

GRISALES: Yeah, a tall order here. Exactly.

RASCOE: All right. I think that's all the time we've got for right now. I know I have to go wrangle up some children, and so - you might have heard in the background.

GRISALES: (Laughter).

RASCOE: But remember; you can sign up for our roundup of our best online analysis at npr.org/politicsnewsletter.

I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

RASCOE: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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