Thomas Webster’s Opening Electronic Communication: A Glimpse at How FBI Sees This Terror Attack, Not a Debunking of Christopher Wray

There’s an NBC story making the rounds — “FBI agent acknowledges in court filing that Trump backers discussed ‘revolution’ before Jan. 6” — which has been taken to suggest that an FBI Agent submitted a declaration contradicting FBI Director Christopher Wray’s claims to Congress that open source intelligence didn’t tip off the Bureau to the January 6 attack before it happened.

The FBI director and other senior officials have consistently downplayed the intelligence value of social media posts by Trump supporters prior to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, suggesting the bureau had no “actionable” warning that the Capitol would be targeted by a mob.

But according to a document entered into court records last week, an FBI agent acknowledged in a February investigative report that angry Trump supporters were talking openly in the days before the riot about bringing guns to the Capitol to start a “revolution.”

The rest of the article is correct. Wray (who doesn’t have firsthand knowledge) has repeatedly suggested that the FBI did not have Open Source intelligence that should have led it to predict the January 6 riot. Democrats have recently focused on why FBI didn’t respond more aggressively to repeated warnings of violence from Parler. The famous Norfolk memo was based on a post from TheDonald, which is where a great deal of more explicit operational planning for the riot took place. And in addition to the existing extremists whom FBI warned not to show up on January 6 (Wray has suggested this includes Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio), there were at least three other January 6 defendants — the most dangerous of whom is Guy Reffitt — on whom the FBI had open investigations before the insurrection (though in Reffitt’s case they may not have regarded the warning from his son as enough to fully predicate an investigation).

There are very good reasons to ask why the FBI missed the large numbers of threads branded as Donald Trump support sites planning insurrection in plain sight (though the question, phrased that way, might answer itself).

That said, I’d like to look at the document on which this story is based, because it is not well described in the story and it provides interesting insight into the larger January 6 investigation.

The document in question is the opening Electronic Communication for Thomas Webster, the former NYPD cop accused of assaulting an officer at the Capitol (Webster’s attorney, Jim Monroe, redacted his own phone numbers in the document but not any of the more sensitive information relating to his client before uploading it to the docket). This is a piece of internal FBI paperwork necessary to document why, when, and how the investigation into Webster was first opened. For comparison, here are the opening ECs for the Crossfire Hurricane investigation and the Crossfire Razor investigation focused on Mike Flynn.

The paragraph of interest (which NBC only quoted in part) shows up at the end of a long section of boilerplate and is almost certainly itself boilerplate.

Social media and video footage of the event show rioters making statements consistent with Anti-Authority/Anti-Government (AA/AG) Extremism. A review of open source and social media posts leading up to and during the event indicates that individuals participating on the “Stop the Steal,” rally were angered about the results of the 2020 presidential election and felt that Joseph Biden had unlawfully been declared ‘President-Elect. Users in multiple online groups and platforms discussed traveling to the Capitol armed or making plans to start a “revolution” on that day. Participants in the riot used violence, which resulted in injuries to multiple law enforcement officers and damage to the United States Capitol building, all with the intent to subvert the certification of the electoral election ballots and thereby disrupt the election of the President of the United States in furtherance of their AA/AG ideology.

I say this is boilerplate because everything up to this paragraph in the “Summary of Predication” section shows up in most of the arrest warrants used in this investigation (much of it shows up in search warrant affidavits, though those include an even more complete story of the riot, including pictures). The paragraph immediately after this one describes why the FBI is opening a full investigation into Thomas Webster — because his lawyer called the FBI and said Webster was the person identified in BOLO 145 depicting someone assaulting a cop and Webster wanted to turn himself in. This, then, is probably the last paragraph used as boilerplate, not any reflection of investigative work its author, FBI Agent Patricia Norden, has done herself.

There’s no reason to believe that Agent Norden is calling out her boss for being less than forthcoming (while she took the lead in Webster’s interview, she’s not the FBI-based Agent who wrote Webster’s arrest affidavit). Rather, this is almost certainly something the FBI as a whole uses to describe the investigation. The introductory sentence that NBC left out — describing the statements of those at the riot — makes it clearer that the discovery of the social media claims was retrospective, a historical review of the speech that led up to a violent speeches and acts discovered after those violent acts (largely assisted by the FBI’s seizure and search of the phones of most of the arrestees). It is utterly consistent with what Wray has said about the investigation. By all appearances, then, this is not a debunking of the Director, but rather a final paragraph the FBI uses internally to explain why it is treating the January 6 attack as Domestic Terrorism.

Several other parts of the EC provide some insight into the investigation (and may hint at why this particular paragraph isn’t included in the standard arrest warrant boilerplate). This investigation came in as a counterterrorism investigation. Webster’s alleged assault is not even mentioned among the suspect crimes. Civil disorder is mentioned and Trespass in the Capitol are mentioned, both of which Webster was charged with. Rioting is mentioned, with which no one has been charged. The restricted building trespass count charged against virtually all January 6 defendants (18 U.S.C. § 1752), tied to the presence of Secret Service protectees Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, is mentioned in the introduction to the EC but not the later list of suspected crimes. The classification code used for the investigation — 176 — ties to anti-riot law, which in turn cites 18 U.S.C §245, attempting to interfere with a federally protected activity like voting, which also hasn’t been charged (though these codes are infuriatingly non-specific). The whole package is labeled here under Domestic Terrorism. This is a story told in bureaucratic code describing that the terrorism on January 6 was meant to intimidate people.

In other words, while NBC is correct that this paragraph shows that the FBI as a whole (and not just Agent Norden) recognizes, in retrospect, that the insurrectionists planned revolution in plain sight, this paragraph and the related EC is as interesting as much for the snapshot it gives about what kind of terrorism the FBI believes this was. The FBI as a whole, while clearly acknowledging that this is being treated as a terrorism attack, has been loath to get into the details about what — besides some damage to the Capitol itself — makes it a terrorist attack. This presumed boilerplate paragraph describes that some of the planners of the terrorist attack planned to use violence and the riot to disrupt the election of the lawfully elected President of the United States.

There are a few more incidentally interesting details. Since his arrest, Webster has made much of the fact that he worked a detail for then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg. This EC reveals that FBI already knew that Webster served in a “uniformed security position at City Hall” even before Webster told them that in an interview three days later. NYPD delayed in its response to Webster’s subpoena for his own NYPD record and what has been released (which is not properly redacted so I won’t link to it) may not fully reflect that detail. But neither that detail nor the tie to the election makes Webster’s own investigative file a Sensitive Investigative Matter. Webster’s status as a former Marine decades ago, however, did trigger a DOD nexus out of concern that he might have access to DOD facilities.

We don’t normally get to see ECs from investigations, particularly not in mostly-unredacted form as Webster’s lawyer docketed it. This one is in no way a debunking of the FBI Director, but it is an interesting snapshot of how the FBI viewed this investigation four months ago.

Update: The site where everything was planned was The Donald Dot Win, not r/TheDonald.

Update: I should add one more detail. The FBI Agent uses Webster’s participation in the insurrection to recommend him for watchlisting. Contra claims by insurrectionists themselves, that’s different than the No Fly list (and there’s no evidence anyone has been put on the No Fly list). And while it’s not clear what became of this recommendation, it suggests similar watchlisting may have been used against other subjects of Full Investigations associated with the attack.

31 replies
  1. Silly but True says:

    At least some line agents and likely higher up into hierarchy were holding position that threats of violence were violence; i.e. the violent threats to achieve a political outcome were therefore considered terrorism?

    • emptywheel says:

      This case was tagged as a CT case, and the FBI Director has said it was a terrorist attack. So that’s the entire chain of command.

      • Cate E. says:

        Hi Marcy-
        I saw a tweet of yours saying something to the effect that your followers who believe Biden should fire Chris Wray -are nuts …or something like that.
        I value your insight- but I’m really struggling to think Wray is anything more than another Republican Fixer for corrupt GOP power players..

        His involvement in subpoenaing Apple for meta data on Dems in Congress & their families, his handing over of docs for Repubs in Congress for purely Political motives while stonewalling legitimate subpoenas by Dems…His refusal to do anything serious about the 2016 Giuliani & the NY FBI, etc etc… the list is long.
        Why do you have so much confidence in Christopher Wray? What am I missing?

        • bmaz says:

          Oh, do you now?

          Have you actually read the content on this blog about how things collected can be incidental? No? Not going to say that Chris Wray is the best ever, but your comment is bullshit. And politicizing the FBI directorship with every new administration is a gross idea that only Trump loved.

          By the way, please use a consistent screen name so people know who they are dealing with. You have not done that.

          • Cate E. says:

            Wow. Why so much hostility? My question was sincere,- and I come to Marcy to learn.

            I wholeheartedly agree politicizing the FBI is gross-I’m not sure how we can trust someone who was appointed by Trump- since everything Trump did was transactional- what makes you think Wray isn’t part of that – just not as overtly grotesque like Bill Barr?

            And sorry I’ve used Cate E, my 1st name & middle initial here Everytime.

            Seriously why the hostility toward me for asking questions plenty of Americans have?

            [24-JUN-2021 11:40 am ET — As bmaz noted earlier, you’ve used multiple usernames since your first apparent comment in October 2019: Cat, Kate Ellington, Cate E., Cate Ellington, and Cate, for a total of 10 comments. Pick one username and stick with it so community members get to know you. Using multiple usernames is considered sock puppeting. /~Rayne]

            • bmaz says:

              No hostility intended. But you suggested, via proverbial questions, politicizing the FBI Director position. Which is exactly what Trump did. Post Hoover, the position was expressly designed and codified to be a single ten year term to avoid exactly what you contemplate.

              Section 203 of the Crime Control Act of 1976 restricts the FBI director to a single ten-year term. It was a huge deal when Mueller was slightly held over (approved by the Senate). It was an even bigger deal when Trump blithely blew through that to remove Comey quite early in his tenure. So, the suggestion that Biden should now do the same, based upon the faulty premises you described, was a little jarring. Wray was Senate confirmed and, while not perfect, seems to be doing his job.

              And, no, you have not been consistent in your appearances here. You have variously used Cat, Kate Ellington, Cate E, Cate Ellington, Cate and back to Cate E. There are not a ton of rules here, but screen name consistency is one of them.

        • harpie says:

          Your question is precariously premised on your vague description of your memory of an impression of “something to the effect”, and “or something like that.”

          If the discussion is based on a tweet,
          let’s begin with the actual words of that tweet.

  2. harpie says:

    Thanks for looking more closely at this document, and reproducing that paragraph here.
    Your argument is very compelling, that this paragraph is

    almost certainly – -boilerplate […] a final paragraph the FBI uses internally to explain why it is treating the January 6 attack as Domestic Terrorism.

    That’s really enlightening! It’s unfortunate that NBC focused on something else.

  3. Rugger9 says:

    I do find it interesting how the FBI was able to tell certain “usual suspects” like Tarrio to stay away without having any knowledge of what was being planned. I find it dubious at best that both statements could be true. It’s something that have vexed many of us here for a while about the willful blindness of the FBI (and others) to acknowledge that the RW militias aren’t allies or law abiding.

    Even accounting for interference by Individual-1 and his minions, there was already lots of sympathizers in the LEO ranks (it’s one of the groups targeted for recruitment by Oath Keepers, for example) for the insurrectionists to work with. Unless all of them are extirpated out of the FBI we will have to go through this again when DeSantis makes his move. It’s harder to bust friends and former colleagues.

    • subtropolis says:

      I believe that it was a Metro PD that arrested Tarrio, but would love to know whether anyone from FBI had anything to do with getting him safe. It is really suspicious. That he may have been an active informant doesn’t justify it, imho. Was he that valuable wrt investigation of the PBs? If that was the thinking, it would seem that he pulled a fast one.

      • Rugger9 says:

        I think he might be an informant, but not of the PBs that the FBI considered an ally (or at least gave every indication they did so). I think that the purpose of the militias was to act like a private army to pin stuff on Antifa like the SA did to the Communists in 1930’s Germany.

        Why anyone would think that the RW militias would have been able to infiltrate BLM groups or as Antifa shows a lack of understanding about the situation. It’s like someone from the Yakuza infiltrating the Japanese imperial family, there are signs everywhere that the militiamen wouldn’t fit in. Only RWNJs would think that plan would work, but from DJT on down there were many of these in the DOJ.

        I’m sure you’re right that Tarrio promised some goods, though, but on Antifa and BLM.

      • Leoghann says:

        Tarrio was under court order to stay out of the District, except for court. My impression from other reading is that the warning from the FBI not to show up was more of a “don’t even think of it” warning. Those Bois already had a reputation of flouting court orders.

      • Cate says:

        I’ve also been extremely uncomfortable about Tarrio getting the heads up about this-Framed as if this was the FBI taking a hard line against Tarrio-instead of a comradely & friendly heads up to stay away.

    • greengiant says:

      If I recall correctly, the terms of Tarrio’s release was that he stay out of DC except to attend court.
      The seeds for doubt in FBI role were planted with the story that Tarrio told associates he would probably be arrested, maybe was there a warrant out for him which when exercised turned up the magazines on Monday.
      I took Tarrio’s arrival with magazine as a clear threat and commented here late Jan 4th that Congress should impeach. Guess I am not that political savy.

    • bg says:

      During “unrest” in Albuquerque related to George Floyd and local settler/colonial issues, APD referred to armed RW militias as “armed friendlies,” and treated them as same. A local activist was shot several times by an “armed friendly” not associated (supposedly) with the militia. The police were off-site nearby, the “armed friendlies” surrounded the shooter. It was horrific. No trial yet for the shooter (son of an LEO), one year later.

      • bmaz says:

        Albuquerque is a lovely place. Except for the APD, who have been the baddies for a very long time. So, this is not really surprising I guess.

  4. John Paul Jones says:

    The phrase – “The FBI has a whole”. Should this be – “The FBI as a whole”? There is a “has” later in the sentence doing the verb heavy lifting.

    As to watch-lists, do they identify which one?

  5. Savage Librarian says:

    Is it hot or is it code? So much of our lives are wrapped up in code (eg. alphabets, area, binary, body language, building, computer, conduct, DNA, emojis, fingerprints, fire, genetic, health, honor, mob, Morse, nuclear, numbers, omertà, print, safe, tribal, tweets, wink & nudge, zip, etc.)

    I especially appreciate how succinctly you said this:

    “This is a story told in bureaucratic code describing that the terrorism on January 6 was meant to intimidate people.”

    “In other words, while NBC is correct that this paragraph shows that the FBI as a whole (and not just Agent Norden) recognizes, in retrospect, that the insurrectionists planned revolution in plain sight, this paragraph and the related EC is as interesting as much for the snapshot it gives about what kind of terrorism the FBI believes this was.”

  6. Silly but True says:

    It seems as if the Capitol Police internal investigation(s) have reached no conclusions yet beyond suspension of six; at least one apparently for wearing MAGA hat on duty and one for apparently participating in or chaperoning trespassers.

    Seemingly unrelated to Jan. 6, but also seemingly on point for his other 35 officers is a Capitol Police officer suspended for publicly posting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion at a Capitol security checkpoint in March.

    • Leoghann says:

      The black USCP officer who was photographed wearing a MAGA hat said at the time that he had donned it in desperation to cajole the crowd that was threatening him and apparently assaulting another officer. Within a few days, there were corroborating statements from a couple of his fellow officers. I believe that, if he has not been exonerated, it’s a louder testimony to the bureaucratic and organizational hot mess that the department is in, rather than his guilt.

  7. subtropolis says:

    Ken Dilanian: “Critics call that answer an obfuscation.” No, that’s you, buddy. What a stupid take! Ken’s going to be real surprised — and not a little bit suspicious — when I send him detailed information about the movement of Yamamoto’s fleet just before it attacked Pearl Harbor. (It could be the scoop of his career!)

    A little typo: loath, not loathe. “I loathe simple-minded journalism.” “Many journalists are loath to play it straight because controversy sells soap. Also, though, some of them are just thick.”

      • Rugger9 says:

        Words do mean things and this is an example about the “joys” of English. However, to bmaz’s point, this is a blog, not a treaty negotiation.

  8. Rugger9 says:

    OT: there is a report from Reuters that AG Garland is going to defend DJT from Swalwell’s suit about the January 6 insurrection. IIRC the legal opinion here was that particular this suit was pointless, but Garland’s grounds about defending the office of the Presidency was disconcerting given that the campaign had more or less acknowledged that strategy wasn’t going to work.

    I’d call this an unforced error like Senator Sinema’s op-ed.

Comments are closed.