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FBI Director Christopher Wray sheds little new light on domestic terrorism, Capitol riot intelligence failures

Before the riot, Wray said, the FBI tracked "a large amount of information" about potential violence, but he didn't explain what the FBI did with it.

WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher Wray shed little new light Tuesday about whether his intelligence analysts missed warning signs before the riot at the U.S. Capitol — and how the bureau plans to confront the rising threat of domestic terrorism.

"We need to get better at collecting, obviously," was as close as Wray came to commenting about the FBI's intelligence gathering on domestic terrorism.

Wray, who took office in 2017, said he has boosted the FBI's focus on domestic violent extremism, and that the number of total domestic terrorism cases has risen from around 1,000 two years ago to 2,000 now. He did not address how that compares to the FBI's international terrorism caseload.

Asked whether he wished the FBI had better visibility on the domestic extremist groups who planned an attack on the Capitol in advance, Wray said, "Any time there’s an attack, especially one as horrific as this one … you can be darn tootin’ that we are focused very very hard on how can we get better sources, better information, better analysis so that we can make sure something like what happened on Jan. 6 never happens again."

Wray's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was his first public testimony since September and the first formal statement from the FBI about the status of the riot investigation, one of the most expansive in its history.

It was also his first opportunity to discuss why the FBI did not detect in advance what it now says in court documents was extensive plotting and planning by known extremist groups that attacked the Capitol in coordinated fashion. But senators have largely avoided asking him specific questions about that.

In the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, Wray said, the FBI was tracking "a large amount of information" about the potential for violence. But he didn't explain what the FBI did with that information, other than to repeat a previous disclosure that FBI agents visited some known extremists to dissuade them from coming to Washington.

Wray did comment on a report from the FBI's Norfolk, Virginia, field office, which he called "raw unverified information" from a message board vowing violence at the Capitol. He said he wasn't briefed on the report until much later, but he said the document was passed within 40 minutes to the Capitol Police and other agencies.

The former Capitol Police chief has testified the email arrived after business hours the night before the riot, and he never saw it.

Wray did contradict a myth that has arisen in some right-wing circles by saying that FBI agents "have not to date seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection with the 6th."

Wray has not attended any of the many news briefings about the riot and the investigation.

"I'd like to hear Wray explain the factors that seem to have caused the FBI not to see the threat that so many of us saw," said NBC News national security contributor Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant director of the FBI. "And then, once they saw it, why did they treat it as just another piece of intel?"

Ninety minutes into the hearing, Wray had not answered that question.

Wray, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, will remain as director as he serves what is supposed to be a 10-year term, the Biden administration announced last month.

Wray vowed in a statement Jan. 7 to hold the Capitol rioters accountable, and so far, the FBI appears to be doing that. The investigation continues, and more charges pile up every week. Over the weekend, it emerged that the FBI had isolated video of an unidentified person spraying chemical irritant at police officers and that the FBI now suspects that that may have contributed to the death of Brian Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who collapsed after engaging with rioters.

In congressional hearings last week, the current and former chiefs of the Capitol Police said they saw no credible intelligence from the FBI and other law enforcement organizations that a violent mob might storm the Capitol.

In the days before the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally in Washington, internet chat rooms and social media forums were filled with calls for violence to stop the congressional counting of Joe Biden's Electoral College victory, as NBC News documented the day before the riot.

"In the days leading up to Jan. 6, I received a flood of texts from family and friends telling me to 'be safe' at the joint session," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. "They didn't have access to intelligence. But they did read the tweets from President Trump and his supporters. This was completely foreseeable."

FBI officials have responded that social media chatter is not the same as intelligence and that there was no clear indication of an organized plot.

The new Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said last week that "domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to our country today."

Yet the federal government continues to spend far more in money and manpower addressing international terrorism.

Michael C. McGarrity, then the assistant director for the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, told Congress in 2019 that 80 percent of the bureau's terrorism cases were international, including those of jihadi-inspired Americans, compared to 20 percent that were domestic.

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Officials at the Justice Department, which includes the FBI, told reporters last week that they are boosting the number of lawyers and investigators devoted to cases of domestic terrorism. Anti-government sentiment and racial or ethnic hatred are now the top two motivations for attacks by domestic violent extremists, an FBI official said.

"2020 was a busy year," the official said. "The violent reaction to a mixture of events that took place around the country is unlike anything we have seen in decades."