An internal FBI email sent the morning of January 5, 2021 warned, “unfortunately there is the significant possibility of violence” on January 6, as “[w]e start the year with a tumultuous week in DC.”
The email, part of a large tranche of FBI communication obtained by CREW under the Freedom of Information Act, gives a never before seen look at the agency’s internal discussions leading up to the attack on the Capitol–and how it differed from the Secret Service’s conclusion that January 6th protests posed “no indication of civil disobedience.”
A January 3rd email between agents at the FBI’s Washington Field Office (WFO) said, “FYI, the 6th is beginning to get a lot of attention.” However, the agency appeared to grapple with the decision about whether to send January 6th intel to the agency’s partners ahead of the protests. In another email sent on the 3rd, an official wrote, “As you are both aware during the last event we were inundated with requests from both external partners and internal FBI entities asking to be included” on intel, and asking for protocol “seeing as [January 6] is gaining alot [sic] of attention from the USIC.” An email the next day instructed that the Washington Field Office would “not be releasing anything outside of WFO EM [Executive Management] regard[ing] January 6th.”
The FBI did not appear to have a clear playbook on how to handle sharing information with other agencies and struggled with the lack of a central process, even as some suspected the protests on the 6th would be dangerous and different from others. On January 2, 2021, the WFO’s Assistant Director in Charge wrote, “no one knows what is going to happen and that scares them so they want to know what the intel is and plan accordingly but that is tough because there really is no centralized role in this for Defense or the Federal government components. This sits squarely in MPD’s realm. I’m trying to tamp this down with the Deputy like I have the last couple of protests but this one may be different.”
Like the Secret Service, the FBI zeroed in on the Million MAGA March, but appeared to consider it a greater threat than the Secret Service did. While the Secret Service noted that the previous Million MAGA Marches drew “large groups of some minor reports of violent activity,” it repeatedly came to the conclusion that there was no threat of civil disobedience. The FBI, on the other hand, weighed the potential for violence in emails about the incoming protestors: “On 1/6 they’ll travel to DC for the Electoral College vote. Some of the members have made violent statements, though it’s unclear whether they intend to instigate violence in DC or simply be prepared to respond to violence in kind.”
The Secret Service received and circulated intel that it ultimately appeared to dismiss rather than act upon leading up to January 6th. The agency was aware of social media content indicating potential violence on the 6th, including those posted by far-right groups like the Proud Boys and neo-Nazis. It received a shooting threat against then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, witnessed threats against Mike Pence and Joe Biden, and held onto a threat against Nancy Pelosi until after the insurrection. The FBI later investigated the roles that groups like the Proud Boys played in January 6th, leading to the conviction of a number of prominent Proud Boys members.
These newly obtained records show the FBI was aware of what many members of the public could see for themselves: there was a real risk of violence on January 6th. The FBI’s awareness of that risk, however, failed to lead to a law enforcement response that was prepared to handle it.
Lauren White contributed to this report.