WASHINGTON (CN) — In testimony where he held out self-radicalized loners as the greatest threat to U.S. national security today, FBI Director Christopher Wray also told Congress on Thursday not to discount Russia’s active disinformation campaigns working to undermine Joe Biden.
“The intelligence community consensus is that Russia continues to try to influence our elections,” Wray told members of the House Homeland Security Committee during a lengthy hearing.
Calling the Russian efforts “very active,” Wray noted that, unlike interference launched by the Kremlin against the U.S. in 2016, it is not the physical election infrastructure being targeted. Instead, the director testified, there is a broad push to “denigrate” candidate Joe Biden through Russia-backed propaganda on social and state media.
The FBI engages “almost daily” with sites like Facebook and Twitter to trace the source of online propaganda from bogus accounts. Once companies are alerted, they can yank content or boot users from their platforms. Facebook on Sept. 1 took down over a dozen accounts and at least two pages connected to the same Russian troll farm that mounted attacks on Hillary Clinton when she ran against Trump in 2016.
Last month, Facebook reported that it has removed more than 100 misinformation campaigns from its website since 2017.
Wray called it critical Thursday for the FBI to move on these actors with deft speed since information spreads more rapidly than ever before. And unlike 20 years ago when the Department of Homeland Security was first stood up in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the threats now are even more diverse.
Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, pressed Wray to explain what organization, if any, might pose the greatest domestic threat today.
“We assess the greatest threat to the homeland, to us here domestically, is not one organization or one ideology. But rather, lone actors, largely self-radicalized online who pursue soft targets using readily accessible weapons,” Wray reflected. “The ability to connect the dots was vital to stopping terrorist activity sooner. If you consider the al Qaeda sleeper cells of old, they were colluding, conspiring, fundraising planning, preparing, communicating.”
That left plenty of “dots to connect” — and usually over a long period of time — so long as intelligence knows where to connect them, he added.
But domestic and homegrown extremists pose unique difficulties.
“They can go from radicalization to mobilization in a matter of weeks, if not days. There’s less time to connect the dots. The time, as the experts say, from flash to bang, is that much more daunting,” Wray said.
He emphasized repeatedly the FBI does not think of any threat in terms of “left or right.” The agency focuses on violence instead that springs from an ideology, not the ideology itself.
“Our domestic violent extremists include everything from racially motivated violent extremists all the way to antigovernment, antiauthority violent extremists, and that includes people from anarchist violent extremists who subscribe to antifa as well as to militia types,” he said.
Within the GOP and the White House especially, the anti-fascist movement, or antifa, is often described incorrectly as a group with some kind of centralized leadership.
“Antifa is a real thing but it’s not a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology,” Wray said.
The FBI has initiated several “properly predicated terrorism investigations” into anarchist extremists or those who self-identify with the antifa movement, he added, “but that’s just one part.”
New Jersey Republican Jeff Van Drew refused to accept the premise Thursday and, further, connected the antifa ideology to the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement.
“It’s a Marxist organization. Get your Google out. You can look it up. It’s a Marxist organization that believes the nuclear, traditional family has a place no more. We all have to just admit that. It may be crass, but we have to strap ’em on and say, yes, this is what it is,” Van Drew said.