By ALEXANDER MALLIN and LUKE BARR, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Testifying in front of Congress for the first time since the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers Tuesday he was “appalled” about the violent attack while defending the bureau’s handling of the rising domestic terror threat in recent years.
“I was appalled that you, our country’s elected leaders were victimized right here in these very halls,” Wray said in his opening statement. “That attack, that siege was criminal behavior, plain and simple and his behavior that we, the FBI view as domestic terrorism. It’s got no place in our democracy and tolerating it would make a mockery of our nation’s rule of law.”
Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee the bureau has arrested more than 270 suspects involved in the violent insurrection with more than 300 facing federally charges and more being identified every day. He called the American public the FBI’s “greatest partner” in the investigation with more than 270,000 digital media tips sent to agents so far.
More broadly, the FBI director said that there are 2,000 domestic terrorism investigations, up from almost 1,000 when he first started in 2017.
Pressed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin whether the Capitol attackers were white supremacists, Wray said the majority of the people arrested could be categorized as militia extremists.
“We at the FBI don’t tend to think of violent extremism in terms of right, left, that’s not a spectrum that we look at. What I would say is that is clear is …. a large and growing number of the people that we have arrested so far in the connection with the 6th are what we would call militia violent extremism. Militia violent extremists and some already who emerged that I would have been in the racially motivated extremist bucket,” he explained.
He said at the moment there is no indication that any antifa members participated in the insurrection as some Republicans have suggested.
Wray told lawmakers that the FBI has been “sounding the alarm” about the rising domestic terror threat for “a number of years now.”
“Whenever we’ve had the chance we’ve tried to emphasize that this is a top concern and remained so for the FBI,” Wray said. “The FBI will not tolerate agitators and extremists who plan or committed violence. Period. And that goes for violent extremists, of any stripe.”
Durbin opened the hearing by playing a video with footage of the violent episodes from the Capitol assault that included multiple excerpts from an ABC News exclusive interview Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas did with Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn.
“The hate on display that terrible day is not a new phenomenon in our country,” Durbin said, after the emotional video ended with the audio of Dunn asking, “Is this America?”
Durbin was highly critical in his opening of the DOJ and FBI’s approach during the Trump administration to addressing the rise of far-right and white nationalist domestic extremism. He noted that he had sent multiple letters in recent years to Wray and former Attorney General William Barr asking them about the steps being taken to combat the growing rise of white supremacist violence and why the bureau made the “inexplicable decision to stop tracking” white supremacist attacks and has still not received any response.
Sen. Chuck Grassley also noted in his opening remarks that Wray had yet to respond to oversight letters both he and Durbin sent regarding the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and said today’s hearing would be “difficult” to hold without any records provided by the FBI.
Grassley then spent the brunt of his remarks decrying violence by the far left while repeatedly insisting he wasn’t seeking to downplay the deadly assault by the pro-Trump mob on the U.S. Capitol.
Wray also said that people who were on the “no-fly list” were visited by agents to check in before they were set to travel to Washington to participate in the Capitol.
“A number of instances, we had agents in their home states or home cities approach those individuals, interview them and even if we didn’t have a basis to charge somebody, it dissuaded a number of those people from traveling,” he explained.
Wray’s testified as the bureau faces scrutiny over whether it properly shared intelligence leading up to the assault as well as its broader role in addressing the nation’s domestic terror crisis.
Wray has not spoken publicly about the Capitol siege since a Jan. 15 appearance alongside then-Vice President Mike Pence, amid heightened fears that President Joe Biden’s inauguration would be the target of a possible attack.
The FBI at the time had already identified 200 suspects in the bureau’s sweeping investigation of the riot, Wray said, and warned those who had yet to turn themselves over to authorities.
“We know who you are, if you’re out there, and FBI agents are coming to find you,” Wray said.
That number has more than doubled since Wray’s last public appearance, with the bureau opening more than 400 case files against individuals involved in the Jan. 6 assault, according to the Justice Department. More than 300 individuals have been charged so far in connection to the Jan. 6 attack, according to the Justice Department, with over 280 arrested in what officials described as an investigation moving at “unprecedented” speed and scale.
Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters on Monday that Wray is the “man of the hour.”
“The head of the FBI has not appeared before the committee for an oversight hearing since July of 2019. There are many questions. And certainly, at the top of the list, there are threats to America today that we need to put in as a priority. I think domestic terrorism, religious and racial based hate groups have become a major threat in America. I want to know if our intelligence operations have taken this into consideration in establishing their priorities,” Durbin said.
Last week, acting Deputy Attorney General John Carlin and senior DOJ and FBI officials provided the first update in more than a month on the DOJ’s investigation into the Capitol riot, and sought to outline the department’s broader mission in the coming months to address the domestic terror threat facing the country.
A senior FBI official said the primary terrorism threat to the U.S. homeland remains the “lone offender,” including homegrown violent extremists and domestic violent extremists who are primarily radicalized online and plot to attack soft targets with readily available weapons.
The FBI currently has open domestic terrorism investigations across all 56 of its field offices around the country, the official said.
Wray was pressed on whether the FBI sufficiently shared information with its law enforcement partners in advance of the assault on the Capitol.
In a congressional hearing last week, former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund argued his force was not properly alerted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies about specific threats to the Capitol in advance of the attack.
Sund said he wasn’t privy to information from an FBI Norfolk field office bulletin on Jan. 5 that warned of “war” at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6.
Robert Contee, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department said that his phone is on 24/7 and is available to take any call and the fact that the FBI bulletin from Norfolk came through email after 7 p.m. is not excusable.
In front of a House Appropriations Subcommittee, last week, acting Capitol Police Yogananda Pittman also detailed the threats to President Joe Biden’s next joint address to Congress.
“We know that members of the militia groups that were present on Jan. 6 have stated their desires that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible with a direct nexus to the State of the Union, which we know that date has not been identified,” she testified Thursday. “So, based on that information we think that it’s prudent that Capitol Police maintain its enhanced and robust security posture until we address those vulnerabilities going forward.”
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