WASHINGTON — Analysts in the FBI’s Intelligence Division gathered information about possible violence involving the Capitol on Jan. 6., but the FBI never distributed a formal intelligence bulletin, in part because of concerns that doing so might have run afoul of free speech protections, one current and two former senior FBI officials familiar with the matter told NBC News.
While the FBI did share some threat intelligence with law enforcement, the lack of a comprehensive Joint Intelligence Bulletin compiled by the FBI’s Intelligence Branch — which would have made assessments about possible threats and have been shared with relevant law enforcement agencies — left the Capitol Police and other agencies lacking the full picture of what the FBI had learned from human sources and social media postings about what extremists were saying about plans to assault the Capitol.
The former officials said the reluctance to distribute such a document highlighted a longstanding FBI dilemma under which the bureau has been reticent about circulating intelligence related to far right or far left domestic terrorism, while regularly issuing bulletins about threats from violent Americans who have adopted the ideology of Al Qaeda or ISIS.
“For every major event in D.C., and even sporting events like the World Series, they produce a Special Event Bulletin,” a former FBI analyst told NBC News, noting that the document is also known as a Joint Intelligence Bulletin. A second former FBI official said it didn’t happen this time because of concerns that the material FBI analysts were examining on social media amounted to protected free speech.
The disparate treatment of domestic terrorism goes beyond intelligence, the officials said. When there is a major event in Washington, major international terrorism “subjects” are put on 24/7 FBI surveillance “to ensure they don’t try to do anything during the event,” the former analyst said. “Nothing like that happens for domestic terrorism subjects.”
While threatening violence is not protected under the First Amendment, the line between protected speech and threats can be hard to discern. Because Al Qaeda and ISIS are designated terror organizations under the law, the FBI feels more free to disseminate intelligence about Americans linked to them in any way. There are no designations for domestic terror groups.
A senior FBI official confirmed to NBC News that the FBI did have indications that extremists were calling for violent action at the Capitol Jan. 6 but felt constrained from sharing some of the information over First Amendment concerns.
Asked about that, a second senior FBI official confirmed that no intelligence bulletin was published, but didn’t speak to the issue of whether there was a debate about publishing one.
The head of the FBI’s Washington field office, Steven D’Antuono, had told reporters Friday the FBI had no intelligence suggesting violence was brewing before Jan. 6. He reversed himself in a briefing to reporters Tuesday, acknowledging that the bureau did, in fact, have some intelligence. The bureau identified extremists who intended to travel to Washington and sought to stop them, he said, confirming a story first reported Sunday by NBC News.
He added that some information about possible violence, gleaned from social media and human sources, was shared with members of a D.C.-area law enforcement group known as the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes the Metropolitan (D.C.) Police and Capitol Police.
“This information was immediately disseminated through a written product and briefed through our command operations to all levels of law enforcement,” he said.
The current and former officials familiar with the matter said the “written product” was not a formal intelligence bulletin.
D’Antuono did not describe the information the FBI gathered and shared, and NBC News did not have access to the specific details of the other intelligence that FBI analysts wanted to circulate. In recent days, social media posts have emerged making it clear that far Right groups had been planning an invasion of the Capitol for some time, including coordinating travel and posting photos of weapons individuals planned to bring with them. But the Capitol Police was unprepared for such an organized onslaught, according to the former chief, who was forced out after the debacle.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the FBI’s Norfolk, Va., field office circulated a report the day before the riots warning that extremists were coming to Washington to wage “war.”
D’Antuono described the information from Norfolk as concerning “a thread on a message board” that was not attributed to a specific person. He said when his office received the information, “we briefed that within 40 minutes to our federal and state law enforcement partners in our command post.” He said it was entered into the D.C. Joint Terrorism Task Force system and was shared with the FBI’s law enforcement partners through that process.
Several news organizations, including NBC News, published stories prior to Jan. 6 that reported on calls by extremists to march on and occupy the Capitol. Some of those social media postings included talk of violence.
On Jan. 8, NBC News reported that on the fringe message board 8kun, which is popular with QAnon followers, users talked for weeks about a siege of the Capitol, some speaking about it like a foregone conclusion.
“You can go to Washington on Jan 6 and help storm the Capital,” said one 8kun user a day before the siege. “As many Patriots as can be. We will storm the government buildings, kill cops, kill security guards, kill federal employees and agents, and demand a recount.”
Some experts say the lack of a domestic terrorism statute constrains the FBI from treating far right and far left groups the same as Americans who become radicalized to violence by Al Qaeda or ISIS ideology. But the two former FBI officials who spoke to NBC News about the matter Tuesday argued that the bureau is being overly cautious and has simply not dedicated the resources required to tackle the domestic threat.
It’s clear, however, that in the wake of the Jan. 6 riots, the FBI has been leaning forward. On Monday, an FBI memo warned about the threat of armed protests at all 50 state Capitols starting Saturday and disclosed that an armed group has threatened to travel to Washington, D.C., to stage an uprising if Congress removes President Donald Trump from office, a senior law enforcement official told NBC News.
But law enforcement officials cautioned that the memo did not mean they expect violence in every state Capitol. The bureau simply felt the duty to warn.
In part due to free speech worries, FBI never issued intel bulletin about possible Capitol violence The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ NBC News.