Paladino enumerates the five different rationales offered so far by the FBI for its failures:
- Nothing we saw suggested violence was possible on Jan. 6.
- We didn’t have sufficient visibility into the violent groups involved.
- The Constitution tied our hands.
- It’s hard to distinguish “intentional” posts, which presage actual violence, from the “aspirational” or mere bluster.
- Our tools failed us.
None of these rationales, as he explains, hold up. The first flies in the face of what was public knowledge for a significant portion of the public who expected some kind of violence in Washington that day. Most of the remainder are geared toward helping the agency expand its powers or its funding. And all of them baldly mischaracterize the FBI’s actual powers when it comes to investigating these kinds of threats.
The most egregious are the various versions of the claim that the FBI’s hands are tied when it comes to monitoring these kinds of extremists. In her March testimony before a Senate committee, the FBI’s national security chief, Jill Sanborn, claimed that the agency wasn’t allowed to monitor social media without first receiving “a lead or a tip” from a citizen or other agency.
FBI director Christopher Wray largely repeated the claim in a June 15 House hearing, telling Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York that the agency was extremely constrained in what it was permitted to monitor.
“We have very specific policies that have been at the department for a long time that govern our ability to use social media, and when we have an authorized purpose and proper predication, there is a lot of things we can do on social media and we do do and we aggressively do,” he said. “But what we can’t do—what we can’t do on social media is without proper predication and an authorized purpose just monitor just in case on social media. Now, if the policies should be changed to reflect that, that might be one of the important lessons learned coming out of this whole experience.”
This is, in fact, utter rubbish: The FBI’s own guidelines for domestic investigations clearly state that agents are permitted to “conduct proactive Internet searches of ‘publicly available information’ to process observations or other information for authorized purposes.”
“That’s completely false,” commented Michael German, a national security expert with the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI agent, of Wray’s assertions. “Their rules are public, you can read them. It’s ridiculous that stuff even gets reported, or that policymakers don’t immediately debunk it.”
Moreover, as Paladino details, the FBI and Justice Department have zero similar compunctions when it comes to cases involving left-wing political activists, putting the lie to the claim that they can’t distinguish between “hot talk” and actual organizing for purposes of political violence. In Florida, the DOJ prosecuted and convicted an anarchist named Daniel Baker after he published Facebook posts urging counterprotesters to turn up armed at post-Jan. 6 pro-Trump events. Similarly, federal prosecutors in Missouri charged a Black Lives Matter activist named Michael Avery with inciting a riot on the basis of his Facebook posts urging protesters to turn out in Ferguson after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer; those charges were later dismissed.
Given that none of the FBI’s official rationales hold water, it’s nonetheless not difficult to accurately assess the actual source of its failures just from what we have gleaned from the public record so far, particularly concerning the agency’s treatment of right-wing extremists for the duration of the Trump administration leading up to Jan. 6. Domestic terrorism data demonstrates that federal law enforcement in the years 2017-2020 deliberately downplayed and deprioritized right-wing political violence, and whistleblowers who called out this reality from within federal law enforcement late in Trump’s tenure made clear there were political reasons for this malfeasance.
The apotheosis of the Trump administration’s skewed priorities was the effort in the summer of 2020 by Homeland Security (DHS) officials to attempt to dig up evidence of terrorist planning activities by “antifa” during anti-police protests in Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere. Indeed, a later review showed that senior DHS leadership pushed unfounded conspiracy theories about antifascists, encouraged the contractors they hired to violate protesters’ constitutional rights, and made spurious connections, based on no real evidence, between protesters who engaged in criminal activity.
The same tendencies were part of the FBI’s cozy relationships with a number of the major conspirators in the Jan. 6, connections that may have encouraged the groups’ apparent sense of impunity in besieging the Capitol that day. This is acutely true of the Proud Boys, who up until they were arrested had believed that both federal and local law enforcement authorities were on their side.
The FBI maintained an informant relationship with at least four key Proud Boys before the insurrection, including the group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio—but the information the FBI sought from them was not inside data on the group, but rather sharing the intelligence on their leftist opponents, particularly antifascists and Black Lives Matter, that the Proud Boys assiduously collected. Proud Boys board member Joe Biggs, currently awaiting trial in the group’s Jan. 6 conspiracy case, was also an FBI “antifa” informant, and enjoyed a similarly cozy relationship with Oregon cops.
The Oath Keepers likewise were extremely close to a number of law enforcement officials on Jan. 6. The “Patriot” group—which emphasizes recruitment of military and law-enforcement veterans—has a long history of aspiring to act as semi-official security forces at Trump events dating back to at least 2019. Founder Stewart Rhodes has frequently envisioned his paramilitary organization as a complement to law enforcement, “a pool of people that can be utilized by the governor, by the sheriff, or by the president of the United States.” And Oath Keepers provided personal security for former Trump adviser Roger Stone on the day of the Capitol siege, while one of the multiple Oath Keepers indicted for his actions that day, Thomas Caldwell, is a former FBI agent who had top-secret security clearance.
The cozy relationship that far-right groups enjoyed with law enforcement generally, in fact, has played a key role in their continual emboldenment over the past five years, constantly ratcheting up their violence and threatening rhetoric, culminating in the events of Jan. 6. On that day, many of them directed their fury at police officers, believing they were being betrayed by forces they had assumed were on their side.
Contrary to the fevered hallucinations of critics like Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald—who have claimed that these relationships are evidence that the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were being manipulated into criminal actions by an FBI intent on persecuting white Trump voters—the evidence regarding federal law enforcement’s ties to extremists instead clearly indicate a serious problem with these agencies failing to adequately prioritize them as a threat and instead to treat them as allies, with kid gloves.
It does raise serious questions—just not the ones that Carlson and his gaslighting brigade want to ask. Namely:
- Can the FBI, as well as DOJ and DHS, undergo the necessary restructuring to make extremist right-wing violence a top law enforcement priority?
- Will federal law enforcement’s preexisting tendencies—manifested in its bizarre categorization for domestic terrorists that rolls white supremacist hate groups into the same cluster as “Black Identity extremists,” and anti-government militias into the same category as leftist anarchists—continue in place, thereby bolloxing up any effort by the Biden administration in its avowed campaign against far-right violence?
These are the questions FBI, DOJ, and DHS officials all need to be asked. Perhaps the next congressional hearing on domestic terrorism will provide the opportunity.