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Senators Grill FBI Director Over Insurrection, Domestic Terror. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 2, 2021 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: If we haven't had a chance to corroborate or vet it.

[11:00:03]

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): OK, looking back, what would you have done differently with this information? Because this is a hard one. You get something on the Internet that is concerning and you don't know if it is true or not and you capture it, what are the lessons learned that on how we could have acted better on that information?

WRAY: I think that may not -- the truthful answer is we're still looking at that. You know, this was -- you know, I look at intelligence both collection and analyst, dissemination. We need to get better at collecting, obviously.

But the key part here was we often don't have the luxury of time to analyze this information before it gets disseminated. And in this instance, our folks in Norfolk and Washington field made the judgment that -- and I think it is a reasonable judgment -- to get the information, like I said, in three different ways, to their partners even though -- even though they didn't know whether it was going to turn out to be accurate.

GRAHAM: Let's play that a bit. Let's say it made up to the top levels of the Capitol police intelligence units to the head of the Capitol police force, given that raw intelligence, what would you expect them to have done differently?

WRAY: You know, I really want to be careful not be an armchair quarterback here.

GRAHAM: See, that's the problem, because I don't know how to answer that question myself. Because you could capture stuff today that may foretell an attack tomorrow but how much this is a problem I just don't want people to run down the road, there is an intel screen shot. I mean, there's a screen shot on some computer somewhere, we need to turn the whole government upside down. It's just a tough situation.

Is the Proud Boys, are there a domestic terrorist group?

WRAY: Well, I don't think wee treated themselves as a domestic terrorism group, but we certainly have individuals --

GRAHAM: What does it make to make the list?

WRAY: Well, there is -- as you may know, Senator, under federal law, under U.S. law, there is no list of domestic terrorism organizations the same way there is for foreign terrorist organizations.

GRAHAM: Well, let's think about that in the next 47 seconds.

Oath Keepers, are they a domestic terrorist organization?

WRAY: We -- again, as with Proud Boys, we have individuals who associate themselves with that group who are --

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: Is Antifa a domestic terrorist organization? Same thing, same answer?

WRAY: Same answer.

GRAHAM: So why don't we think about how to gather better information and expose some of these groups? If they were on a list, would it make it easier for you?

WRAY: I think the issue of whether or not to designate or have a formal mechanism for designating domestic terror groups in the same we do with, say, al Qaeda or ISIS, I think there is reasonable debate about whether or not it would really --

GRAHAM: Is the KKK a domestic terrorist group?

WRAY: There is no legal designation for domestic terrorism.

GRAHAM: My point is, I don't know if we should have one or not, but think it is time to think about it.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): Thank you, Senator Graham.

Senator Feinstein?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): Thanks very much, Mr. Chairman.

And welcome.

Last November, "The Associated Press" reported that hate crimes rose to the highest level in more than a decade. "The A.P." also reported that the United States recorded the most hate-related killings since the FBI began collecting data in the 1980s. Despite this finding, only about 14 percent of the agencies in the FBI hate crimes report indicated that hate crimes occurred in their jurisdictions.

So, here's the questions. What actions are you taking to make it easier for local agencies to collect and report this data to the FBI?

WRAY: So, I appreciate the question. As your question references, we do know that there is a phenomenon that I think is fairly widely accepted of underreporting of hate crimes. And so even though the number of hate crimes reported is continuing to grow, we don't know whether that means number of hate crimes is growing or whether the number of reports of it is now starting to grow.

We're trying to do a lot and we do hundreds of these outreach, training, et cetera, of state and local law enforcement to help them understand better how to identify and report hate crimes. We also have a manual that we put out that helps explain better how to identify that.

Of course, a lot of times the offenses that they're looking at under state and local laws don't necessarily come with a neat label that says this is a hate crime on it. And so, that's part of the challenge.

But we're working with them to try to improve awareness so that we can get better reporting in the subject.

[11:05:02]

FEINSTEIN: Well, that's certainly appreciated.

I want to ask about the threat of domestic terrorism by white supremacists. It isn't new, but it is gained a lot of attention within an intelligence circles in recent years. And it's the biggest domestic terrorism threat, I understand.

Last year, you testified before the House Homeland Security Committee that, quote, the most lethal of all domestic extremists since 2001 have been racially and ethnically motivated. Similarly, the former acting DHS secretary testified before the Senate that, quote, white supremacist extremist from a lethality standpoint over the last two years, particularly when you look at 2018 and '19, are the most persistent and lethal threat when we talk about domestic extremists.

Why is the threat of white supremacists terrorism so prevalent in this country?

WRAY: You know, I think that's a -- some of that is a sociological question that I'm not sure that I'm really the right person to address. Certainly as you say, it has been the biggest chunk of our racially motivated violent extremism cases and itself the biggest chunk of our domestic terrorism case load overall. And the most lethality over the last decade has been have been from the same extremists.

The things that drive these people, you know, I think, range. One of the things that we struggle with if particular is that more and more the ideologies if you will that are motivated some of these violent extremists are less and less coherent, less and less linear, less and less easy to kind of pin down. And in some cases, it seems like people coming up with their own sort of customized belief systems, a little bit of this and a little bit of that and put it together and maybe combined with some personal grievance of something that's happened in their lives, and that drives them.

And so, trying to get your arms around that is a real challenge.

FEINSTEIN: Let me move on.

There has been a spike in gun sales during the pandemic. "The New York Times" reports that approximately 2 million guns were purchased in March of 2020. That is the second highest month ever. According to a July "Politico" article, there were 823,273 NICS checks in March of 2019 versus 1.4 million in March of 2020.

So in March of 2020, NICS blocked more than double the amount of the year before, a whopping 23,692 gun sales in one year. Simply put, there's been a dramatic rise in gun sales that are likely going to require some further action.

What have you seen and what will the FBI be doing and/or recommending?

WRAY: So in terms of what we're seeing, because we all share the goal of trying to keep guns out of the hands of those who are legally prohibited from possessing them which, of course, the whole point of why NICS exists.

Last year, as I say, we've seen a significant increase. I think, last time I checked, I think it was something like of the top 10 highest number of NICS checks, you know, per day or per week ever were all last year -- maybe seven of the top ten ever last year.

And so, the numbers have been really significant during the course of 2020 and the pandemic. We have been trying very hard and I think we've done a good job of staying on top of the required pace that we have to keep up with to be able to get that done, which has been -- had required being creative because of COVID and teleworking and all of the things that we've had to work around to keep up with that.

But it is a challenge and I think the budget requests that we've had recently have asked for more resources for NICS because we need to try to keep up with that pace.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you.

As early as December 29th, the FBI warned about the potential for armed demonstrators targeting legislators -- legislatures. The former chief of Capitol police, as well as the House and Senate sergeants-of- arms have testified that they did not see the FBI's warning on the eve of January 6th about potential violent in the Capitol.

[11:10:17]

When did you first receive intelligence about the possibility of an attack on the Capitol on January 6th and what happened to the process that people weren't seeing the warnings?

WRAY: Well, Senator, I think the intelligence or the information that you're asking about is the much discussed Norfolk SIR, or Situational Information Report. I didn't see that report, which was raw, unverified intelligence until some number of days after the 6th.

But, again, that raw, unverified information, was passed within I think 40 minutes to an hour to our partners, including the Capitol police, including Metro PD, and in not one, not two, but three different ways, one email, one verbal and one through the law enforcement portal.

As to why the information didn't flow to all of the people within in the various departments that they would prefer, I don't have a good answer for that. I will tell you, the Capitol Police and Metro PD are partners to the FBI, especially our Washington field office. I'm grateful for their partnership and have nothing but admiration for the hard work and courage and professionalism of the men and women who work in both of those agencies.

DURBIN: Thank you, Senator.

FEINMAN: Thank you. Thank you for your good work. It's appreciated.

DURBIN: Senator Cornyn?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): Director Wray, after the events of 9/11, I think it was Admiral Bobby Inman who coined the phrase that failure of imagination, we couldn't conceive of the idea that something like what happened on 9/11 would occur but that was a failure, to imagine it. And it strikes to me that the events of January 6th share something in common with 9/11 in the sense that it seemed like there was a failure of imagination, that is not to point the finger at anyone -- anybody to blame but merely to try to describe what I think may have occurred.

So I think you've told us that these extremists are not monolithic. Is that correct?

WRAY: That's correct.

CORNYN: Well, I've heard the expression that here in Washington whoever has the best narrative wins. And so sometimes I think the narrative is created and then tried to search for facts that might bolster that narrative.

But as you said, the fact is these extremist groups are not monolithic. So that's I think an important part of understanding the threat.

I've heard them described some of -- these folks describe as white supremacists, domestic terrorists, insurrectionists, rioters, seditions, anarchists, the list goes on and on.

But I note that you said there is no federal crime described as domestic terrorism per se, correct?

WRAY: That's correct.

CORNYN: And as I look at the range of charges that the FBI and the Department of Justice have -- have made against the people that have been investigated for the events of January 6th, I read a list of assaulting federal officers, tampering with documents or proceedings, unlawful entry, disorderly conduct, conspiracy, theft of government property. Do you think the current laws are adequate to deal with this threat? It strikes me as these are -- these are a lot of different tools that are available but don't really get to the whole heart of domestic terrorism.

WRAY: Well, I guess I would say a couple of things in response to that. Of course, it is a very good question. I think, number one, our folks, which is one of the things that I love about the men and women of the FBI, have proven time and again that they will work with the tools they have and they are resourceful and entrepreneurial, and we've had remarkably good success at disrupting attacks using the tools that we have.

Sometimes those tools and some of the offenses that you listed off have the virtue of being quite simple and straightforward to prove and so sometimes that is actually a blessing. But certainly I think you would be hard pressed to find any FBI director that wouldn't welcome more tools in the tool box.

[11:15:00]

CORNYN: Fair enough.

Well, gets back to this narrative about who was involved on January 6th, there was a helpful report from the George Washington University program on extremism that looked at about 257 federal defendants as a result of the events of January 6th. They noted that 142 of those 257 defendants, they've referred to as inspired believers. They said they were neither -- they concluded they were neither participants in any violent extremist group, nor connected with any individual who stormed the Capitol.

Again, I guess it bears out your conclusion, your statement that this is not a monolithic group again.

WRAY: So, I think you've touched on two very important points there. One is both with domestic violent extremists and frankly with what we call the homegrown violent extremists which with the jihadist inspired, the difference went inspired terrorist attacks and over here and domestic and directed or facilitated in a more structured formal way is something that I think a lot of Americans struggle with understanding.

And more and more the threat that we face as a country is what I would call the inspired attacks. They don't have formal membership in an organization. They don't have clear command and control direction in the way that, say, an al Qaeda sleeper cell might have. And that is that much more challenging to pursue, A, because there are fewer dots to connect. You know, the old expression about dots to connect.

CORNYN: Right.

WRAY: B, less time to connect whatever dots there are.

And then -- and then you add in the C, the sort of First Amendment dimensions of people's inspirations and ideology. And then the last point I would make is that we have these, as I said before, increasingly blended ideologies.

So, for example, in Senator Klobuchar's state of Minnesota, we had two individuals who were identified themselves as so-called Boogaloo Boys which people tend to put kind of in one bucket, and yet, what they were ultimately were charged with was trying to provide material support as in weapons to Hamas.

And these are not things that neatly fit together in anybody's world views. So it just illustrates -- one example, but it illustrates the challenge that we're dealing with.

CORNYN: It's the FBI's responsibility to deal with counterintelligence investigations, correct?

WRAY: Yes.

CORNYN: And these include things like active measures that we saw used for example in 2016? For example, advertising on Facebook, two competing groups to show up at the same time and hoping that conflict and maybe even violence would break out.

Is it true that our foreign adversaries use the events of January 6th as a field day in terms of their attempt to establish false personas, fabricate stories on social media platforms with an intent to discredit the United States and its institutions?

WRAY: Certainly, we have seen, and I'll keep it at an unclassified level in this setting, but foreign adversaries, a number of them, leveraging the events of January 6th to amplify their own narratives to try to push out propaganda, misinformation to try to, in their view, accelerate what they think of as the United States' decline.

CORNYN: Thank you.

DURBIN: Thanks, Senator Cornyn.

Senator Whitehouse?

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI): Thank you.

Director Wray, welcome.

Before we get to the business of this hearing, we've got some, in fact, a lot of unfinished business. Do you know how many questions for the record the FBI failed to answer in the last four years?

WRAY: I do not.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I'll tell you. There were nine hearings in this committee, in which the FBI was a witness, and in seven of them, the committee got exactly zero questions for the record, seven. Zero questions.

Can you explain that?

WRAY: I cannot. I will say -- WHITEHOUSE: Are you going to do any better with the questions we're

asking right now? You've been asked questions for the record. Are they going into the same, whatever it was, hole, or questions go for the record go to die at the FBI?

WRAY: Well, Senator, first thing I would say about questions for the record is that as you may know, there is an elaborate interagency process that requires that answers that we provide have --

[11:20:02]

WHITEHOUSE: Yeah, which is immensely convenient for the executive branch. But our questions don't direct the interagency response, do they? And that interagency process doesn't respond to us in Congress, does it?

WRAY: We're required to comply with the interagency process to provide our response for questions for the record. Having said that --

WHITEHOUSE: By what? By what are you required to comply with that interagency process?

WRAY: I can't cite you the reg or the rule.

WHITEHOUSE: Because it seems that when the FBI wanted to get information to this committee, particularly when it wanted to get information to Republican members of this committee, so they could investigate your investigation of the Trump/Russia connection, that information got right through to our Republican colleagues, it didn't go -- didn't seem to go through any interagency process, it wasn't delayed.

What we seem to have is for most of us, this is bipartisan by the way, when I say we got zero questions for the record answered from those hearings, I mean zero questions of any member of this committee, not zero Democratic members answered. OK?

So you've got this basic highway for responses to Congress. Let me ask you just a little side bar, do you think Congress deserves responses to questions from executive agencies as part of our oversight responsibility?

WRAY: Yes, absolutely.

WHITEHOUSE: OK, good. So we're over this hurdle. So we're run this rigmarole with this interagency process which we don't get answers, some of these go back to 2017, by the way. That is years of not getting our questions answered.

And then, when it's the question that suddenly is of interest to one party, and to President Trump, there seems to be a little side road that gets built around the traffic jam. And stuff just flies right through.

So, please don't tell me about interagency process when I've been sitting in this committee watching FBI information get straight to this committee without interagency process.

What are we going to do about this? Is this a problem?

WRAY: So, Senator, let me say first as I said, that I absolutely agree with you that Congress needs answers to its questions. I am frustrated as well at the process. I have added more staff and my understanding is that when it comes to correspondence, for example, which doesn't require the same interagency process, that we have significantly reduced the backlog and the turnaround time.

But there's no question in my mind -- no question in my mind --

WHITEHOUSE: We had eight letters go unanswered, the oldest one dates March of 2017. So if you think your process is working, we're not seeing it on our end.

WRAY: Well, I will commit to you that I will do what I can to improve the process. I am frustrated as you are. And we have -- obviously, we need to get better.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I will commit to you that I'm going to make sure that this gets done. And if it means stopping nominees, if it means doing whatever it takes to get through this problem, we're going to get through this problem, because it is just plain wrong for the executive branch of government in a separation of powers country, to refuse to answer questions of the elected representatives of the legislative branch. It's just wrong.

And however many excuses and however much rigmarole the executive branch may set up to slow down those answers, I don't care. That's your executive branch's rigmarole. That is not a legitimate answer to a legislator's question. And I got stuff that is now backed up for years.

Now, the courts have said that they're -- they don't want to intervene in enforcing our subpoenas. I'm not sure we could get subpoenas in a 50/50 committee, but assume we could, the courts don't want to enforce. So, you guys can put our subpoenas in the same file with out letters and our QFRs, and not answer them.

And then what happens is the courts have said, the way we resolve this is we have to pitch it legislatively. The courts said we should hold up appropriations for the FBI and for executive agencies that aren't responsive. That's our tool.

Your people do good work, Director Wray. I don't think you want that to be our tool. But you can't be in a situation in which you don't answer our questions, you create rigmarole logjams.

[11:25:02]

And when there is a political interest in getting information out to the committee, suddenly, none of that rigmarole pertained. Suddenly, everybody gets their hands on all of the information they need just as soon as they need it.

And by the way, I believe on a partisan basis, not shared with both sides of the committee.

So, before we get to clearing up whatever else we need to get cleared up, all of the stuff that's backed up behind our questions, we got to get through the problem of why you're not answering our questions.

And we've got to clear that up. And I don't know how we clear that up. I think we clear it up, Mr. Chairman in a bipartisan fashion because I think both sides should get this.

But this business of years going by of hearings in which zero QFRs get answered and letters that get thrown off into the -- don't care -- don't care to answer that one pile.

Woodrow Wilson once said that the oversight function, the investigative function of Congress is often to be preferred even to its legislative function. We have to get that back. And I'm going to find a way with this committee and with you to clear the backlog.

I don't think you think that I should give up on questions, because I've been stonewalled for years. If I've asked them and they deserve answers, they should be answered, is that correct?

WRAY: Yes.

WHITEHOUSE: OK. My time is up. We'll leave it at that.

WRAY: Mr. Chairman, if I just may add, with your indulgence one point?

Senator, I commit to working with you to try and see how we can improve our responsiveness and getting you more of the information you need. The one thing I will say is that I can assure you that in terms of my responsiveness to this committee, to the members of this committee or to Congress overall, is absolutely not, speaking only for myself now, on a partisan basis.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, you run an organization that seems to have operated under very different rules. And it was you running that organizations. So let's not make these distinctions right now.

DURBIN: Thank you, Senator.

Senator Lee?

SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thanks, Director Wray, for being here and for your service to our country.

Like literally every other person in this room, like literally every member of the United States Senate, I'm anxious to see those who committed unlawful environment acts on January 6th brought to justice. I also believe with this circumstance like every other circumstance, we have to make sure that the civil liberties of the American people are protected and that we watch over them. I'm heard a number of accounts of individuals who were present in

Washington, D.C. but never got anywhere near the Capitol or any violence on January 6th who have inexplicably been contacted by the FBI, by agents who apparently were aware of their presence in Washington, D.C. that day, with no other explanation, perhaps other than the use of geolocation data.

Are you geolocating people through the FBI? Based on where they were on January 6th?

WRAY: I think there may be some instances in which geolocation has been an investigative tool but I can't speak to any specific --

LEE: What are you using to do that? What's your basis for authority? Are you using national security letters?

WRAY: I don't believe in that instance, we're using national security letters for --

LEE: Are you going to FISA court?

WRAY: -- investigation of the Capitol. I don't believe FISA is remotely inflicted in our investigation.

LEE: Are you using warrants predicated on probable cause?

WRAY: We certainly have executed a number of warrants in the course of the investigation of January 6th. All of our investigative work in response to the Capitol has been under the legal authorities that we have in consultation with the department and the prosecutors at the department.

LEE: No, I understand that. I'm just trying to understand how you're getting it. So is the FBI accessing cell phone tower metadata from telecommunications companies, is that where it's coming from?

WRAY: Again, without knowing the specifics and able to drill into the specifics it is hard to answer the question in the way that you --

LEE: Are there instances in which you're interviewing people based solely on information derived from a telecommunications provider providing geolocation information indicating they were on or near the National Mall on January 6th?

WRAY: With respect, Senator, because this is a massive nationwide investigation, involving thousands and thousands of interviews, it's very hard for me to speak with any absolute confidence as to whether there's any interview predicated on any one specific --

LEE: Oh, I understand that. I understand that. And I certainly wouldn't expect you to be aware of every circumstance. I would, though, like to know whether you're doing that at all.