WASHINGTON — The FBI and the New York Police Department passed information to the Capitol Police about the possibility of violence during the Jan. 6 protests against the ratification of the presidential election, and the FBI even visited more than a dozen extremists already under investigation to urge them not to travel to Washington, senior law enforcement officials told NBC News.
Those previously unreported details undercut the assertion by a top FBI official this week that officials had no indication violence was a possibility, and add to questions of what intelligence authorities had reviewed prior to the Capitol riot that led to the death of an officer and four others, including a rioter who was shot and killed by police.
“Social media is just part of a full intelligence picture, and while there was First Amendment-protected activity on social media to include some people making threats, to this point, investigators have not found that there was an organized plot to access the Capitol,” a senior FBI official told NBC News.
It was immediately obvious after the Capitol was seized by a violent mob Wednesday that the Capitol Police, whose job is to defend the facility and the lawmakers who work there, had completely misjudged the security threat. The chief of that force was quickly forced out of his job, as were other key legislative security officials.
But as evidence mounts that some extremists had told the world via social media what they had in mind, questions are emerging about whether the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies took those postings seriously enough — and, if they did, why they did not step in until well after the building was under attack.
Asked Friday whether Wednesday’s slow police response was the result of an intelligence failure, the official who leads the FBI’s Washington field office, Steven D’Antuono, said it was not, and added, “There was no indication that there was anything (planned) other than First Amendment-protected activity.”
D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said something similar Thursday, telling reporters, “There was no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol.”
Ken Rapuano, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland security, told reporters that Justice Department and other law enforcement told the Pentagon repeatedly that they had no indications that there would be “significant violent protests.”
But there were, in fact, ample indications of potential violence.
As NBC News has reported, a digital flyer made public on Instagram and Facebook in December referred to what would happen as: “Operation Occupy the Capitol.”
On the fringe message board 8kun, which is popular with QAnon followers, users talked for weeks about a siege of the Capitol.
“You can go to Washington on Jan 6 and help storm the Capitol,” said one 8kun user a day before the siege. “As many Patriots as can be. We will storm the government buildings, kill cops, kill security guards, kill federal employees and agents, and demand a recount.”
“In regard to the protests planned for January 6, the violent rhetoric we’re seeing online is at a new level,” Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy Inc., a global research organization that studies disinformation and extremism, told NBC News in a story published the day before the riot. “There are endorsements of violence across all of the platforms.”
How could the FBI and other agencies have missed all that? It turns out they didn’t, officials tell NBC News.
“Prior to this event, the FBI obtained credible and actionable information about individuals who were planning on traveling to the protests who expressed a desire to engage in violence,” the senior FBI official told NBC News. “The FBI was able to discourage those individuals from traveling to D.C.”
The official added that “the FBI and our federal, state and local partners collected and shared available intelligence in preparation for the various planned events. The FBI was prepared to adapt as needed to fluid events on the ground, including having rapid response teams in reserve. Throughout most of the day the crowd was peaceful and non-confrontational.”
“However, when it became clear that some individuals were surging onto the Capitol grounds and entering the buildings, the U.S. Capitol Police requested assistance. Within 50 minutes of that request, three FBI tactical teams were on-scene to gain control of the area and offer protection to congressional members and staff. Over the course of the evening, the FBI presence ultimately grew to over 150 agents and other personnel.”
The official was not in a position to explain why D’Antuono, the head of the Washington, D.C. field office, said there were no indications of violence.
The FBI official said that by dissuading some extremists from traveling to Washington, the bureau may have prevented an even more violent situation.
The NYPD, which has the most robust intelligence collection and analytical arm of any local police agency in the country, sent law enforcement agencies across the country — including the Capitol Police — an intelligence packet describing threats and violent rhetoric on social media in the weeks and days leading up to the Jan. 6 rally, multiple senior law enforcement officials told NBC News.
The officials say the Capitol Police were given a specific and separate intelligence report describing threats of violence and extremist rhetoric that appeared on social media in connection with the rally.
Law enforcement officials familiar with the intelligence assessments say President Donald Trump’s exhortation of the crowd to march on the Capitol likely prompted a much larger contingent of people heading there than may otherwise have occurred.
The Capitol Police and the FBI’s Washington field office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
It wasn’t just police agencies that issued warnings. A private intelligence report issued in December, obtained by NBC News, noted that “the ‘million-MAGA march’ in Washington DC on 6 January is the next major flashpoint…the mass event (which will be held in the National Mall and outside the Capitol) is likely to spark street violence, some of which may be lethal, between Antifa and Trump supporters or far-right groups.”
Many questions remain about why the FBI, DHS and other agencies did not do more to make sure the Capitol was protected. Officials have said the Capitol Police assured everyone that they could handle the situation, and key lawmakers also said they heard the same assurances from that force.
Washington, D.C. police are responsible for crowd control in the city, and the mayor of Washington told Justice Department officials she didn’t want or need their help. While D.C. police helped re-take the Capitol, they were unable to stop the crowd from getting there in the first place.
But the FBI is also under scrutiny. Its top investigative priority is terrorism, foreign and domestic. Had this been an al Qaeda plot to storm the Capitol, some experts say, it is likely the FBI would have arrested the participants before they left their home airports as they sought to fly to Washington.
One difference, though, is that there is no domestic terrorism statute, which means fewer avenues for the FBI to legally monitor suspects, including their postings on the dark web, said Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director and current NBC News contributor.
Outside a criminal investigation of a specific individual or group, said Figliuzzi on Saturday, “The FBI is not permitted to look and monitor the very same things that you and I can look at on Twitter and Parler.”
Joyce Vance, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said there are tools the FBI can use to monitor potential violence by domestic extremists. She suggests the issue is one of emphasis and will.
“The challenge for FBI and DOJ is to assign a permanent priority to domestic white supremacist terror groups and treat them as seriously as they treat foreign terrorism,” she said.