WASHINGTON (CN) — In an exchange that set the tone for his lengthy interrogation by the House Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Chris Wray spoke only to the "slew of procedures" at the bureau's disposal when it comes to rooting white supremacists out from its ranks.
The hearing comes over five months after January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol that has led so far to charges against nearly 70 current or retired members of the military, law enforcement or government.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed military officials to assess extremist ideology in their ranks back February, and the Department of Homeland Security agreed to do the same in April, beginning an internal review.
Wray testified Thursday that “racially motivated extremist violence” remains at the top of its priority list since its elevation to that position in 2019.
The director was short on details, however, when Representative Sheila Jackson Lee pressed him for an estimate on just how many of people who target Black Americans in 48.5% of all hate crimes in the U.S. were tied to white supremacy or related groups.
With Wray offering to report back to the Texas Democrat, her colleagues, Representatives Karen Bass of California and Hakeem Jeffries of New York, voiced unease. Wray told the Democrats during Thursday's hearing that the FBI does not designate domestic terrorist organizations because there are not “specific statutory schemes” in place to designate them as such, unlike foreign terrorists.
Even so, however, Wray insisted in his testimony that "racially motivated violent extremism" remains the bureau's top priority.
"It is our highest threat priority level, commensurate with ISIS," Wray said, "and it is certainly true in the last few years the most lethal attacks here in the homeland have been by individuals in that racially motivated extremist category, specifically for advocating for superiority of the white race.”
Jeffries, without missing a beat, replied: “Right. Otherwise known as white supremacists.”
Wray told lawmakers that homegrown extremism is too amorphous to fit a tidy designation. He said the FBI will instead investigate an individual’s criminal activity and rely largely on conspiracy charges to show the breadth of organized or premeditated involvement.
Jeffries asked Wray if he felt white supremacy was one of the greatest threats to national security — a position President Joe Biden took last week when speaking at an event remembering the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre.
When asked why the FBI seemed so reluctant to use the word white supremacy, Wray said it was because the agency was “trying to make clear to everyone involved” that they are focused on the violence and that fitting it under the single umbrella of “racially motivated” extremism allows one standard to guide all law enforcement activity.
Unsatisfied, Jeffries said he, like other lawmakers, understood but, without “naming and claiming the problem,” it would never go away.
The congressman pointed to Emmett Till’s murder by white supremacists, and the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 that killed young Black girls.
“January 6, that resulted in death and mayhem, that was also an act of domestic terror," Jeffries said. "The through line through all of those instances is white supremacy."
Though the FBI is treated the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol as an act of domestic terrorism, Wray added to his list of deliverables for lawmakers when he said he would need to dig further into the intelligence failures leading up to Jan. 6 and the FBI’s role in those omissions.
A joint report by members of the Senate Homeland Security and Senate Rules Committees published on Tuesday singled out the FBI repeatedly.
“The warnings coming in from around the country were clear," said Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler. "Did the FBI simply miss the evidence in Washington or did it see it and simply fail to piece it together?”
On Jan. 5, the FBI’s Norfolk, Virginia, office issued a warning about potential violence in response to “unlawful lockdowns.” But the office also cited social media threads featuring explicit calls for violence, including one post that urged attacks against antifascist protesters and those who stand with Black Lives Matter.
“Be ready to fight," the post urged, before using a pejorative word for "antifa" ideology. "Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march or rally or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President, or we die. Nothing else will achieve this goal.”
Wray meanwhile counted three ways in which the FBI had passed its warnings on to U.S. Capitol Police: through an email, a verbal briefing and an online law enforcement portal. The director promised lawmakers the FBI would continue improving its collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence.
As for disinformation, Representative Eric Swalwell lamented the persistent spread of disinformation on social media about the outcome of the 2020 election. Former President Trump is frothing the rhetoric himself with proclamations that he will be reinstated by August.
Knowing that a potential storm might once again be brewing, Swalwell asked Wray what the U.S. could do.
“There’s a count going on in Arizona now,” the California Democrat said.
Wray replied with a demand for "tips and leads about things that are going on on social media."
"From the social media companies themselves to members of the public, you often hear the expression, ‘if you see something, say something,” Wray said.
It's more than just the “unintended backpack at a bus terminal,” Wray continued.
As for the former president, Wray told members of the House Judiciary Committee that, at present, there is no probe into whether Trump’s words or deeds contributed to the attack at the Capitol in January.
Republicans on the committee steered almost entirely clear of questions about the Jan. 6 attack, instead asking Wray to “do something” about the rise in human trafficking in the U.S.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Monday that the Department of Justice is upping its effort to squash human trafficking by established the Joint Task Force Alpha, a program that will connect Homeland Security with the Justice Department to zero in on smuggling and trafficking groups that operate in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Wray assured the committee that the FBI has 56 field offices, more than 200 joint task forces and over 4,500 investigations with some focus on domestic terrorism at their center. But there are 500 pending cases involving individuals tied to the insurrection, many of whom heard Trump’s calls to “fight like hell” during a speech just before Congress’ joint session certifying the election for Joe Biden.
Wray said the FBI’s probing of the events that day are far from finished.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.