At war over whether the same dangerous politics that fueled insurrection at the Capitol were on display in last summer’s police-reform protests, senators turned Tuesday to the nation’s leading law enforcement official for answers.
WASHINGTON (CN) — Extremist militia groups played the biggest role in the January 6 attempt to overthrow the U.S. government, FBI Director Christopher Wray noted in a nearly four-hour appearance Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
One of the few appointees from the last administration still in office, Wray announced the finding while otherwise resisting calls from the committee to parse out the details of the FBI’s investigation, citing the unclassified setting of today’s hearing.
When pressed by Senator Patrick Leahy to hold that white supremacist extremism “is the dominant, most persistent force of domestic terrorism today,” Wray noted only that the agency has noted an uptick in violence coming out of militia groups “advocating for the white race.”
To go further than that, the FBI director said, would lose the thread.
“We don’t tend to think of violent extremism as right, left,” Wray said. “That’s not the spectrum through which we look at it.”
Several senators inquired about the security failures leading up to the attack on the Capitol that left at least seven people dead, including a Capitol Police officer. When Senator Dick Durbin asked why the FBI hadn’t issued a threat assessment for the vote count on January 6, Wray refuted that the agency had done just that.
The FBI director used the opportunity to distinguish between two different kinds of political extremists: domestic violent extremists and homegrown-inspired extremists. The former typically uses a central organizing body, like the Ku Klux Klan, to carry out their attacks. Homegrown extremists, however, don’t have a formal membership to an organization outside of their ideology, which makes it harder to track them.
He also identified three groups involved with the Capitol riots: The first, largest group were the “peaceful, maybe rowdy,” protesters who simply marched toward the building but didn’t carry out any violent acts. The second group — people who trespassed or committed other low-level criminal behavior — can be chalked up to getting caught in the heat of the moment. But those who breached the Capitol with coordinated plans to inflict violence, Wray said, are the group that most concerns the FBI.
Wray also clarified that there’s no evidence of coordinated funding for military equipment or other material to carry out the attack, nor is there any evidence that some rioters were members of Antifa or Black Lives Matter trying to make the Trump supporters look bad.
Later in the hearing, Senator Ben Sasse brought up how social media played a major role leading up to January 6 because “any drunk guy” can rant about politics, connect with another stranger online, and form warped beliefs detached from an organizing body.
Wray agreed with Sasse’s assessment and explained that every arrest the FBI makes in connection with the attack helps them to figure out how people communicate these beliefs.
He also discussed the FBI’s investigation into political violence from this summer that has been attributed to left-wing activists. Up from 1,000 when he first started at the agency in 2017, Wray said the FBI is currently overseeing 2,000 domestic extremist investigations.
Senator Richard Blumenthal drew a direct line between the January 6 riots and Qanon, an online conspiracy cult whose ranks include freshman Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“Doesn’t members of Congress endorsing these theories worsen the threat of violence?” Blumenthal asked in a pointed reference to the Georgia Republican.
Wray responded that his agency focused more on the violence than the ideology, but implored Americans to report people in their lives who may be falling prey to extremist philosophies.
“We don’t care what ideology motivates you,” he said. “If you are engaged in violence … we’re coming for you.”
With hearings over the riot now stretching into their second month,
Committee Chairman Dick Durbin opened today’s meeting by comparing the Jan. 6 siege to white supremacist violence throughout the 20th century, most notably by the Ku Klux Klan.
“The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 did not wear white robes,” he said. “They might as well have.”
Wray also spoke about the lineage of extremist groups in America.
“The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon,” he said.
In an opening statement for Republicans meanwhile, ranking member Chuck Grassley was insistent that every party involved in motivating and planning the Jan.6 attack should be held accountable, “including our former president.”
Grassley also voiced a dim view of the summer protesters, however, noting that rallies last year in Portland, Oregon, led to more than 1,000 arrests, while only about 80 arrests are tied to the siege on the Capitol.