Senior FBI leaders have defended the agency’s actions ahead of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol Building, noting that several warnings that were seen online were only “aspirational” in nature and thus protected speech under the First Amendment.
According to a lengthy report published Sunday by The Washington Post, top FBI officials said that most of the communications observed online by various field offices were safeguarded speech and also did not rise to the level of a legitimately actionable threat.
In addition, senior leaders noted that the online chatter also did not include enough evidence to indicate that any real plots were being planned, another element required before an investigation can be launched.
FBI officials told the Post that they were not anticipating that a riot would actually occur or that the Capitol would be breached because they did not see details of any actionable plan ahead of the incident.
Officials added that the bureau pointedly separates speech as “aspirational” in terms of discussing violence versus “a specific intent to commit violence.”
One of them noted that “broad claims and online chatter often lack specificity or detail about concrete plans and participants and, therefore, are not susceptible to disruption.”
In some cases, FBI officials said that the bureau made contact with some people who were already under investigation and instructed them not to go to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, the same day that then-President Donald Trump was holding a rally.
The bureau also informed field offices around the U.S. to be on the lookout for any emerging, legitimate threats that targeted the nation’s capital as lawmakers were preparing to meet to certify the 2020 Electoral College vote for then-President-elect Joe Biden.
Cathy Milhoan, the FBI’s assistant director, told the newspaper that the bureau “was actively engaged in gathering intelligence, disrupting travel, and sharing information with our partners.”
“The FBI specifically warned state, local, and federal partners about the potential for violence at the January 6 events,” Milhoan noted further.
Earlier reporting by The New York Times noted that the FBI had at least one informant in the huge crowds that gathered to hear Trump speak and who later went inside the Capitol Building briefly.
“As scores of Proud Boys made their way, chanting and shouting, toward the Capitol on Jan. 6, one member of the far-right group was busy texting a real-time account of the march. The recipient was his F.B.I. handler,” the Times reported in late September.
“In the middle of an unfolding melee that shook a pillar of American democracy — the peaceful transfer of power — the bureau had an informant in the crowd, providing an inside glimpse of the action, according to confidential records obtained by The New York Times,” the paper noted further, adding later that the informant entered the Capitol at one point.
“[T]he records…suggest that federal law enforcement had a far greater visibility into the assault on the Capitol, even as it was taking place, than was previously known,” the Times added.
The Times report appeared to vindicate Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Revolver News editor Darren Beattie, both of whom have speculated that the FBI had informants in the crowd that assembled at the Capitol.
The paper’s story went a ways toward “vindicating what we said months ago: FBI operatives were deeply involved in the events of Jan. 6,” Carlson said during a late-September show.
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