Last summer, a few weeks after Cassidy Hutchinson’s public testimony about Donald Trump’s response to his 2020 election loss, staffers on the January 6 committee sat down in a conference room at the O’Neill House Office Building with another big get: Jennifer Moore, the FBI administrator who oversaw intelligence in the bureau’s D.C. office in the lead-up to the Capitol attack.
Moore spent several hours talking with committee staffers who were trying to get to the bottom of why the federal government was so ill-prepared for the clear threat posed by thousands of pro-Trump conspiracy theorists who thought January 6 was their one last shot to save the country.
A committee staffer tried to get Moore to concede something that could have been obvious to anyone with an internet connection in late 2020: Trump’s December 19 tweet—“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”—was an inflection point. This didn’t need to be a controversial view; public social-media posts made clear that the far right saw the tweet as “marching orders”; it sparked massive new interest in the events that were being planned that day. By the time of Moore’s interview in mid-2022, even though Trump’s tweet played a key role in many of the hundreds of criminal cases that the FBI had brought against Capitol rioters, Moore demurred.
“I will definitely say all rhetoric, again, increased as we got closer to January 6th,” Moore said. “On both sides,” Moore added, inadvertently echoing Trump’s infamous remark after the deadly neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville in 2017. (Perhaps this is obvious, but whatever Democrats were saying, militant Joe Biden supporters were not, in fact, plotting to storm the U.S. Capitol.)
Moore’s seemingly reflexive instinct to create parity where none exists encapsulates the challenges the bureau faces in combatting domestic extremism in the 21st century, something that I saw again and again while poring over thousands of pages of FBI documents, interview transcripts, and court records for my new book, Sedition Hunters: How January 6th Broke the Justice System.
Nearly three years have passed since the January 6 attack. The January 6 committee was originally supposed to examine how the nation’s law-enforcement institutions had failed to plan for such an event. But Liz Cheney and the committee’s Democrats were determined to keep the public’s ire focused on the former president, and, as a result, the committee’s final report breezed past the issue. This is too bad, because the country deserves accountability. January 6 was a preventable tragedy, an onslaught that the United States government could have fended off had law enforcement sent a more rigorous warning to would-be rioters ahead of January 6, and had stronger security measures been put in place around the Capitol building.
There’s no single explanation for what former FBI Director James Comey called “a failure to see a threat that was in bright daylight.” Some of the contributing factors could have been pulled right from a dusty copy of the 9/11 Commission Report, though others are unique to the Trump presidency. I found five key themes while working on my book.
1. Right-leaning political sympathies and false equivalency
The FBI is a conservative-leaning organization generally, and, in some cases, home to election deniers, January 6 supporters, and even outright participants. An FBI employee was on the restricted grounds of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in a personal capacity; a former counterterrorism official allegedly entered the Capitol and then urged rioters to kill officers protecting the building; and a top FBI official was warned that “a sizable percentage” of FBI employees “felt sympathetic to the group that stormed the Capitol.” As one law-enforcement official diplomatically put it to me, there are “varying degrees of enthusiasm” for January 6 cases in FBI field offices across the country.
Unfortunately, those sympathies can inhibit the FBI’s pursuit of what is a significant domestic threat: right-wing extremism. Over the course of 10 years, from 2013 to 2022, 75 percent of the 444 people killed by extremists were killed by right-wing extremists, according to data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, and in 2022, all of the 25 extremist-related murders tracked by the ADL were committed by right-wing extremists. As the Trump-appointed federal prosecutor (and now federal judge) Thomas Cullen wrote in 2019, “White supremacy and far-right extremism are among the greatest domestic-security threats facing the United States.” The FBI, however, hesitates to speak that plainly and instead jams extremists from polar-opposite sides of the spectrum together into broad categories. For example, white supremacists and Black separatists are both part of “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism”; anarchists and militias are both part of “anti-government or anti-authority violent extremism.” This approach may appease congressional appropriators, who can’t complain about the FBI singling out extremists on their preferred side of the aisle, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of which groups actually pose the deadlier threat to the public, nor does it help develop strategies for dealing with dissimilar movements.
2. Distraction from the Oval Office
Three days before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, on January 3, 2021, the Justice Department was worried about an insider threat. That Sunday afternoon, just before the two leaders of the Justice Department held a crucial conference call about law-enforcement planning for January 6, the DOJ environmental lawyer and election truther Jeffrey Clark told then–Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen that he was going to take Trump up on his offer. He’d be taking Rosen’s job, which Rosen had had only since former Attorney General Bill Barr’s resignation went into effect just before Christmas. Soon, the Justice Department’s acting No. 2, Richard Donoghue, started removing the plaques off his wall and boxing up his office, figuring his boss was about to be fired, perhaps via Trump tweet. That evening saw the showdown at the White House, where Justice Department officials said they’d quit if Clark was installed. Trump’s phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—the one in which Trump asked him to “find” 11,780 votes so he could win the state—was playing on cable news near the Oval Office, according to Donoghue’s later testimony.
Had things gone slightly differently, Sunday, January 3, would have been an infamous day in American history, right up there with the Saturday Night Massacre of the Watergate era. But by joining forces and humiliating Clark in front of Trump—“You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill?” Donoghue remembered telling Clark—the Justice Department leaders won, and Trump stood down, for the moment. The news came to the DOJ leaders via text and email. “Will call shortly, but we won,” Rosen wrote in a text at 9:03 p.m., less than 72 hours before the Capitol was breached. The top echelons of the Justice Department were thoroughly distracted. The department was preparing for the transition; an “outbriefing” session for political appointees was even set for 10 a.m. on January 6. The man in the White House, of course, had other plans.
3. Awful timing
The year 2020 wasn’t great for anyone, including FBI employees. Even in a good year, nobody in D.C. (journalists included) is firing on all cylinders during the weeks at the end of December. At the tail end of 2020, the event the intelligence analysts at the FBI were chiefly focused on after the holiday break was Inauguration Day, which, like other inaugurations, had been designated as a National Special Security Event and required coordination between numerous government entities.
Despite the holiday, the work wasn’t slowing down, and the FBI couldn’t seem to catch a break. On top of being worried that Trump was going to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray and the acting leadership of the Justice Department, plus juggling vacation time, the FBI was responding to two major events. First was the massive SolarWinds hack, which one official told the Associated Press was looking like “the worst hacking case in the history of America” and which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has since called “one of the most widespread and sophisticated hacking campaigns ever conducted against the federal government and private sector.” After the intrusion was detected in mid-November, the FBI spent December and early January dealing with the fallout, teaming up with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for a “whole-of-government response to this significant cyber incident” in mid-December and notifying the private sector of the risks on December 21. In a joint statement on January 5, the government indicated that the “Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actor” behind the attack was “likely Russian in origin.”
There was also a Christmas Day bombing in Nashville by a conspiracy theorist who believed that September 11 was an inside job. The FBI did what it does best after that attack: surged resources. The investigation involved “recovering more than 3,000 pounds of evidence from the blast site, combing through more than 2,500 tips, and conducting more than 250 interviews.” The response involved a total of 277 FBI employees, including “specialty units such as the Evidence Response Team, SWAT, Bomb Technicians, Crisis Negotiation, Behavioral Analysis, and Victim Assistance.” FBI headquarters sent personnel from a variety of teams, including the counterterrorism division, and 20 FBI field offices sent along personnel as well. Ultimately, the FBI determined that Anthony Quinn Warner’s actions were driven in part by “paranoia, long-held individualized beliefs adopted from several eccentric conspiracy theories, and the loss of stabilizing anchors and deteriorating interpersonal relationships”—a description that could well apply to many January 6 rioters.
4. Bureaucracy and outdated tech
The FBI was leaning on an outside vendor to help it track social-media rhetoric, but thanks to a lengthy bidding process and contracting change, the FBI lost access to that key social-media monitoring tool when the clock struck midnight and the calendar flipped to 2021. FBI personnel and the head of the FBI Washington Field Office raised the alarm days before January 6; the head of the office called it “extremely concerning” they didn’t have access to the tools they needed. “We need the sign ons this weekend to effectively do our jobs,” Steven D’Antuono wrote at 4 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. “I’ll cross my fingers and toes that the company that we are paying for a service starting January 1st can get us sign ons for their service by this weekend. Doesn’t make sense to me.” But the “hope” was that the new tool would be available “before Jan. 6 and definitely before Jan. 20,” another official told him.
The FBI has never been at the front of the pack on technology. In his book about the lead-up to September 11, The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright notes that by the turn of the century, church groups wouldn’t even accept the bureau’s old computers as donations. Up until a few years ago, FBI emails were formatted “@ic.fbi.gov.” That didn’t stand for “intelligence community”; it stood for “internet café,” from the days of dial-up and AOL. If you read through thousands of pages of FBI documents, it’s tough to square phrases such as “Sent from Samsung Email” and “Apologies if the formatting is off, I am on Office 365” with the outlandish claims that January 6 was an FBI setup. The vibes are much more The Office than CSI.
The FBI has to deal with an enormous number of incoming digital tips (“I wish you could see the volume,” a former top official told the January 6 committee), and that’s unlikely to slow down anytime soon. Most of them are handled by the National Threat Operations Center, in West Virginia; FBI documents released through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show a massive spike in complaints from the public the day before January 6. Figuring out how to respond to the quantity of raw material is a challenge. When should federal agents take action? What’s just “keyboard bravado”?
Making sure the FBI—with its comparatively low salary scale—is able to recruit and maintain the tech-savvy workforce it needs to take on the key challenges of the 21st century is a major looming issue at the bureau, but one that isn’t getting the type of attention it needs from lawmakers.
5. Donald Trump
The FBI is part of the executive branch, meaning, ultimately, that Trump oversaw it. By the end of 2020, the bureau had been under his sustained attacks for years. He’d fired James Comey and made clear he wasn’t fond of Wray, especially because Wray accurately described anti-fascism as more of an ideology than a group. White House lawyers had to advise Trump against firing Wray at the end of 2020. In that environment, who wanted to be the person who wrote a memo saying the president’s event posed a national-security threat? There was a constant fear of leaks—that a poorly phrased email about January 6 could set off a political disaster, characterized as just more evidence of the work of the so-called deep state. One email that circulated within the FBI Washington Field Office just before January 6 indicated that the office would “not be releasing anything” about January 6 to anyone beyond its executive management.
Trump had telegraphed his plan to claim election fraud for months, but the bureau couldn’t be honest about the foreseeable consequences of the commander in chief telling his millions of supporters that the election had been stolen. Shortly before the election, and not long after Trump told the far-right Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” the FBI ran a “red cell” experiment meant to map out how extremists might respond to claims that the election was stolen. A summary of the analysis I recently obtained through the FOIA shows the bureau predicted that the most likely scenario was that extremists would be “very willing to take action” in response to a disputed election, but that “law enforcement preemption,” as well as “disorganization” among extremist groups, “likely would hinder widespread violence.” The redacted copy of the analysis doesn’t contemplate the role that a conspiracy-minded president with a massive digital bully pulpit could play in bringing that coalition together at a set date and time.
Reports released this year both by Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee and by the GAO have examined some of the law-enforcement-intelligence failures before the Capitol attack, and the Justice Department’s inspector general is working on an investigation into what went wrong.
The FBI has instituted some internal reforms since January 6, increasing “focus on swift information sharing” and “improved automated systems,” but there hasn’t been a serious legislative effort to fix existing issues and ensure that a failure like this doesn’t happen again. Instead, Republicans have gone after the FBI for prosecuting January 6 cases; some members have even supported a “fedsurrection” narrative positing that a diabolical FBI masterminded the attack, creating a false flag event to make Trump supporters look bad. It’s a theory that fundamentally breaks what is supposed to be a core conservative belief—that big government is bloated and inefficient—and instead posits that the federal government is full of super geniuses with staggering competency who can pull off a massive scheme and leave no traces, even when the executive branch was being run by Donald Trump and the FBI had a large contingent of Trump supporters within the bureau. (There is no credible evidence to support such a theory.)
For now, the quickest summary of what went wrong might just have come from Trump, who hopped on the phone with the DOJ’s Rosen and Donoghue 10 days before the Capitol attack, when he was encouraging them to use the Justice Department’s powers to overturn the election.
“You guys,” Trump said, “may not be following the internet the way I do.”
By Ryan J. Reilly
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