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National Security

FBI Washington field office got an F for fighting domestic terrorism from bureau officials

An ex-official said the evaluation also faulted the D.C. field office's methods for sharing intelligence with other police agencies, including the Capitol Police.
A team of FBI agents gathers at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.Jose Luis Magana / AP

WASHINGTON — FBI inspectors who evaluated the domestic terrorism program in the bureau's Washington field office two years ago gave it a "failing grade," meaning it was considered both ineffective and inefficient, two former FBI officials familiar with the matter said.

The inspection — akin to an internal audit — found that mechanisms to collect, analyze and share threat intelligence were lacking, the same factors that appear to have played roles in the security failure that led to the U.S. Capitol's being overrun by domestic extremists Jan. 6, the former officials said.

"It wasn't being worked fully, in short," said one of the former FBI officials, who was there at the time.

"They didn't have [enough] intelligence analysts assigned, and the ones who had been assigned in the past weren't doing intel work," the former official said. "They had few sources or understanding of the threat in their area of responsibility."

The second former official, who was directly involved, said the evaluation also criticized the Washington field office's procedures for sharing intelligence with other police agencies, including the U.S. Capitol Police. Capitol Police said they had no intelligence from the FBI about possible threats before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, in which a pro-Trump mob overwhelmed the agency's officers and one officer died.

Washington is considered the top domestic terrorism target in the country, and the FBI's Inspection Division sent a team to evaluate how the D.C. field office's domestic terrorism programs were working. FBI inspection reports are generally not made public.

The inspectors examined the office files to determine the number and quality of the office's human sources in domestic terrorism and the intelligence papers the analysts were writing, the first former official said.

A third former FBI official briefed about the matter said: "They saw a big need for improvement. They were uncomfortable with the iconic target city not having the best mechanisms to collect on and counter the threat. They found problems with how they interact with the other agencies, specifically the Capitol Police."

Samantha Shero, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office, told NBC News after this article was first published that the inspection that resulted in a failing grade took place for 18 months during 2017 and most of 2018.

In two separate reviews since then, she said, the office's grades have improved, and they are now at the highest level. She acknowledged that the reviews were not inspections, which are the most rigorous evaluation the FBI conducts of its operations.

"Recommendations were made, and changes were implemented," she said.

The sources said the failed inspection was not necessarily due to incompetence or bad management — there was a larger context. Domestic terrorism was ranked as a low priority in the FBI compared to international terrorism, the former official said, which meant it did not always attract the most aggressive agents.

The second former FBI official said one complicating factor was the large number of threats made on social media and in other forms on a near-daily basis against federal government targets in Washington and the difficulty in sorting out what is real from what is simply aspirational.

Image: An FBI wanted poster
A poster distributed by the FBI seeks information about a pipe bombing suspect Wednesday in Washington, D.C.Eric Baradat / AFP - Getty Images

Investigating domestic terrorism has been a challenge across the bureau. A fourth source, a former FBI official who worked in a senior role on domestic terrorism, spoke of ongoing frustration, because agents felt hamstrung by FBI lawyers who worried that an investigation or an intelligence collection bumped up against protected free speech.

NBC News reported Sunday that, according to law enforcement sources briefed about the matter, the FBI and the New York Police Department shared some threat information with the Capitol Police in the days before the riot.

But NBC News also reported Tuesday that the FBI did not issue a comprehensive intelligence bulletin sharing everything its intelligence analysts had gathered about extremist postings on social media threatening violence. That did not happen because some FBI officials were concerned that issuing such a bulletin would run afoul of First Amendment protections for political speech — a view not everyone within the FBI agreed with, sources familiar with the matter said.

The acting assistant chief of the Capitol Police told Congress on Tuesday that he was not aware of any intelligence from the FBI before Jan. 6.