WASHINGTON — A week after the Jan. 6 attack, an email landed in a top FBI official’s inbox expressing concern that some bureau employees might not be particularly motivated to help bring to justice the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol and threatened lawmakers’ lives.
“There’s no good way to say it, so I’ll just be direct: from my first-hand and second-hand information from conversations since January 6th there is, at best, a sizable percentage of the employee population that felt sympathetic to the group that stormed the Capitol," and that it was no different than the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, the person wrote in an email to Paul Abbate, who is now the No. 2 official at the bureau. “Several also lamented that the only reason this violent activity is getting more attention is because of ‘political correctness.’”
The email, recently disclosed publicly in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, reflects an issue that’s been hanging over the Jan. 6 investigation since it began: the notion that there are some in the bureau who weren’t, and aren’t, particularly driven to bring cases against the Capitol rioters.
The content of the full email, which includes a reference to “my first unit,” coupled with the fact that Abbate replied suggests that the sender, whose name is redacted, was likely someone plugged into the bureau or a former agent. The email was labeled external, indicating it was not sent from an active bureau account.
“I literally had to explain to an agent from a ‘blue state’ office the difference between opportunists burning and looting during protests that stemmed legitimate grievance to police brutality vs. an insurgent mob whose purpose was to prevent the execution of democratic processes at the behest of a sitting president,” the person wrote to Abbate. “One is a smattering of criminals, the other is an organized group of domestic terrorists.”
The person also wrote that an official in one FBI office in a “red state” said that more than 70% of that office's counterterrorism squad and about three-quarters of its agent population disagreed with the violence, “but could understand where the frustration was coming from.”
In his response, Abbate wrote: “Thank you [redacted] for sharing everything below.”
When he received the email, Abbate was the associate deputy director in charge of all FBI personnel, budget, administration and infrastructure. The next month, he was named deputy director, the highest-ranking official under FBI Director Christopher Wray.
The FBI declined to comment on the email.
Brian O’Hare, president of the FBI Agents Association, said his organization “does not comment on ongoing investigations,” but added that, “FBI Agents understand the importance of separating their own personal views from their professional work.”
Despite the apparent Jan. 6 tension in the bureau, the FBI has had major successes in what officials have repeatedly described as an unprecedented investigation. More than 850 defendants have been arrested on charges ranging from misdemeanor parading to felony seditious conspiracy. So far, the investigation has had a flawless track record before juries.
FBI special agents have extracted confessions from rioters, including one who drove a stun gun into the neck of a police officer abducted by the mob, and have given compelling testimony about responding on Jan. 6 and escorting tearful lawmakers back into the building that evening.
But sources close to the investigation have told NBC News that there have been some special agents in the country who have resisted Jan. 6 cases. Many special agents have been very proactive, while others in various field offices have engaged in half-hearted investigative efforts and seem content to let things peter out, the sources said.
“There are definitely varying degrees of enthusiasm from agents across the country,” one source close to the investigation said. The source said it was “disappointing” to see a “lackluster response” from some special agents, while noting that there were many at the FBI who did their job regardless of politics.
Some of the internal resistance at the FBI has gone public.
Steve Friend, an FBI special agent from Florida, was praised as “patriotic” by Republican lawmakers after he was suspended not long after telling a superior he was “going to refuse to participate in any J6 cases.” As NBC News has reported, Friend chose to make his stand by objecting to the arrest of a member of a militia with ties to a former congressional candidate in Florida.
After receiving support from 30 former FBI special agents, Friend joined Trump’s Truth Social platform this week, where he was welcomed by Kyle Seraphin, another suspended FBI special agent who joined Truth Social and did an interview with conservative firebrand Dan Bongino after his suspension. Seraphin has written that the Jan. 6 cases keep him awake at night, and promoted a fundraiser for a Jan. 6 legal defense fund.
Seraphin himself, in a video posted online, said that he was at a shooting range with local law enforcement officials when the Jan. 6 attack happened, and thought that a bunch of “goofballs” were behind the attack.
“We were laughing about it, and there’s no other way to say it,” he said. “We were literally laughing, people were cracking up, you know, somebody has Nancy Pelosi’s podium. Is that the way that our country is supposed to act? No, but these were a bunch of clowns, that’s not what an insurrection looks like to me.”
In another message on Truth Social, Seraphin said he had “literally hundreds of employees” standing behind him. “You’ll only see me. But you will hear them. And we aren’t happy.”
The email sent to Abbate was released the same day the House Jan. 6 committee held its ninth public hearing and shed light on some of the warning signs the FBI received ahead of the attack on the Capitol. The committee revealed the FBI had briefed the Secret Service on Jan. 5 that right-wing groups were establishing armed “quick reaction forces” and said groups like the Oath Keepers were “standing by at the ready should POTUS request assistance.” Those revelations line up with information that has come out in the ongoing Oath Keepers trial.
A tip the FBI received about the Proud Boys ahead of Jan. 6, highlighted by the committee, was even starker.
“Their plan is to literally kill people. Please please take this tip seriously and investigate further,” the December 2020 tip stated.
Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI official and NBC News contributor, said on MSNBC on Thursday that it should be abundantly clear to FBI employees that the attack on the Capitol during the certification of the Electoral College vote was a very serious matter.
“If a FBI employee can’t understand the difference between Black Lives Matter violence and an attempt to overthrow the government and stop a valid election,” he said, “then they need to find another job.”