Former FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi: Capitol riot was "a form of terrorism"

Longtime FBI counter-terror expert on the bureau's post-Trump woes — and the unanswered questions after Jan. 6

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 8, 2021 6:10AM (EST)

Supporters of President Trump storm the United States Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington DC. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Supporters of President Trump storm the United States Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington DC. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Donald Trump's impeachment trial begins in the U.S. Senate. Last month, Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for inciting an armed insurrection and attack on the Capitol that left at least five people dead (including one police officer). Two other Capitol police officers have subsequently committed suicide, apparently because of the trauma of that day. Dozens of other people were injured, (including at least 140 police and other law enforcement agents).

There is abundant public evidence of Trump's guilt, including the speech he gave at Ellipse Park in the hours before the assault in which he urged his followers to force Congress to change the outcome of the 2020 election. At the same rally, a Nazi-inspired propaganda video was shown that encouraged violence against Democrats and other Americans who do not support Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

The Jan. 6 attack was part of a larger pattern of behavior by Trump, his spokespeople and his allies, who for at least five years have used stochastic terrorism to encourage political violence against their perceived enemies, especially nonwhite people, Muslims, Jews and immigrants. 

Of course, Senate Republicans have already made clear they will not convict Donald Trump for his obvious crimes. Today's Republican Party is a political crime syndicate, and Trump is its leader.

With or without conviction, many questions remain about the events of Jan. 6 and Trump's larger coup plot. Was it an "inside job" aided by Trump loyalists in strategic positions throughout the government? Why was the Capitol left largely undefended, despite readily available public information and warnings about the imminent danger represented by Trump's followers? Will the whole truth about Trump's coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol ever be known? What, if anything, can be done to de-radicalize Trump's political cult members and others being recruited into right-wing extremism and terrorism?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Frank Figliuzzi. He was a special agent with the FBI for 25 years and eventually rose to the rank of assistant director, where he led the bureau's counterintelligence division. His new book is "The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau's Code of Excellence."

During our conversation Figliuzzi issued an ominous warning: The U.S. desperately needs a domestic terrorism law to defeat the country's growing and increasingly violent right-wing insurgency movement. If no such laws are passed, then the attack by Trump's followers on the Capitol will only be the beginning of a larger wave of right-wing terrorism that may continue for years if not decades.

It has been more than a month since the coup attack on the Capitol several weeks ago. Where is the big press conference such as the one that was held after 9/11?

I asked this question on national TV and I was sorely disappointed with what was announced as being a "DOJ, FBI press conference" which took place several days after Jan. 6. Instead of seeing Acting Attorney General [Jeffrey] Rosen and FBI Director Chris Wray, they sent the head of the Washington FBI field office and the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C. My mouth hung open as soon as I saw what was happening. I have the same question you did.

I have some well-founded theories as to what happened. There was a great fear that Donald Trump was going to fire Rosen and Chris Wray. This isn't about Wray being fearful that he's going to get fired and then cannot put food on his table. That's not the worry. The worry is that at a critical time in our nation where Wray was so out of favor with Trump, that if he got up behind the podium and said, "Look, these horrible terrorists are going to prison and we're going to hunt all of them down," then there would have been follow-up questions such as, "Do you think they were incited to violence by Donald Trump? Did you have intelligence information on this? Did anybody at the White House tell you that you cannot track down leads?"

And then, if Wray was fired by Trump, the country would have faced the prospect of acting FBI director Rudy Giuliani or Sidney Powell. Wray was literally trying to survive.

So why are there not regular briefings on the Capitol attack now? This is a sensitive topic. About 30 to 40% of our nation supports Donald Trump, 74 million or more people voted for him. If the FBI is perceived as hunting down people with different opinions or people who supported Trump, it makes life in America even worse than the polarized society we already live in.

The public is receiving updates as to the investigations and arrests. But I also feel that there is a deliberate decision not to put Chris Wray in front of a podium on a regular basis. Not because there is any fear of Trump anymore, but rather because the nation is polarized enough and we do not need FBI agents getting shot when they're going door to door asking families, relatives, neighbors for information on that guy down the street. FBI agents do not need to be perceived as what Donald Trump wants you to think they are, jackbooted deep-state Nazis.

When you watched the attack on the Capitol, what did you see, given your expertise and background?

One, I was thinking that this is a form of terrorism. It was organized and planned, and our nation is under attack. As a career FBI official and former assistant director, I was at the same time thinking, "What in the hell has happened that we missed that? What happened here?" As I have been saying in my television commentaries and regular columns for MSNBC Daily, the attack on the Capitol was not so much an intelligence failure as it was a failure to act upon available intelligence.

Armchair intelligence analysts sitting at home saw this being developed and planned online about two weeks prior to Jan. 6. There were posts on extremist chat rooms, both private and public sites, about how to overwhelm the Capitol police. There were travel plans and buses where they would stop around the country and pick up team members.

The intelligence was there. We learned that the FBI passed their concerns to the Capitol Police and the entire capital region. Even the New York Police Department intelligence unit passed concerns about violence to the Capitol Police. I also am not satisfied when the FBI says, "Well, we passed our intelligence assessments to everybody."

There are many questions that remain unanswered. I believe there's going to be an independent commission that will have to get to the bottom of this. We need answers and I've got more questions to ask.

I do not believe the American people and the world will ever know the full truth about what happened with Trump's coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol. For one thing, Trump and his administration have so eroded transparency and trust in the government that no answers, even if they're true, will ever be believed.

Consider the Warren Commission and the assassination of President Kennedy. It was a national tragedy. And even today, there are people who believe, "Oswald didn't do it by himself. The Russians did it. There was another shooter on the grassy knoll," etc., etc. Fast forward to the present and now, more than ever before in our history, there are so many Americans who have fallen for false narratives such as "fake news" and conspiracy theories such as QAnon, a group that thinks the world is actually being run by pedophile cannibals.

We need to start with an independent commission. The allegation that members of Congress may have escorted some of the people, days prior, who would be in the mob that attacked the Capitol makes them ineligible to participate in an impeachment vote. We are going to have a jury of senators hear the impeachment case against Trump, and there are allegations they participated in the insurrection? Excuse me? How does that work? We cannot possibly have them sitting on a commission on the insurrection either.

One of the common observations about the attack on the Capitol has been that if the mob had consisted of Black or brown people, or Muslims or antifascists or any other group identified with "liberals" and "progressives," the level of force used by law enforcement would have been totally different. The mob would have been annihilated if they were not white Trump supporters. Is that a reasonable conclusion?

It may be even worse than you're depicting, in that not only would there have been a more aggressive response and police presence, but if they were a different skin color — particularly if they were a different religion — it is likely the attack on the Capitol never would have happened in the first place. The federal law enforcement structure would have been all over this event, and would have been given the freedom to do so. So let's change the religion of these folks in the mob to Islam. Let's say that they're violent jihadists. Now, guess what? First of all, they would have been shot dead and you would have had a counter-assault team ready for them and other resources too. Those who were caught and survived would have faced international terrorism charges. That is a federal charge. It likely would have included giving material support to terrorism and they'd be off to prison for the rest of their life, or even executed.

We have nothing on the domestic terrorism side like that law. And what happens when you have a law is that you are allowed to do things to prevent the law from being broken. If you have ever wondered why we haven't had a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, it is because the FBI is at war every day with violent Islamic jihadists. The FBI is all over their chatroom communications. They've got undercover agents, informants and wiretaps. These people can't turn around without FBI. What happened at the Capitol would have likely been prevented.

What we also saw with the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a function of radicalization, which is true of international terrorism as well. We have been watching a radicalization process for the last four years under the Trump administration. But we are not doing enough about it because, in part, there is a lack of will or an incapacity to see people that "look like us" as an equal or greater threat than people who do not look like us.

I am a left-leaning civil libertarian. History has taught us hard lessons about how the government has all too often violated the rights of its citizens, especially those deemed to be "radicals" or "subversives." But I also know that these right-wing extremists and other white supremacists need to be dealt with to the most extreme extent of the law possible. How should we balance these concerns about freedom and security?

I think we are savvy enough in this country to figure it out. Yes, there have been abuses in the past. Absolutely. As recently as 9/11 and the Patriot Act being passed. Congress eventually said to law enforcement, "Are you guys collecting metadata on phone records? Are you collecting everybody's phone bill that shows the numbers they dialed and the numbers received?" Yes, we are. Congress said, "We don't like that. Could you stop doing that?" Law enforcement then said, "OK, you don't like it. We're just collecting records for future use and it works, but we'll stop."

I'm being silent right now on things like designating groups and organizations as being domestic terror groups, like what is done in regard to al-Qaida and Boko Haram and ISIS. I fully understand that a corrupt president — and we just had one with Trump — could say, "I hereby declare antifa a domestic terrorist organization." Thank God Trump did not have a mechanism to lawfully do that. If he did, his next step would have been to order the FBI to spy on antifa.

The discussion that should be right in front of us as a nation right now is, can we just agree on a federal law that makes it illegal to commit domestic terror? When you rob a bank, we don't arrest you for trespassing in the bank. We arrest you for something called bank robbery. It's a crime against the federal government. They insure the money in the bank, and you're trying to steal their money. On Jan. 6, a bunch of people tried to steal our democracy. What are we arresting them for so far? Trespassing? Theft of Nancy Pelosi's podium? Even assault on a federal officer, which is very serious — but it is not terrorism. Why not?

In terms of tradecraft, how does law enforcement approach the problem of foreign enemies as compared to domestic terrorism?

There are eerie similarities to the radicalization process that we saw happen internationally. The speed with which a young person can go from a sense of wanting to belong to something other than themselves, that sense of disenfranchisement, and then wanting to find spiritual and religious meaning and being recruited online, watching violent beheading videos and listening to violent inspiring sermons from a cleric and then moving to violent action. The speed with which that happens online now within the world of violent Islam is astounding. One can literally see a 19-year-old kid recruited in about nine days. By that, I mean actually getting the plane ticket to go somewhere and fight.

It is very similar on the domestic side here in the United States with social media. Online activity has played an enormous role and has almost everybody behind the curve. Back to free speech and civil liberties: Look, using social media to call for breaching the Capitol and overwhelming the police is not free speech. That is violence. We saw the same thing happen in international terrorism. A violent beheading video is not free speech.

If the Proud Boys are putting messages out about overwhelming the police, killing the police, invading a state house, putting a bullet in a congresswoman's head, that is not free speech. We as a country have got to get over that hurdle. We did it pretty quickly on the international terrorism side. We've got to do it, carefully, domestically too.

We also need a more holistic, societal response that involves all hands on deck in terms of companies, government and law enforcement, everybody pulling together for a de-radicalization approach. That must happen. That is complicated. You've got to deprogram some people who believe Joe Biden didn't win the election.

There was no follow-up attack on Washington during the inauguration or the days and weeks before and after. This is leading too many people to lower their guard about the threat of domestic terrorism. What do we know about the timeline for planning and executing a domestic terror attack?

Of course, no one's going to succeed against a militarized target, but what happened a couple of days later in D.C.? "Hey, National Guard, you're crowding up the hallways. Can you please move outside? By the way, it's the garage floor. And then let's talk about moving you along." The bad guys are just waiting for a softer target. It has been reported that they're waiting for the time to come when someone's guard is down and a member of Congress is walking across Capitol Hill, for example. All of this is being discussed right now. If you look at the planning times for things like the Oklahoma City federal building bombing and other events, it takes time. The fact that we hardened the perimeter and succeeded for one day means nothing to these domestic terrorists.

If Trump had been impeached and removed for blackmailing Ukraine or the Russia collusion scandal, there would not have been an attack on the Capitol. How do you think future historians are going to look back on Robert Mueller and his investigation?

I've said this before with regard to contrasting Mueller with Attorney General Barr, who of course in his four-page summary that was released before the Mueller report, completely changed the narrative and shaped it into a falsehood. Mueller is a boxer and Barr was a street fighter. By that, I mean Mueller played by the rules, stayed with the mandate. He did not take the risks because a polite gentlemen and lawyer doesn't go after a president if there's a memo sitting at the Department of Justice which says, "Hey, you really shouldn't indict a sitting president." So, OK, we'll take written answers from him. We won't get him in front of a grand jury. In regard to obstruction of justice, I found 10 examples of it — see Volume Two of the report. But I understand Trump can ever get indicted, so what the heck, here they are.

On the Russian side, we indicted two dozen Russians, including 12 Russian intelligence officers. Paul Manafort clearly had a deputy on the campaign who was a Russian intelligence officer. Yeah, well, but there's no criminal conspiracy.

Here's how history is going to judge. There was not enough by Mueller and too much playing by rules that he probably needed to break through. It was a disservice to the public not to expose Trump and his connections and crimes for what they were.

Given the lawlessness of the Trump administration, and now this attack on the Capitol, how would you assess the morale level at the FBI right now?

It's demoralizing, even for former agents like me. It's like a kick in the stomach. The worst thing that can happen to the FBI is that it's now perceived as being political or non-objective. In my book "The FBI Way," I spend considerable time on the question of credibility. The FBI has got nothing if they lose their credibility with the public. When an agent flashes their badge at someone's door, as they're doing right now, and says, "I need information, I need your help," if that citizen pauses for a moment and goes, "Ah, I don't know. Comey did some weird things and Trump, boy, he bashed them and it's a deep state. I don't know if I can trust you people," then we've lost it in terms of the national security mission.     

Given your leadership experience with the FBI, what advice would you give President Biden about the multiple simultaneous crises he is facing?

I would tell him, "Look, I know you're busy, Joe. If you only read one chapter in my new book, please read the last one on consistency." And by that, I mean that the FBI operates at an incredibly high degree of excellence when the stakes and stress are at their highest. And boy, do we have stress right now in this country.

The nation needs to do the same thing right now. We are a democratic republic. We have a constitution. We have the rule of law. We have three equal branches of government. We're going to look at ourselves as the conservators and stewards of our country. And if we do that, and remember that we've been through a civil war, Vietnam War protests, presidential assassinations and impeachments, then we can get through this challenge by consistently clinging to our core values.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega