The hearing made clear that Democrats and Republicans could hardly be further apart on what the FBI should and shouldn’t be doing. But on this much, they seemed to agree: The nation’s premier federal law enforcement institution had significant problems that needed to be addressed.
For his part, Wray sought to highlight how the bureau seeks to root out violence — no matter what motivates it — and is careful not to tread on Americans’ First Amendment rights.
In his opening statement, the FBI director highlighted the “extremist violence” of Jan. 6 in which more than 100 officers were injured in just a few hours and said that law enforcement had made more than 500 arrests.
But he also noted the bureau saw extremist violence during last summer’s civil unrest associated with racial justice protests. Although he asserted that “most citizens made their voices heard through peaceful lawful, protests,” he said that others attacked federal buildings and left officers injured, and thousands had been arrested across the country.
“That is not a controversial issue that should force anyone to take sides,” he said, adding later in response to questions, “I don’t care whether you’re upset at our criminal justice system, or upset at our election system, violence, assaults on federal law enforcement, destruction of property, is not the way to do it. That’s our position.”
Nadler and other Democrats pressed Wray on the intelligence the bureau had gathered in advance of Jan. 6 and the actions it took that day as rioters stormed the Capitol. Nadler noted that a report from the bureau’s Norfolk field office from the day before seemed to predict what was going to happen, and it was forwarded to the field office in Washington. He questioned why — in the days after the riot — the head of that office insisted the bureau had no intelligence that anything would happen beyond activity protected by the First Amendment.
“Did the FBI simply miss the evidence, or did it see the evidence and fail to piece it together?” Nadler asked.
Wray, as he and others have in the past, said the document was “raw, unverified” intelligence, and asserted that it nonetheless was shared with law enforcement partners, including the Capitol Police, in multiple ways.
“We tried to make sure that we got that information to the right people,” Wray said. He added that, among those arrested and charged so far in the Capitol attack, “almost none” were previously under investigation.
Democrats also sought to get Wray to stress the seriousness of the Jan. 6 attack and asked him whether the FBI was investigating former president Donald Trump in connection with it, while Republicans focused more on the summer’s unrest — questioning whether federal law enforcement was treating those cases differently.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said that it “appears to the public that those activities have been treated differently by the FBI and by law enforcement,” and asked him to clarify what the FBI was doing.
Though Wray stressed the seriousness of both, he noted that with the summer’s violence across the country, it was often easier for prosecutors to pursue local charges, while the mayhem at the Capitol produced more federal offenses.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) asked Wray whether the FBI had referred any investigation of Trump’s actions to the Justice Department.
“I’m not aware of any investigation that specifically goes to that, but we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of investigations related to January 6 involving lots and lots of different pieces of it and I want to be careful,” Wray responded.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) pushed the FBI director to classify the riot as an “insurrection,” although Wray resisted, saying that was a specific legal term and using it might upset judges or others.
“I certainly understand why you would describe it that way,” Wray said. He said the FBI was treating the incident as “an act of domestic terrorism,” had charged some people with conspiracy, and that “more serious” charges might soon be coming.
Similarly, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.) implored Wray to weigh in on reports that Trump expects to be reinstated as president in August, asking him whether he was “paying attention” to that false claim and the threat it might represent. Wray did not offer a substantive response.
“We are looking at all sorts of information that’s out there as we try to evaluate and distribute intelligence and conduct investigations, and that’s what I would say on that subject,” Wray said.
In his own wide-ranging opening statement, Jordan decried what he said has been an erosion of Americans’ constitutional rights, pointing first to pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings. Then he turned his ire on the bureau, criticizing in particular the FBI executing a search warrant at the Manhattan home and law offices of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the onetime New York mayor and attorney for Trump.
Giuliani, Jordan said, would later claim he was willing to cooperate with the bureau; Giuliani’s lawyer had said after the search that his client had twice offered to answer questions, except those that might be covered by attorney-client privilege.
“But no, you kicked in his door instead,” Jordan said.
Jordan also criticized the bureau for abusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and for searching the home of an Alaska couple who agents believed to have been involved in the Capitol riot but had been possibly misidentified.
“There was just one problem. They had the wrong people,” Jordan quipped.
Wray repeatedly declined to answer questions about that search and the search involving Giuliani.
Lawmakers pressed Wray on the problem of criminal groups using ransomware to effectively shut down companies’ operations unless they pay up — which Wray recently told the Wall Street Journal was a challenge comparable with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Pressed by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) on whether he would also compare the events of Jan. 6 to that attack, Wray sought to clarify the point he had been making.
“First, let me just say, that I don’t think any attack, ransomware or January 6, can fairly be compared to the horror of September 11, and the 3,000 individuals or so who lost their lives that day,” he said. He said that his statement to the Wall Street Journal was “not about the attack, but about how the country came together in response.”
Wray said the bureau is investigating 100 ransomware variants, each of which could have dozens or even hundreds of variants, and is concerned about “more sophisticated targeting” of vulnerable targets. He said the bureau generally discourages targets from paying ransoms.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), himself under federal investigation in a sex-trafficking case, questioned Wray on what the FBI knows about the origins of the coronavirus and possible links to the Chinese government. Wray declined to provide specifics, saying there were “differences of view” even inside the intelligence community on the subject and broadly stressing the counterintelligence threat he said China posed.