The Road to Jan 6 Final

Exclusive: Secret Threat Report Named Everyone Except Angry Donald Trump Voters

In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

On December 30, just a week before January 6, the FBI, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center, issued an intelligence report—"Intelligence in Depth"—titled "Diverse DVE Landscape Probably Will Persist." DVE refers to domestic violent extremists.

The report, shared exclusively with Newsweek, did not mention the election or Donald Trump. No mention was made of the impact of COVID. No mention was made of the two post-election protests that had already taken place in Washington DC, on November 24 and December 12, or any upcoming threats. In fact, there was no focus on the nation's capital at all.

The report covered all bases but focused on none. It's a mishmash of contorted acronyms, codes to neutrally describe what the intelligence agencies saw as the threats on the American battlefield, but careful not to explicitly label any one group. White supremacists were referred to as Racially Motivated Violent Extremists (RMVE). There were also Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremists (AGAAVEs), Anarchist Violent Extremists (AVEs), Militia Violent Extremists (MVEs), and Sovereign Citizen Violent Extremists (SCVEs). There were others mentioned, some with and without acronyms: Abortion-Related Violent Extremists, Animal Rights/Environmental Violent Extremists and Puerto Rican National Violent Extremists.

Donald Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign January 6
Crowds gather for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC, to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The common linking characteristic in all of this was the term "extremist." Yet the December 30 report offered no explicit definition of what precisely was an extremist. Domestic Violent Extremists were described as "individual[s] based and operating primarily within the United States or its territories without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group or other foreign power who seeks to further political or social goals wholly or in part through unlawful acts of force or violence."

A government definition of extremism is hard to come by. The definitive Department of Justice bible on the subject, "Investigating Terrorism and Criminal Extremism: Terms and Concepts," never—not in 120 pages—defines what extremism means. Nor does the new Department of Defense "Report on Countering Extremist Activity Within the Department of Defense," issued just this month. It merely says that members of the armed forces are restricted from participating in "extremist activities" that include "unlawful force, unlawful violence, or other illegal means to deprive individuals of their rights under the United States Constitution or the laws of the United States." The Pentagon says that this includes supporting "the overthrow of the government" and "goals that are political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological in nature." That's a fairly broad spectrum.

Few people would dispute that those who seek to further their political goals "through unlawful acts of force or violence" should be the subject of federal law enforcement attention, but without a definition of extremism, and with such a broad category of wildly different individuals and groups that fall under the domestic violent extremist umbrella, it is no wonder that the FBI had such a hard time paying attention to the many Americans who were openly threatening violence before January 6.

A senior retired FBI executive, who spoke to Newsweek on condition that his name not be used because he fears retaliation by the very extremists he is talking about, says that he sees two major constraints on the Bureau's domestic terrorism efforts. First, he says, there is too much emphasis on organized groups and searching for conspiracies—a legacy of the organized crime and then al Qaeda emphasis focusing on thwarting and dismantling groups.

Second, he says, the federal government has tied itself into a bind over the proper protocol of even following or monitoring free speech while looking for possible threats. The December 30 report, for example, was careful to note that not all extremists were prone to violence, stating that "First Amendment"-protected protest was not per se a predicate for either federal attention or further FBI investigation.

"I understand that people might be skeptical that the FBI actually safeguards civil liberties, but in today's Bureau, it's more true than false," the FBI executive says. "Yes, there have been many historical examples of overreach, [but] this level of care is equally applied to right and left."

Donald Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign January 6
A police officer approaches protestors who were shaking a fence while as supporters of Donald Trump host a 'Stop the Steal' protest on November 21, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia finished the hand recount of ballots which confirmed President-elect Joe Biden's win in the state. Megan Varner/Getty Images

The FBI stated in its 2021 domestic terrorism report to Congress: "Under FBI policy and federal law, no investigative activity may be based solely on First Amendment activity, or the apparent or actual race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the individual or group. The FBI does not investigate, collect, or maintain information on US persons solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment."

The executive says that post-January 6, with domestic terrorism a national issue and more emphasis on stopping attacks, previous constraints might loosen. But he still thinks that focusing on groups—Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, etc.—and imagining these groups are more powerful than they are, obscures the individuals and their actions that need to be detected and stopped.

Even after January 6, FBI Director Christopher Wray described the same vague threat picture as did the December 30 report in testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committees. Despite all that had happened, he still saw homegrown violent extremists (HMVEs)—that is, "individuals radicalized here at home by jihadist ideologies espoused by foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda"—as the Bureau's number-one priority.

HMVEs are not to be confused with DVEs, yet they are mixed together in a way that suggests the two are equivalent. HMVEs (foreign influenced) and DVEs (non-foreign influenced), FBI Director Wray said, have a commonality in that the biggest actual threat is from so-called "lone" wolves.

According to Wray, the Bureau is "countering lone domestic violent extremists radicalized by personalized grievances ranging from racial and ethnic bias to anti-government, anti-authority sentiment to conspiracy theories."

Wray previously told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that, "over the last year, we observed activity that led us to assess there was potential for increased violent extremist activity at lawful protests taking place in communities across the United States."

The FBI says that in response to these threats, it authored 12 formal intelligence reports in 2020 relating to potential domestic terrorism. In 2019, the FBI produced 15 domestic terrorism related reports. (Each year, the FBI produces about 1,000 domestic terrorism related intelligence products.) In late August 2020, Wray says, the FBI published an analytical report "informing our partners that DVEs with partisan political grievances likely posed an increased threat related to the 2020 election.

"In that product, we noted that DVE responses to the election outcome might not occur until after the election and could be based on potential or anticipated policy changes," Wray said. In December 2020, he says, the FBI also contributed to a Department of Homeland Security Intelligence In-Depth product, which stated that the diverse DVE landscape "would probably persist due to enduring grievances."

That would be obvious to any observer. The FBI, in its formal intelligence reporting, seems to have missed the signs completely.

FBI Director Christopher Wray Testifies at Hearing
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray testifies before the House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Washington. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

"The FBI and our federal, state, and local partners collected and shared intelligence and relevant public safety-related information in preparation for the various planned events" on January 6, Wray claims. But there is no evidence that any of that sharing had any impact, according to the testimony of numerous U.S. Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police Department officials.

Just this past September, Wray told Congress how much "the threat" had changed 20 years after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. "It was 9/11, after all," he said, "that turned the FBI into an agency focused on disrupting threats."

But when a national threat and a catastrophic event loomed in late 2020, FBI bureaucrats not only didn't disrupt it, they didn't even see it coming.