WASHINGTON - The FBI is keeping close watch on violent domestic extremists who might pose a threat to the U.S. Capitol when President Joe Biden delivers a speech before a joint session of Congress next month, a senior FBI official said Friday.
“We have been worried that domestic violent extremists would react not only to the results of an election that they might not see as favorable, but the transition of a government that they may question,” the senior official told reporters on a press call.
“And so I think for the near future as we continue to go through that process — and I would view the first address [to] the nation part of that process — that we are watching very closely for any reaction from individuals that would show either an intent to commit an attack or somebody that has already committed one,” the official said. The official asked not to be named.
The comments came a day after the acting head of the U.S. Capitol Police warned that militia groups involved in the January 6 attack on the complex by supporters of former President Donald Trump want to “blow up” the building during Biden’s speech.
“We know that members of the militia groups that were present on January 6 have stated their desire 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,” Yogananda Pittman, the acting police chief, told lawmakers.
In response, Pittman said, the Capitol Police force has kept in place security barriers and other enhanced measures implemented after the January 6 attack, steps that she said will likely be removed as the threat dissipates.
A date for Biden’s speech has not been announced yet. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Biden will deliver his speech after Congress passes the president’s $1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus package. Psaki referred a question about the threat to the Secret Service.
The Secret Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment,
Threats of right-wing violence ahead of Biden’s inauguration on January 20 led to the unprecedented deployment of more than 25,000 National Guard to Washington. While the ceremony passed without incident, security around the Capitol remains tight with fences that are more than 2 meters high still in place.
The attack on the Capitol left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer, and at least 140 other officers injured. It has also triggered a wide-ranging FBI investigation of an estimated 800 Trump supporters who stormed the building and others responsible for the attack.
What the FBI knew about the threat of violence to the Capitol and how it conveyed that information to law enforcement agencies have become the subject of controversy in recent week.
In the late hours of January 5, the FBI shared with law enforcement agencies a “raw intelligence” report that cited online chatter about impending violence aimed at Congress. “Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in,” the report quoted from an online thread.
The report failed to reach top Capitol Police officials. But Pittman said that even if it had reached them, it would not have changed their “security posture” as it was consistent with Capitol Police’s own threat assessment. Further, Pittman noted, the report advised law enforcement agencies not to “take action based on this reporting.”
Meanwhile, the FBI’s massive manhunt for the perpetrators of the Capitol attack has resulted in more than 300 charges and more than 280 arrests, according to acting deputy attorney general John Carlin.
“The investigation into those responsible is moving at a speed and scale that's unprecedented and rightly so,” Carlin told reporters during the press call. “Those responsible must be held to account, and they will be.”
Of those arrested to date, more than two dozen are alleged members of the Oath Keepers, a loosely organized collection of militiamen and other anti-government activists, and the Proud Boys, a pro-Trump right wing organization. But the vast majority have no known ties to any domestic extremist groups.
The attack has renewed attention to the growing threat of domestic terrorism in the United States. In recent years, violent domestic extremists have caused more deaths in the U.S. than terrorists with ties to international groups, the FBI official said, noting that 2019 was the deadliest year for violent domestic extremism since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Last year the FBI arrested about 180 individuals involved in connection with acts of domestic terrorism, the official said.
“We are increasingly arresting more domestic terrorists each year, and … we've arrested more this year than previous years,” the official said.
The FBI investigates five types of domestic terrorism, two of which it has prioritized in the last two years — anti-government violent extremism and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism. Between 2015 and 2019, the most lethal threat posed by domestic terrorists came from racially motivated violent extremists such as white supremacists, the official said.
While 2020 marked the first year in nearly a decade without a fatal attack by white supremacists, three of the four lethal attacks reported during the year were committed by anti-government individuals, the official said.