FBI says it warned about prospect of violence ahead of riot

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Steven D'Antuono, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Washington field office, speaks as acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin, right, listens during a news conference Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Washington. Federal prosecutors are looking at bringing significant cases involving possible sedition and conspiracy charges in last weeks riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – The FBI warned law enforcement agencies ahead of last week’s breach of the U.S. Capitol about the potential for extremist-driven violence, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, contradicting earlier statements that they were caught off guard by the assault by supporters of President Donald Trump.

Nearly a week after the riot, officials said they were combing through mountains of evidence and vowed to aggressively seek out those who perpetrated the brazen attack on the U.S. Capitol. Though most of the charges brought so far have been misdemeanors, acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin said the Justice Department was considering bringing sedition charges against some of the rioters, effectively accusing them of attempting to overthrow or defeat the government.

“This is only the beginning,” Sherwin said. “We’re going to focus on the most significant charges as a deterrent because, regardless of it was just a trespass in the Capitol or if someone planted a pipe bomb, you will be charged and you will be found.”

The Justice Department has created a specialized strike force to examine the possibility of sedition charges, which could carry up to 20 years in prison. Officials said they were utilizing some of the same techniques in the riot probe as they use in international counterterrorism investigations, examining the money flow and movement of defendants leading up to the breach. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, called for the rioters to be added to a no-fly list, a tool most commonly associated with terrorisms investigations.

The statements by FBI and Justice Department officials on Tuesday were intended as both a defense of federal law enforcement preparations before the deadly riot and as a warning to participants. But they also raised new questions about the coordination across agencies for the Jan. 6 riot, which was sparked by Trump's calls for his supporters to fight Congress' vote confirming President-elect Joe Biden's victory.

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, some law enforcement officials, including the Capitol police chief, said they were unaware of serious concerns leading up to Jan. 6 and had prepared only for a free-speech protest.

But on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported on the existence of a Jan. 5 report from the FBI’s field office in Norfolk, Virginia, that forecast, in detail, the chances that extremists could commit “war” in Washington the following day. Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, said that once he received the Jan. 5 warning, the information was quickly shared with other law enforcement agencies through the joint terrorism task force.

D'Antuono was among the officials who suggested law enforcement had simply been caught off guard, saying on Friday: “There was no indication that there was anything other than First Amendment protected activity.”