What Chris Wray didn't say: Unpacking the FBI chief's wobbly Capitol riot testimony

FBI director left many questions unanswered and spun multiple stories — but at least he didn't indulge the wackos

By Iveta Cherneva
March 12, 2021 11:00AM (UTC)
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Chris Wray, Sheldon Whitehouse and Cory Booker (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Why didn't the FBI arrest anyone at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? And why wasn't the National Guard sent in, until many hours later, to stop the attack? Those were the main questions that still remain unanswered after FBI Director Chris Wray's grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

I myself was highly skeptical on Jan. 6 about what law enforcement and the FBI would do to address the violence: The inaction was blatant and glaring as the world wondered, "Why are they allowing this?"

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The Senate hearing on March 2 was a chance — two months later, after the dust had settled — to dispel and address many of the mysteries surrounding the Capitol attack and the grossly inadequate response, which so many of us found incomprehensible as we sat glued to our TV sets at home. At the Wray hearing, I expected to get answers. I basically didn't.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., dived straight into the "elephant in the room" issue, pressing Wray on the National Guard mystery: Why weren't they called? Who decided not to send them? Wray was shifty on all these points, which prompted the Louisiana senator to stop him mid-sentence several times to stop him from dancing around the questions. Wray tried to shift the focus to local D.C. government, away from federal responsibility, and didn't answer Kennedy's question about whether Wray himself would have called in the National Guard, if he could have, based on what the FBI knew and saw at the time.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was highly critical of Wray and the FBI's inaction regarding the distinction that Wray sought to make between the horrible things that people say as online chatter, as opposed to genuine aspiration and traction. At least Wray did not use the phrase "keyboard bravado," which Justice Department officials rolled out right after the attacks to explain the FBI's lack of response. "Keyboard bravado" at the time sounded too much like Donald Trump's "locker-room talk" — in other words, like something Trump's circle would say to diminish something bad that Trump did.

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To summarize the episode between Wray and Blumenthal, the Connecticut senator was obviously irritated that obvious preparations for an attack could be seen and defended as empty chatter, even as the FBI had clear geolocation data that the same people were actually descending upon Washington and intended to go to Capitol Hill. "Keyboard bravado" is not supposed to include action and planning. At that point, it rises from locker-room talk to a sequence of actions, and chatter becomes a motive in the legal sense.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former prosecutor, was the fiercest in the whole hearing. He raised the FBI stonewalling that Democratic senators experience, citing answers the Judiciary Committee has been waiting for, in some cases since 2017. Wray's response was to default to the complex and mysterious "interagency" process, which is something like the tooth fairy — everyone's heard of it, but no one has actually seen it in action. Whitehouse was having none of that, making clear that he knew there is a special channel for Senate Republicans who get information from the FBI anytime they ask. That really raised the not-quite-spoken question of whether the FBI is in fact a partisan, Republican-friendly institution, responsive only to one side of the congressional aisle.

Whitehouse tore down the house — even Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey noted "the heat" Wray took from the gentleman from Rhode Island. Wray started out the hearing with a pleasant, upbeat, confident attitude and often made use of folksy expressions such as "darn tooting." By the time Whitehouse was done with him, all the darn tooting had evaporated and the Wray looked like a little boy who had just been reprimanded by the teacher in front of the whole class.

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Wray also tried to blame other people at the FBI for the Senate stonewalling — any fault the FBI may have did not lie with its leaders. It must have been someone else. Wray seemed willing to personally promise Whitehouse that they would always be cool. That only pissed off Whitehouse further; he pointed out that Wray is in fact the FBI director. An issue as serious as stonewalling the Senate Judiciary Democrats is not terribly likely to be an issue on which unnamed "others" have decided.

The committee's new chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.,  was concerned about the lack of a formal threat assessment report by the FBI at the time, with all that was known and publicly available. Wray outlined three ways in which the risk assessment was communicated through various channels, but did not directly explain why no formal threat assessment was issued in advance of the Capitol attacks. It must be noted that the FBI has intercepted and defeated much more intricate and secretive plots, such as foiling the attack on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was saved by the FBI from kidnapping and assassination ahead of the presidential election. The FBI didn't need strangers to call them and send them photos to stop that.

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As Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a pro-Trump Republican, mentioned, even people who were not violent and did not participate in the Capitol attack, but who had traveled to Washington as Trump supporters, were tracked through geolocation and later contacted by the FBI. The bureau didn't need data after the event. The intelligence was obviously on top of these things, and the information has been there all along. These are the same groups. No arrests were made by the FBI on the day of the Capitol attacks — and that's an issue for leadership. It wasn't "other people" who made that call, somehow overruling Wray.

Some commentators have called the Capitol attacks "the most catastrophic failure of intelligence since 9/11," but I am just not sure that's the case. The intelligence was there, but the policy action required to do something about it was not. It was purely a political decision not to go after Trump's supporters right there and then, and the FBI director was absolutely a part of this politicized intelligence and security loop.

Most commentators see Wray as a decent man who has successfully stood up to Trump and who had some tough luck with the Capitol attacks. Many commentators also see the whole situation as a politically neutral, well-intentioned failure of intelligence. But the American public and media need to stop seeing the FBI as some sort of professional, neutral institution that is there to protect them. The FBI is every bit as partisan, as, let's say, Trump's Department of Justice. 

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Sen. Kennedy, who deserves credit as a straight shooter, also asked Wray if the FBI was a "systematically racist institution." Race showed up again in the hearing when Booker used the occasion to address the lack of diversity at the FBI — an issue I have raised previously in Salon and The Crime Report. Booker's argument came close to what I have been saying for a long time now: Diversity actually makes the FBI smarter, better and stronger. It is not an exercise in charity or "virtue signaling."

Wray responded that diversity has rapidly grown in the applicant pools that the FBI is seeing. Whether that will translated into actual diversity at the hiring and retention stages is something we will have to wait and see. When prodded by Booker about diversity in top FBI leadership, Wray actually excluded himself and the FBI's No. 2 and 3 officials from the discussion, even though those are the positions that actually form the bureau's top tier. Wray pointed out that on the second-tier leadership level, among the FBI's executive assistant directors, there have been two nonwhite or non-male recent promotions. One of them was the appointment of a woman to an HR position — which, let's face it, is not what we mean by women leadership in law enforcement. It is actually more in line with stereotypes, which diversity efforts are trying to combat. So the highest-ranking woman at the FBI is the HR lady: Groundbreaking! In Wray's mind, the actual FBI top tier is not even a discussion point when it comes to diversity. I actually expected that the Biden administration might make history by appointing a woman to lead the FBI for the first time.

Perhaps the best thing to came out of that hearing was that Wray dispelled the fake-news conspiracy theory that antifa activists, disguised as Trump supporters, had actually attacked the Capitol in order to harm Trump — something that I've had to argue against and debate time and time again. That was welcomed by the media and political Twitter, and we can hope we never have to hear about this laughable fantasy again. I wouldn't say, on the other hand, that it's a big win for the truth or a sign of great heroism for the FBI to be significantly better than the most out-there, far-right fringe conspiracy theorists. That entire exchange was low-hanging fruit.

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Wray also specified that the FBI hasn't seen evidence of anarchist violent extremism — not just relating to the Capitol attack but anywhere else in general, and he clearly pointed to white supremacy as the driving force behind the majority of domestic terrorism. Yet despite what is said in public, the FBI continues to see the organized left as an enemy, as I have argued for Salon previously. In the very same Senate hearing, while talking to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Wray talked about anti-government, anarchist violent extremism. Apparently, the FBI has two interchangeable narratives when it comes to extremism on the left, ranging from "It doesn't exist" to "It's a big problem," and these parallel narratives can come out of the FBI director's mouth within a matter of minutes.

In that sense, Sen. Blumenthal's point should be recalled: He the was "disappointed" that Wray dodged the opportunity to denounce lawmakers who endorse the so-called ideology of QAnon. As we should know by now, Wray would never say any such thing to Republicans' faces. The FBI has several versions of events, and which one emerges depends on whom they're talking to. For the FBI, it is never a question of taking a clear stance based on evidence and information. 

One more major good thing came out of the hearing. As the FBI has already said, Wray specified that the Capitol attack is unequivocally considered "domestic terrorism" by the FBI. Long ago, the FBI raised the threat racially-motivated domestic terrorism to the highest threat rank, along with ISIS. Wray also mentioned white supremacy as the main motive and cause behind the violent movement. That was said loud and clear. Indeed, in many respects Wray said "all the right things," such as that he was appalled that America's elected leaders were victimized in the Capitol, that rule of law is "the bedrock" of American democracy, that in a way "we are all the victims" of the attacks, that the FBI's best partner is the American people themselves, and so on. He offered some elegantly phrased zingers for the most critical and frustrated senators, saying: "it pains and frustrates me when we're not able to be as responsive as you need us to be".

On all these points, the FBI director was forced to be crystal-clear because, under Biden, there can no longer be so much beating about the bush. The FBI can't afford to shield or cover up the most fringe right-wing creations and narratives. Wray clearly drew a line between "the new reasonable" and "the new criminal" under a new Biden administration. I am confident his answers would have been very different had the hearing taken place under Trump.

In summary, Wray's testimony offered some much-needed clarification and put an end to many ridiculous speculations, but it left the biggest single lingering question — How and why was this allowed to happen? — basically unanswered.

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The hearing also confirmed some of the things we already knew: Yes, the FBI is a Republican-leaning and Republican-serving institution. Yes, if it had been up to him, Wray wouldn't have sent in the National Guard either and would have let the whole thing slide. And yes, all the talk about racism and sexism talk at the FBI is probably true. But for now, there isn't much more we can do except to continue applying pressure, whether through the political process or the media.

But perhaps the most important message Chris Wray delivered is that he absolutely understands there's a new sheriff in town, and he's willing to play along. That's well short of the full transparency we might have hoped for, but it's a big improvement on the recent past.


Iveta Cherneva

Iveta Cherneva is the co-author of "Beyond Market Forces: Regulating the Global Security Industry" (2009) and author of "Trump, European Security and Turkey" (2019). Her career includes working with Congress, the UN and a Washington-based association for an ethical code of conduct in the private security industry. Cherneva’s opinion articles have appeared in Euronews, the New York Times, The Guardian, Modern Diplomacy, the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, LSE, EurActiv and elsewhere.

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