WASHINGTON — The FBI director and other senior officials have consistently downplayed the intelligence value of social media posts by Trump supporters prior to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, suggesting the bureau had no "actionable" warning that the Capitol would be targeted by a mob.
But according to a document entered into court records last week, an FBI agent acknowledged in a February investigative report that angry Trump supporters were talking openly in the days before the riot about bringing guns to the Capitol to start a "revolution."
"A review of open source and social media posts leading up to and during the event indicates that individuals participating on the 'Stop the Steal,' rally were angered about the results of the 2020 presidential election and felt that Joseph Biden had unlawfully been declared 'President-Elect,'" said the report by FBI Special Agent Patricia Norden. "Users in multiple online groups and platforms discussed traveling to the Capitol armed or making plans to start a 'revolution' on that day."
Norden cited the posts as part of the FBI's justification for opening an investigation into former NYPD officer Thomas Webster, who was indicted in March on seven counts after he admitted attacking a Capitol police officer on Jan. 6. Webster, who has pleaded not guilty, says he was struck first; a federal prosecutor said Webster displayed "pure rage" befitting a "junkyard dog." Video of the alleged assault was released Thursday.
Norden’s report didn’t accuse Webster of being involved in the social media agitation.
The FBI document doesn't say whether the FBI's review of social media posts was conducted before or after Jan. 6. The language in the document, however, contrasts with how FBI Director Christopher Wray has described what experts say was a vast trove of open source intelligence, beginning in December, pointing to potential violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the day Congress was to count the electoral votes showing Biden's victory.
"To my knowledge, sir, we did not have actionable intelligence that indicated that hundreds of people were going to breach the Capitol or storm the Capitol," Wray told Rep. Ro Khanna, D.-Calif., at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee.
But Wray did not explain exactly what the FBI did know, and why the bureau didn't do more, including publishing an intelligence bulletin, in response to thousands of social media posts threatening violence in the weeks before Jan. 6.
"Was this a failure to collect intelligence prior to the event, or was it a failure to act on intelligence that we may have had?" Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D.-N.Y., asked Wray during the same hearing.
Wray responded: "I think what this shows is the challenge of getting sufficient information about what is out there on social media to be able to have the ability to distinguish between what we're calling sort of aspirational versus the intentional…It's sort of a wheat from the chaff [situation]."
Asked whether the FBI monitors social media as part of its efforts to combat violent extremism, Wray spoke in general terms.
"We have very specific policies that have been at the [Justice] Department for a long time that govern our ability to use social media," he said. "And when we have an authorized purpose and proper predication, there's a lot of things we can do on social media, and we do do and we aggressively do. But what we can't do…without proper predication and an authorized purpose, [is] just monitor 'just in case' on social media."
Critics call that answer an obfuscation.
"The stingy, unenlightening testimony by the FBI director is particularly disappointing," wrote Ryan Goodman, a former special counsel at the Defense Department, and Andrew Weissmann, an NBC News contributor and former federal prosecutor who served as general counsel of the FBI, in a Washington Post op-ed last week.
Goodman and Weissmann pointed out, as did NBC News in previous reporting, the attorney general's guidelines allow the FBI, when preparing for major public events to engage in "proactively surfing the Internet to find publicly accessible websites and services" through which the "promotion of terrorist crimes is openly taking place."
The FBI has not explained whether it did that, and if so, why it didn't sound the alarm.
"What is clear is that the FBI knew enough to take further action, but failed to do so," Goodman and Weissmann assert.
The FBI declined to comment.
As part of its response to Jan. 6, the Department of Homeland Security has announced a new policy of gathering intelligence about domestic extremism from public social media posts, focusing not on individual posters but on broader narratives that can offer insights into threats.
FBI officials told Congress they, too, would seek to improve their handling and dissemination of threat information from social media and online message boards, but they have not explained how that would happen.
It's an open question what relevant information about a possible attack on the Capitol the FBI possessed before Jan. 6. A Senate report, released June 8, did not solve that mystery, in part because officials said the Justice Department has failed to comply with records requests.
FBI officials have said the bureau learned that some people under investigation were planning to travel to Washington to engage in violence, and that agents paid those people a visit to dissuade them.
But they have offered no further details about what they learned and who they targeted — and they haven't said why the concerns didn't lead the FBI to recommend a more robust security posture in Washington on Jan. 6.
In April, NBC News reported on hundreds of social media posts before Jan. 6 discussing plans to move on the Capitol, including a map of the building and talk of how to create a stampede that would overwhelm Capitol Police.
"You know there will be riot police preventing us from getting in the capitol building," one anonymous poster wrote in December. "What if we created a stampede/crush situation? Start pushing from the back. Surely they will have to get out of the way or get crushed. They're not going to start shooting people."
The Senate report faulted the FBI and DHS for failing to publish an intelligence bulletin before Jan. 6, as both agencies often do before major public events. The Senate document said that failure "hindered law enforcement's preparations" for Jan. 6, and it cited an NBC News reporting that the FBI decided not to issue a bulletin because it was concerned about publishing intelligence that some officials believed was based on constitutionally protected political speech.
Ocasio-Cortez said during the hearing, "We now know that the attacks were planned out in the open on popular social media platforms like Parler and Telegram. Among thousands of violent messages there were messages saying…'If they certify Biden, we will storm Capitol Hill; executions on the steps.' Also wide social media activity included posts discussing specific details ahead of the attack, ranging from maps with layouts of the Capitol complex and construction plans for the gallows."
Wray said he was unfamiliar with the Parler messages, and did not explain why the FBI didn't publish an intelligence report about any of the social media threats, other than an uncorroborated "situational awareness report" from the Norfolk, Virginia, field office sent to the Capitol police the night before the riot.
The FBI director said that in "the period leading up to Jan. 6, we put out I think a dozen or so intelligence products, including two bulletins in particular, specifically raising concerns about domestic violent extremism, specifically raising concerns about domestic violent extremism related to the election, and specifically related to domestic violent extremism continuing past Election Day itself right on up to the time of the certification and even the inauguration."
Wray said the same thing to the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, prompting this response from Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut: "What I don't understand is why this chatter and raw intelligence didn't prompt a stronger warning, an alarm, going to the very top of the United States Congress because clearly the United States Congress was under severe threat."
The FBI reports Wray mentioned were sent to state and local law enforcement agencies but have not been made public, and the FBI declined an NBC News request for them. But officials who have seen them say they were broad and generic and did not lead anyone to believe the Capitol could be a target Jan. 6.
The FBI director said that most of what the FBI has learned about the attack on the Capitol, it learned through the massive investigation it has conducted in the aftermath, an investigation that so far has resulted in charges against nearly 500 people.
"If we knew all the information that we've developed in our investigations before Jan. 6, we would have built an intelligence product based on that and provided it to all sorts of people," Wray said, adding at a different point, "I think I've been very clear consistently that I think the FBI needs to do better and we're determined to do better."
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Oversight Committee, was not satisfied.
"FBI Director Wray admitted today that he was unaware of the more than 50 tips from social media site Parler prior to the Jan. 6 warning of violence including one user posting that stated, 'Don't be surprised if we take the Capitol building,'" she said.
"This was a massive intelligence failure by the FBI, plain and simple."