Bias and Human Error Played Parts in F.B.I.’s Jan. 6 Failure, Documents Suggest
WASHINGTON — Days before the end of the 2020 presidential race, a team of F.B.I. analysts tried to game out the worst potential outcomes of a disputed election.
But of all the scenarios they envisioned, the one they never thought of was the one that came to pass: a violent mob mobilizing in support of former President Donald J. Trump.
The team’s work, which has never been reported, is just the latest example of how the Federal Bureau of Investigation was unable to predict — or prevent — the chaos that erupted at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Apparently blinded by a narrow focus on “lone wolf” offenders and a misguided belief that the threat from the far left was as great as that from the far right, the analysis and other new documents suggest, officials at the bureau did not anticipate or adequately prepare for the attack.
The story of the F.B.I.’s missteps in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 was touched upon, but not fully explored, by the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 and may involve a mix of legal hurdles, institutional biases and simple human error.
The analysis conducted by the F.B.I., an exercise often known as a “red cell,” was included in the select committee’s investigation examining structural failures at the bureau and the Homeland Security Department. The committee did not publish a report on those findings, but The New York Times reviewed a draft document containing preliminary conclusions.
There was no single failure. Agents ignored warning signs flashing in the open on social media and relied on confidential sources who either knew little or failed to sound the alarm. Still, even recently, bureau officials have played down not preventing the worst assault on the Capitol since the War of 1812.
“If everybody knew and all the public knew that they were going to storm Congress, I don’t know why one person didn’t tell us,” Jennifer L. Moore, the top intelligence official at the F.B.I.’s Washington field office at the time, told congressional investigators. “Why didn’t we have one source come forward and tell me that?”
Other agencies, like the Homeland Security Department, the Secret Service, and in particular, the Capitol Police, also had major roles in analyzing intelligence and protecting the Capitol in advance of Jan. 6 — and all failed to secure top officials. But the F.B.I. had a unique part to play given its superior investigative reach and mandate to prevent acts of terror.
Now, the F.B.I. is conducting an internal review of what happened on Jan. 6 to assess what it describes as lessons learned and to “make improvements in communication and in the collection, analysis and sharing of information.” The Justice Department’s inspector general is also scrutinizing the bureau’s preparation and response.
Congressional investigators who examined the F.B.I.’s response never received from the bureau many key documents they requested. The bureau provided about 2,000 documents in total; the Secret Service by comparison offered more than a million electronic communications.
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
Moreover, the F.B.I. only did two transcribed interviews with top bureau officials: one with Ms. Moore and another with David Bowdich, the former F.B.I. deputy director. The committee staff also received a dozen briefings, including from Steven Jensen, who ran the bureau’s domestic terrorism operations on Jan. 6.
Committee investigators were, however, able to obtain emails that illustrated the bureau’s belief that there were no credible threats to Washington before Jan. 6. Those emails were written even as agents tracked domestic terrorism suspects who were planning trips to the city for Mr. Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally and opened dozens of new cases related to unrest surrounding the election.
The draft document cites two major problems that essentially blinded the F.B.I.
For years, the bureau has highlighted what are known as lone wolves or individuals acting on their own, a threat that is extremely hard to detect and thwart. Last year, the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, testified before Congress that “the greatest terrorism threat to our homeland is posed by lone actors or small cells of individuals who typically radicalize to violence online.”
That particular focus obscured its ability to see a “broad-right wing movement come together” and created a cognitive bias that hampered critical thinking, according to the draft document.
The unclassified “red cell” analysis — dated Oct. 27, 2020 — discussed four potential situations that involved lone offenders, but “none suggested the rise of a mass movement that might support an aggrieved losing candidate,” the draft document said. And none specifically addressed actors such as militia groups or white supremacists, who took a leading role in the Capitol attack.
As early as 2019, Attorney General William P. Barr and then Mr. Trump wanted the bureau to focus on leftist groups like the antifa movement, claiming they were the real threat. This occurred even after a spate of mass shootings that year targeted places like synagogues and the F.B.I. made combating racially motivated extremists a top threat.
In 2021, both the Justice Department and the F.B.I. made investigating far-left extremists a top priority along with militias and other anti-government groups. But in more than two decades, there had been only one killing by someone the bureau had classified as an “anarchist violent extremist.”
The committee’s draft document said this decision by the F.B.I. was an exercise in false equivalency, noting that the lethal threats posed by far-right violent extremists in recent years far outpaced the threats from the left. Officials at the F.B.I. and Justice Department have repeatedly said white supremacist extremists were the top domestic terrorism threat and the most lethal one.
The F.B.I. said in a statement that it sought to counter all types of threats, saying it would “continue to work to prevent acts of violence and mitigate threats, without fear or favor, regardless of the underlying motivation or socio-politico goal.” From 2020 to 2021, it said, the bureau “saw a rise in violence and criminal activity, to include lethal attacks, by anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists — specifically anarchist violent extremists and militia violent extremists.”
It added that “while lone actors pose a serious and persistent threat, the F.B.I. maintains a broad perspective, constantly gathering information and evaluating intelligence.”
The F.B.I. has long kept tabs on extremist groups through the use of confidential sources. And in the sensitive months leading up to Jan. 6, the bureau was well positioned to know what was happening inside the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers militia, two far-right groups whose leaders were later charged with seditious conspiracy in the storming of the Capitol.
Federal agents had managed to recruit a star informant at the highest levels of the Oath Keepers: Greg McWhirter, the organization’s No. 2 man at the time and a confidant of its leader, Stewart Rhodes. The F.B.I. had also developed relationships with at least eight members of the Proud Boys.
And yet before Jan. 6, none of these informants sounded an alarm about a pending attack, according to lawyers associated with both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Even after the Capitol was stormed, the lawyers have said, the informants repeatedly told their handlers in the F.B.I. that they knew nothing about plans to initiate an assault against lawmakers on Jan. 6.
The experience of Matthew Walter, who once ran a Proud Boys chapter in Tennessee, is instructive.
In a recent interview, Mr. Walter said the F.B.I. approached him in the summer of 2020 seeking answers about the violent unrest that had erupted during racial justice protests nationwide. Playing on his patriotism, he said, the agents asked about the Proud Boys’ adversaries in antifa.
Mr. Walter agreed to help on one condition: that the agents not question him about the Proud Boys.
“They told me, ‘You guys have never caused any problems in this state, so we don’t have any reason to be looking into you,’” Mr. Walter said.
Still, Mr. Walter was skeptical enough about the agents’ motives that he sought advice from the leader of the Proud Boys at the time, Enrique Tarrio, who is now on trial in Washington in connection with the Capitol attack. He said that Mr. Tarrio, a former F.B.I. informant himself, told him to cooperate. As many as 20 members of the group, Mr. Walter claimed, had also worked with the bureau, by Mr. Tarrio’s account.
Eventually, when it became clear that a large group of Proud Boys intended to go to Washington on Jan. 6 to support Mr. Trump, the agents asked Mr. Walter if he was joining and how many others were also thinking of attending.
“‘If you go, just don’t be an idiot,’ is what my guy told me,” Mr. Walter said.
In the end, Mr. Walter failed to meet up with his fellow Proud Boys and spent much of the afternoon following Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and Infowars host, in a mass march toward the Capitol. About a week later, the F.B.I. finally called him, he said.
The agents asked if he had been with any Proud Boys as the Capitol was stormed. And when he informed them that he had not, they moved on to other subjects.
Mr. Walter said he had recently been subpoenaed by defense lawyers in the Proud Boys sedition trial to appear as a witness.
Robert Reilly, a former F.B.I. agent who handled domestic terrorism informants, said that First Amendment concerns about free speech and free assembly precluded the bureau from targeting groups such as the Proud Boys without evidence of a crime. While the F.B.I. has targeted white supremacist groups that have displayed a penchant for violence, the Proud Boys have never been among them.
Mr. Reilly noted that agents could have tapped those Proud Boys who already had a relationship with the F.B.I. — among them, Mr. Tarrio. Mr. Reilly said that if he had been handling Mr. Tarrio, “I would have asked him, given his position of influence in the group, if anybody was planning violent acts.”
There may have been a disconnect among the agents handling informants, Mr. Reilly said.
But lawyers for the Proud Boys say there was no disconnect. When informants in the Proud Boys were pressed for information after the attack, they said they had no knowledge of any premeditated plans.
In her interview with congressional investigators, Ms. Moore, the F.B.I. intelligence official, could not fully explain why the bureau did not identify Congress as the target on Jan. 6 even as the Capitol Police managed to, despite being unprepared to secure the building. Both were examining what was essentially the same intelligence.
“I didn’t have a crystal ball,” she said.