WASHINGTON – A day before rioters stormed Congress, an FBI office in Virginia issued an explicit internal warning that extremists were preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence and "war," according to an internal document reviewed by the Washington Post that contradicts a senior official's declaration that the bureau had no intelligence indicating that anyone at last week's pro-Trump protest planned to do harm.
A situational information report approved for release the day before the U.S. Capitol riot painted a dire portrait of dangerous plans, including individuals sharing a map of the complex's tunnels, and possible rally points for would-be conspirators to meet up in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and South Carolina and head in groups to Washington.
"As of 5 January 2021, FBI Norfolk received information indicating calls for violence in response to 'unlawful lockdowns' to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington. D.C.," the document says. "An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating 'Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal."
BLM is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice. Pantifa is a derogatory term for antifa, a far-left anti-fascist movement whose adherents sometimes engage in violent clashes with right-wing extremists.
Yet even with that information in hand, the report's unidentified author expressed concern that the FBI might be encroaching on free speech rights.
The warning is the most stark evidence yet of the sizable intelligence failure that preceded the mayhem, during which five people died. One law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid disciplinary action, said the failure was not one of intelligence, but of acting on the intelligence.
An FBI official familiar with the document said that within 45 minutes of learning about the alarming online conversation, the Norfolk, Va., FBI office wrote the report and shared it with others in the bureau. It was not immediately clear how many law enforcement agencies outside the FBI were told, but the information was briefed to FBI officials at the bureau's Washington field office the day before the attack, this official said.
The official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations, added that the report was raw intelligence, and that when it was written the FBI did not know the identities of those making the online statements.
The FBI already faces questions about why it was not more attuned to what was being discussed in public Internet conversations in the days leading to the attack, and why the bureau and other agencies seemed to do little to prepare for the possibility of mass violence.
The document notes that the information represents the view of the FBI's Norfolk office, that it is not to be shared outside law enforcement circles, that is not "finally evaluated intelligence," and that agencies who receive it "are requested not to take action based on this raw reporting without prior coordination with the FBI."
Law enforcement officials have said privately in recent days that the level of violence exhibited at the Capitol has led to difficult discussions in the FBI and other agencies about race, terrorism, and whether investigators did not register the degree of danger because the majority of the participants at the rally were white conservatives fiercely loyal to the President Donald Trump.
"Individuals/Organizations named in this [situational information report] have been identified as participating in activities that are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," the document says. "Their inclusion here is not intended to associate the protected activity with criminality or a threat to national security, or to infer that such protected activity itself violates federal law.
"However," it continues, "based on known intelligence and/or specific historical observations, it is possible the protected activity could invite a violent reaction towards the subject individual or others in retaliation or with the goal of stopping the protected activity from occurring in the first instance. In the event no violent reaction occurs, FBI policy and federal law dictates that no further record to be made of the protected activity."
The document notes that one online comment said, "if Antifa or BLM get violent, leave them dead in the street," while another said they need "people on standby to provide supplies, including water and medical, to the front lines. The individual also discussed the need to evacuate noncombatants and wounded to medical care."
On Wednesday, a large, angry crowd of people who'd attended a nearby rally marched to the Capitol, smashing windows and breaking down doors to get inside. One woman in the mob was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer; officials said three others in the crowd died of medical emergencies. Another Capitol police officer died after suffering injuries.
On Friday, the head of the FBI's Washington Field Office, Steven D'Antuono, told reporters that "there was no indication" of anything planned for the day of Trump's rally "other than First Amendment-protected activity." D'Antuono added, "we worked diligently with our partners on this."
The FBI said in a statement that its "standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products," but added that FBI field offices "routinely share information with their local law enforcement partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve."
The FBI did not detail specifically who saw the document before the mob attack on Congress or what, if anything, was done in response.
For weeks leading up to the event, FBI officials discounted any suggestion that the protest of pro-Trump supporters upset about the scheduled certification of Joe Biden's election could be a security threat on a scale with racial justice protests last summer in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody.
While the District of Columbia is one of the most heavily guarded cities on the planet, local and federal law enforcement agencies sought to take a low-key approach to last week's event, publicly and privately expressing concerns that they did not want to repeat the ugly clashes between protesters and police last year.
Some law enforcement officials took the view that pro-Trump protesters are generally known for over-the-top rhetoric but not much violence, and therefore the event did not pose a particularly grave risk, according to people familiar with the security discussions before the rally.
Even so, there were warning signs, though none as stark as the one from the FBI's Norfolk office.
FBI agents had in the weeks before the Trump rally visited people suspected of being extremists, hoping to glean whether they had violent intentions, a person familiar with the matter said, though it was not immediately clear who was visited or whether the FBI was tracking anyone who would later be charged criminally. These visits were first reported Sunday by NBC News.
Some Capitol Hill staffers were told by supervisors to not come into work that day, if possible, because it seemed the danger level would be higher than earlier protests, according to a person familiar with the warning. Capitol Police did not take the kind of extra precautions, such as cordoned areas for protesters and hardened barriers, that are typically used in major events around the Capitol.
Now, the Justice Department and federal agents are scrambling to identify and arrest those responsible for last week's violence, in part because there is already significant online discussion of new potential clashes Sunday and again on Jan. 20 when Biden will be inaugurated.
Federal agents remain in a state of high alert before the inauguration as authorities brace for possible violence not just in Washington but across the country, officials said.
The FBI recently issued a memo saying "armed protests" were being planned "at all 50 state capitols" and in D.C. in the days leading up to the inauguration, according to an official familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive law enforcement matter.
The memo - first reported on by ABC News and later confirmed by The Washington Post - is a raw-intelligence product, compiling information gathered by the bureau and several other government agencies, an official said. Some of it is unverified, and the threat probably will differ significantly from place to place, the official said.
It includes the possibility that people might storm government offices or stage an uprising were Trump to be removed from office, the official said.
In a statement, the FBI declined to comment specifically on the memo about capitols but said: "Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. As we do in the normal course of business, we are gathering information to identify any potential threats and are sharing that information with our partners.
"The FBI respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights," it continues. "Our focus is not on peaceful protesters, but on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property."