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.
Black Lives Matter is not an organization but a social ideological movement seeking racial justice and an end to police brutality. Its supporters are diverse in age, race, creed and political belief. According to the Pew Research Center, at least 55% of adults in the U.S. currently support the movement. This represents a dip from the whopping 66% support that U.S. adults expressed for Black Lives Matter during protests sparked this summer after the police killing of George Floyd.
The Boogaloo movement is usually filed under the category of “right-wing” extremism but upon questioning Thursday, Wray was less inclined to describe their focus in such terms.
“People don’t understand who subscribes to Boogaloo, but their thinking, their main focus, is dismantling and tearing down government,” he said. “It is less clear what they’re going to replace government with and I’m not even sure they would agree with each other.”
QAnon, the widely discredited conspiracy theory asserting Trump is secretly fending off an international ring of Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers, is also not seen as a “group” by the FBI, which does investigate cases where violence results as adherence to the conspiracy theory.
Generally, the FBI sees about 1,000 domestic terrorist investigations each year.
“We’re a good bit north of 1,000 this year,” Wray said. “We’ve had about 120 arrests for domestic terrorism this year, and that’s domestic terrorism across the board — from racially motivated violent extremists to violent anarchists to extremist militia types, you name it.”
Last year the FBI elevated racially motivated violent extremism to a “national threat priority” that is commensurate with homegrown jihadists.
As Election Day approaches, Wray said he worries that a steady drumbeat of misinformation or the amplification disinformation on the U.S. election system will contribute to a lack of greater confidence in democracy by American voters.
“That’s a perception, not a reality,” Wray said. “Americans can and should have confidence in our election system and our democracy. But I worry people will take on a feeling of futility because of all the noise that it generates and that’s a very hard problem to combat.”
Representative Al Green, a Texas Democrat, zeroed in Thursday on a nascent issue he felt the FBI must address and was in line with the agency’s mission to oversee violent rhetoric that could turn into violent or criminal activity.
Michael Caputo, the Health and Human Services Department’s top spokesperson, stepped down 24 hours earlier after issuing a conspiracy theory-charged rant, suggesting “shooting will begin” should Trump refuse to stand down at the inauguration, Green noted.
Caputo also encouraged people to stockpile ammunition because it would be “hard to get.”
When Green asked Wray if he has pursued an interview with Caputo to gauge the credibility of his disturbing statements, the FBI director said he had not.
Only in a situation where the FBI has “facts, law and credible evidence of criminal activity” would they pursue it.
“What would it take to investigate someone in this administration who makes these kinds of comments? This seems very serious to me. I will likely be at the inauguration, and we have a person within the administration saying that bullets are going to fly and ‘shooting will begin,’” Green said. “Those are his words. It would seem to me this should be sufficient. I am asking as a member of Congress that the FBI investigate this.”
Wray committed to reviewing Caputo’s remarks and reporting back to the lawmaker’s office with updates if the whole committee did not want the findings.
Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf broke his own commitment to lawmakers Thursday. Wolf was subpoenaed by the committee earlier this month after refusing to appear several times.
“The empty chair is an appropriate metaphor for the administration’s dereliction,” chairman Bennie Thompson said.
The department did not immediately return request for comment.