A day before rioters stormed Congress, an FBI office in Virginia issued an explicit warning that extremists were preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence and “war,” according to an internal document reviewed by The Washington Post that contradicts a senior official’s declaration the bureau had no intelligence indicating anyone at last week’s demonstrations in support of President Trump planned to do harm.
A situational information report approved for release the day before the U.S. Capitol riot painted a dire portrait of dangerous plans, including individuals sharing a map of the complex’s tunnels, and possible rally points for would-be conspirators to meet in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and South Carolina and head in groups to Washington.
“As of 5 January 2021, FBI Norfolk received information indicating calls for violence in response to ‘unlawful lockdowns’ to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington, D.C.,” the document says. “An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. 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.”
BLM is probably a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice. Pantifa is a derogatory term for antifa, a far-left anti-fascist movement whose adherents sometimes engage in violent clashes with right-wing extremists.
Yet even with that information in hand, the report’s unidentified author expressed concern that the FBI might be encroaching on free-speech rights.
The warning is the starkest evidence yet of the sizable intelligence failure that preceded the mayhem, which claimed the lives of five people, although one law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid disciplinary action, said the failure was not one of intelligence but of acting on the intelligence.
At the FBI office in Norfolk, the report was written within 45 minutes of receiving the information, officials said, and shared with counterparts in Washington.
The head of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, Steven D’Antuono, told reporters on Friday that the agency did not have intelligence suggesting the pro-Trump rally would be anything more than a lawful demonstration. During a news conference Tuesday, held after The Post’s initial publication of this report, he said the alarming Jan. 5 intelligence document was shared “with all our law enforcement partners” through the joint terrorism task force, which includes the U.S. Capitol Police, the U.S. Park Police, D.C. police, and other federal and local agencies.
He suggested there was not a great deal for law enforcement to do with the information because the FBI at that time did not know who made the comments. “That was a thread on a message board that was not attributable to an individual person,” D’Antuono said Tuesday.
D’Antuono did not say what, if anything, the FBI or other agencies did differently as a result of that information. Nor did he explain why he told reporters on Friday that there had been no such intelligence.
Steven Sund, who resigned as Capitol Police chief, said in an interview Tuesday that he never received nor was made aware of the FBI’s field bulletin, insisting he and others would have taken the warning seriously had it been shared.
“I did not have that information, nor was that information taken into consideration in our security planning,” Sund said.
Since the riot, agents and prosecutors have been intent on tracking down and arresting the most violent participants in the mob, in part because there is already significant online discussion of new potential clashes for Sunday and again on Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden is set to take the oath of office.
Michael R. Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for D.C., said there would be a strike force of prosecutors looking to file charges of seditious conspiracy where the evidence merited it.
The Jan. 5 FBI report notes that the information represents the view of the FBI’s Norfolk office, is not to be shared outside law enforcement circles, that it is not “finally evaluated intelligence,” and that agencies receiving it “are requested not to take action based on this raw reporting without prior coordination with the FBI.”
Multiple law enforcement officials have said privately in recent days that the level of violence exhibited at the Capitol has led to difficult discussions within the FBI and other agencies about race, terrorism and whether investigators failed to register the degree of danger because the overwhelming majority of the participants at the rally were White conservatives fiercely loyal to Trump.
“Individuals/Organizations named in this [situational information report] have been identified as participating in activities that are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the document says. “Their inclusion here is not intended to associate the protected activity with criminality or a threat to national security, or to infer that such protected activity itself violates federal law.
“However,” it continues, “based on known intelligence and/or specific historical observations, it is possible the protected activity could invite a violent reaction towards the subject individual or others in retaliation or with the goal of stopping the protected activity from occurring in the first instance. In the event no violent reaction occurs, FBI policy and federal law dictates that no further record be made of the protected activity.”
The document notes that one online comment advised, “if Antifa or BLM get violent, leave them dead in the street,” while another said they need “people on standby to provide supplies, including water and medical, to the front lines. The individual also discussed the need to evacuate noncombatants and wounded to medical care.”
On Jan. 6, a large, angry crowd of people who had attended a rally nearby marched to the Capitol, smashing windows and breaking doors to get inside. One woman in the mob was shot and killed by Capitol Police; officials said three others in the crowd had medical emergencies and died. A Capitol Police officer died after suffering injuries.
The FBI said in a statement that its “standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products,” but added that FBI field offices “routinely share information with their local law enforcement partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve.”
For weeks leading up to the event, FBI officials discounted any suggestion that the activities of Trump supporters upset about the scheduled certification of Biden’s election win could be a security threat on a scale with the racial-justice demonstrations that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
While the nation’s capital is one of the most heavily guarded cities on the planet, local and federal law enforcement agencies sought to take a low-key approach to last week’s event, publicly and privately expressing concerns that they did not want to repeat last year’s ugly clashes between protesters and police.
Some law enforcement officials took the view that protesters who support Trump are generally known for over-the-top rhetoric but not much violence, and therefore the event did not pose a particularly serious risk, according to people familiar with the security discussions leading up to Jan. 6.
Even so, there were warning signs, though none as stark as the one from the FBI’s Norfolk office.
FBI agents had in the weeks before the Trump rally visited suspected far-right extremists, hoping to glean whether they had violent intentions, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the law enforcement activity. It was not immediately clear who was visited or if the FBI was specifically tracking anyone who would later be charged criminally. These visits were first reported Sunday by NBC News.
In addition, in the days leading up to the demonstrations, some Capitol Hill staffers were told by supervisors to not come in to work that day, if possible, because it seemed the danger level would be higher than many previous protests, according to a person familiar with the warning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. Capitol Police did not take the kind of extra precautions, such as frozen zones and hardened barriers, that are typically used for major events near the Capitol.
Federal agents are on high alert as the inauguration nears, with authorities bracing for possible violence not just in Washington but also nationwide, officials said.
The FBI recently issued a different memo saying that “armed protests” were being planned “at all 50 state capitols” and in D.C. in the run-up to the inauguration, according to an official familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive law enforcement matter.
The memo — first reported by ABC News and later confirmed by The Post — is a raw intelligence product, compiling information gathered by the bureau and several other government agencies, the official familiar with the matter said. Some of it is unverified, and the threat probably will differ significantly from place to place, the official said.
But the information it highlights to law enforcement is nonetheless troubling — including that there was data suggesting people might storm government offices or stage an uprising were Trump to be removed from office, the official said.
In a statement, the FBI declined to comment specifically on the memo about state capitols but said: “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. As we do in the normal course of business, we are gathering information to identify any potential threats and are sharing that information with our partners.
“The FBI respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights,” it said. “Our focus is not on peaceful protesters, but on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property.”
Carol D. Leonnig and Julie Tate contributed to this report.