The FBI’s intelligence failures ahead of Jan. 6 are part of a broader pattern of downplaying right-wing extremism
The more we learn about how the Jan. 6 insurrectionists organized their attack on the U.S. Capitol, the more questions are being raised about the behavior of law-enforcement officials—particularly the FBI—in the weeks and days leading up to the event, and particularly in their failure to anticipate the nature and scope of what was being planned.
However, these are not the questions that Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson and the rest of the “1/6 Truther” crowd—who have been arguing that the insurrection was a covert FBI operation, as a way of defending the Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol—want the public to be asking. Rather, the more serious issue raised by the emerging information revolves around the FBI’s institutional biases and the massive failures they have produced: The agency, it appears, missed the looming threat because it was looking for it in the wrong direction—namely, at leftists and civil-rights activists, as it historically has done.
A recent court filing in the case of ex-New York police officer Thomas Webster—accused of attacking Capitol Police officers during the riot—opened a window into the kind of intelligence the FBI had in hand during the lead-up to the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally headlined by Donald Trump on the day the Electoral College ballots were being certified by Congress. One agent’s report—filed as part of a motion by Webster’s attorney for pretrial release from prison—listed some of that intelligence.
“A review of open source and social media posts leading up to and during the event indicates that individuals participating on the ‘Stop the Steal,’ rally were angered about the results of the 2020 presidential election and felt that Joseph Biden had unlawfully been declared ‘President-Elect,’” wrote FBI Special Agent Patricia Norden in the February report. “Users in multiple online groups and platforms discussed traveling to the Capitol armed or making plans to start a ‘revolution’ on that day.”
That information appeared to conflict with the testimony by FBI director Christopher Wray during a recent House Oversight Committee hearing on the insurrection intelligence failures.
“To my knowledge, sir, we did not have actionable intelligence that indicated that hundreds of people were going to breach the Capitol or storm the Capitol,” Wray told California Congressman Ro Khanna.
There was abundant evidence at the hearing to the contrary. New York Congressman Carolyn Maloney, the committee chair, revealed that the panel had obtained documents showing that the chat platform Parler, a hotbed of right-wing extremism, had referred, on more than 50 occasions, evidence of planned violence on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. The company said it “even alerted law enforcement to specific threats of violence being planned at the Capitol,” Maloney noted.
She read some of the Parler posts aloud: “This is not a rally and it’s no longer a protest. This is a final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill.” Another wrote: “Everyone is coming with weapons.” One comment warned: “Don’t be surprised if we take the Capitol.”
An earlier Senate report had noted that the Capitol Police, in fact, appeared to be out in front of the FBI in assessing this kind of intelligence and trying to prepare for the event. Capitol Police had, for instance, seen information from the rabidly pro-Trump website thedonald.com that included such comments about the Capitol’s tunnel system as: “There are tunnels connected to the Capitol Building! Legislators use them to avoid press, among other things! Take note.”
The report also noted that a Capitol Police official had shared a tip the night before the riot of a “significant uptick” in new visitors to the website WashingtonTunnels.com. It was shared with the FBI National Threat Operations Center.
As Ryan Goodman and Andrew Weissmann noted in The Washington Post, Wray’s testimony suggests an institutional problem:
What is clear is that the FBI knew enough to take further action, but failed to do so. Shortly after the attack, the head of the FBI’s Washington Field Office said that the Bureau had “developed some intelligence that a number of individuals were planning to travel to the D.C. area with intentions to cause violence,” and that the FBI disrupted their travel. The Post reported that dozens who were on the federal government’s terrorist watch list came to Washington for the events that day. The New York Police Department also reportedly “sent a packet of material” to the FBI that was full of intelligence from social media sites indicating “there would likely be violence when lawmakers certified the presidential election on Jan. 6.”
However, as blogger Marcy Wheeler adroitly observes, the description of the FBI’s intelligence by Agent Norden likely is a summation of the agency’s evidence gathered after the insurrection, not what it actually knew beforehand:
In other words, while NBC is correct that this paragraph shows that the FBI as a whole (and not just Agent Norden) recognizes, in retrospect, that the insurrectionists planned revolution in plain sight, this paragraph and the related EC is as interesting as much for the snapshot it gives about what kind of terrorism the FBI believes this was. The FBI as a whole, while clearly acknowledging that this is being treated as a terrorism attack, has been loath to get into the details about what—besides some damage to the Capitol itself—makes it a terrorist attack. This presumed boilerplate paragraph describes that some of the planners of the terrorist attack planned to use violence and the riot to disrupt the election of the lawfully elected President of the United States.
That in turn brings us to the real bottom line here: If all this happened in plain sight, then why was the FBI so blind to the looming disaster?
The right-wing gaslighters from the “Jan. 6 Truther” crowd—which, in addition to Carlson, has come to include Infowars’ Alex Jones, Republicans Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as erstwhile progressive Glenn Greenwald—have an easy answer for you: because the FBI orchestrated the whole thing.
Though this cockamamie conspiracy theory originated with Jones, and then propped up by misbegotten reportage from a far-right disinformation website, it was Carlson who took it mainstream last week on his top-rated Fox News program. Seizing credulously on the story by Revolver editor Darren Beattie—a far-right propagandist best known for being fired as a Trump White House speechwriter after his ties to white nationalists were exposed—Carlson hosted Beattie on the program, claiming that the article piece demonstrates that “the FBI was organizing the riots of January 6.” “It certainly suggests that possibility,” said Beattie.
Carlson told his audience:
But strangely, some of the key people who participated on January 6 have not been charged. Look at the documents; the government calls those people unindicted co-conspirators. What does that mean? Well, it means that in potentially every single case they were FBI operatives. Really? In the Capitol on January 6?
As Media Matters’s Matt Gertz observes: “In fact, this theory, which rests on the premise that ‘unindicted co-conspirators’ are by definition ‘FBI operatives,’ collapses with the slightest scrutiny, and suggests that Carlson either a) lacks a basic understanding of federal investigations or b) thinks his viewers are rubes.
That’s because, as Aaron Blake of The Washington Post explains: “Legal experts say the government literally cannot name an undercover agent as an unindicted co-conspirator.”
“There are many reasons why an indictment would reference unindicted co-conspirators, but their status as FBI agents is not one of them,” Jens David Ohlin, a criminal law professor at Cornell Law School, told Blake.
CNN’s senior legal analyst Elie Honig agreed: “In fact, prosecutors use those generic labels for a variety of reasons, most commonly to refer to people who participated in the conspiracy but have not yet been publicly charged,” Honig said.
Even Carlson’s examples, drawn from Beattie’s execrable reportage, betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding how either complex federal prosecutions featuring cooperating witnesses—such as the Jan. 6 cases, which are the largest and most complex in history—as well as the federal informant system actually work.
Carlson continued his rant thus:
For example, one of those unindicted coconspirators is someone government documents identify as “Person Two.” According to those documents, Person Two stayed in the same hotel room as a man called Thomas Caldwell, an insurrectionist, a man alleged to be a member of the group the Oath Keepers. Person Two also stormed the barricades at the Capitol on Jan. 6, alongside Thomas Caldwell. The government indictments further indicate that Caldwell—who by the way is a 65-year-old man, those dangerous insurrectionists—was led to believe there would be a “Quick Reaction Force” also participating on Jan. 6. That Quick Reaction Force, Caldwell was told, would be led by someone called Person Three, who had a hotel room and an accomplice with him.
But wait, here’s the interesting thing: Person Two and Person Three were organizers of the riot. The government knows who they are, but the government has not charged them, Why is that? You know why. They were almost certainly working for the FBI.
Carlson’s assumption was dead wrong: As Wheeler noted on Twitter, court documents indicate Person Two is most likely Caldwell’s wife, Sharon Caldwell, who may be cooperating with investigators. Caldwell’s attorneys said in court filings he was only accompanied by his wife during the trip. Text messages from another defendant also indicate that Caldwell lives with “Person Two” at his home in rural Virginia, and Caldwell’s lawyers have said he lives with his wife on a farm.
The Fox News host was undeterred, however. He doubled down the next evening on his broadcast, asserting falsely that: “The events of January 6 … were at least in part organized and carried out in secret by people connected to federal law enforcement.” He also alleged that the government won’t release Capitol surveillance footage of the riot because “people they know are on the tape.”
“FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol on January 6,” Carlson asserted. “… It turns out that this ‘white supremacist insurrection’ was—again, by the government’s own admission in these documents—was organized at least in part by government agents.”
The litany of mistakes in this depiction of the case, moreover, also points to the larger flaw in Carlson’s argument: Much of the evidence in the matter, including the video that Carlson wants released, is still the subject of an ongoing investigation, and is unlikely to be publicly released before the trials. And with a case as large and complicated as this one, there are still many moving parts in terms of cooperating witnesses, not to mention prosecution targets who are still being actively investigated.
Greenwald—who has embarked on a narrative claiming that mainstream journalists have become mere toadies for entities like the FBI and CIA—similarly touted Beattie’s bad reportage on Twitter, claiming that “they did vastly better 1/6 reporting than most liberal outlets.” He shortly filed an article on Substack in which he avoided their gross factual errors (which he dismissed as “one minor analytical flaw” that was “ultimately irrelevant”)—and then proceeded to commit several of his own, asking: “Why are low-level protesters being charged with major crimes while the alleged organizers of this riot and the leaders of these groups have not been?”
This is simply false, as well as a cynical oversimplification of the situation. First, major players in the organization of the riot—including Joe Biggs and Ethan Nordean of the Proud Boys, as well as noted white nationalist Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet—have been arrested and charged. Most of the people who played central roles in penetrating the Capitol and inflicting damage have been in prison for months now.
People are still being arrested and charged, and observers familiar with federal investigations fully expect other shoes to drop. Prosecutors have been circling around the leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, for several months now, but have not yet charged him, largely because he is a significant enough target that they are unlikely to proceed with an indictment before their ducks are in a row. Investigators, after all, are still acquiring evidence from the witnesses—some of them currently under indictment—involved in their activities that day.
Nonetheless, Greenwald concluded:
What would be shocking and strange is not if the FBI had embedded informants and other infiltrators in the groups planning the January 6 Capitol riot. What would be shocking and strange—bizarre and inexplicable—is if the FBI did not have those groups under tight control. And yet the suggestion that FBI informants may have played some role in the planning of the January 6 riot was instantly depicted as something akin to, say, 9/11 truth theories or questions about the CIA’s role in JFK’s assassination or, until a few weeks ago, the COVID lab-leak theory: as something that, from the perspective of Respectable Serious Circles, only a barely-sane, tin-foil-hat-wearing lunatic would even entertain.
This, of course, completely misapprehends and mischaracterizes the nature of the relationship of the FBI to the right-wing groups involved in the insurrection—because we have known for awhile that figures like Biggs and his Proud Boys cohort, national chairman Enrique Tarrio (arrested on Jan. 3 in D.C.), as well as a number of Oath Keepers, acted as informants for the FBI—all directed not at those right-wing groups, but at “antifa,” Black Lives Matter, and various leftist groups.
The dynamic in, for example, the case that Greenwald mentions of the Michigan militiamen arrested in October for plotting not only to kidnap and execute Governor Gretchen Whitmer but, at one point to organize the armed takeover of the state capitol in Lansing, was not even vaguely similar. While Greenwald falsely claims that FBI informants in that case misled the poor victimized militiamen into committing their crimes, anyone even vaguely familiar with the details of that case knows that’s unfettered bullshit: All the informants, in fact, were recruited by the plot’s masterminds to act as foot soldiers.
More to the point, the behavior of investigators in Michigan is exactly what we should expect of law-enforcement officers: First, take the threat of right-wing violence seriously; second, focus the investigation on criminal activity, not their speech; and finally, to eschew the kind of entrapment tactics that are justifiably outside the law. Greenwald—who has his own direct experience with a neo-Nazi client now doing prison time for having plotted the murder of a federal judge with an informant—clearly disapproves of any such investigations or prosecutions in any shape.
But the problem in any event, contra Greenwald, is not that law enforcement has taken too heavy a hand with far-right extremists. Rather the opposite.
The cozy relationship that far-right groups enjoyed with law enforcement generally, in fact, has played a key role in their continual emboldenment over the past five years, constantly ratcheting up their violence and threatening rhetoric, culminating in the events of Jan. 6. On that day, many of them directed their fury at police officers, believing they were being betrayed by forces they had assumed were on their side.
As the Brennan Center for Justice’s Michael German explored in a study, law enforcement has increasingly been polluted by the rising numbers of far-right extremists within their ranks—some of them recruited from within police forces, while others have surreptitiously infiltrated them. “While it is widely acknowledged that racist officers subsist within police departments around the country, federal, state, and local governments are doing far too little to proactively identify them, report their behavior to prosecutors who might unwittingly rely on their testimony in criminal cases, or protect the diverse communities they are sworn to serve,” he writes.
German, himself a former FBI agent, has a more realistic view of the agency than Greenwald’s caricatured vision of a relentlessly oppressive monster who journalists should routinely repudiate and attack. Like any such operation endowed with phenomenal powers that are easily abused, the FBI indeed has a long history both of horrifying atrocities and impressive work safeguarding the American public.
And a major portion of the former involves the way that federal law enforcement has historically targeted left-wing activists while routinely ignoring far-right extremist violence and giving its perpetrators the kid-glove treatment—the latter of which, apparently, is just fine with Carlson, Greenwald and company.
A 2019 study by German and Sara Robinson explained why the FBI’s priorities get skewed by a combination of political pressure and the agency’s institutional bias against the left, the shadow of J. Edgar Hoover still looming over their history:
Further, within the field of domestic terrorism, the Justice Department has a history of minimizing far-right violence while aggressively targeting minority activists and far-left protest movements. The latter group has engaged in civil disobedience and vandalism but statistically has presented a much lower danger to human life, which is a key element of the federal definition of terrorism. In 2005, for example, the FBI declared ecoterrorists the number-one domestic threat, despite not a single fatal attack in the United States attributable to protest groups that the government deems “environmental extremists.”
German discussed this in a 2019 ProPublica interview as well:
The Justice Department and FBI de-prioritize the investigation and prosecution of far-right violence as a matter of policy, not a lack of authority. These recent cases are a result of increased public pressure to do something about these crimes. But the Justice Department and FBI have done nothing to amend their policies that de-prioritize the investigation of white supremacist crimes. Maintaining public pressure and focusing on changing the biases that drive these policies is essential to forcing a change in priorities at these agencies.
These are not the answers that Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald, and their trutherite cohorts want to hear to the questions that many have been raising well before Darren Beattie tried to “expose” what reporters on this beat have been saying since January. But they are the only truthful and realistic answers to be had.