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Sen. Coons Has Questions For FBI's Wray About White Supremacist Threat

NOEL KING, HOST:

FBI director Christopher Wray will testify before Congress today about the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Capitol Police were overrun that day by a bigger and more violent crowd than they expected. That raises questions about how well U.S. agencies were tracking domestic extremists. Now, Wray will answer to a committee chaired by Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois.

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DICK DURBIN: What did he know, and when did he know it, and who did he tell? I mean, those are questions which have been raised in other hearings, but he is the man of the hour.

KING: Another person who will ask questions today - Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware. He's on the line with me now. Good morning to you, sir.

CHRIS COONS: Good morning, Noel. Great to be on with you.

KING: When you look back at the riot and the days that led up to it, what do you want to know from Mr. Wray?

COONS: Well, Noel, this is the first time that FBI Director Chris Wray will testify to Congress after the January 6 riots, and I want to know whether the FBI was focusing on white supremacists. The Department of Homeland Security has called white supremacists the most persistent and lethal threat to our nation, and there's public reporting that suggests that under the previous administration, the FBI was directed to shift their resources to looking at left-wing activists and advocates, folks active in antifa or even the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than focusing on white supremacist groups that were known threats.

So I'll be asking, what groups were involved in this Capitol attack, to what extent was it organized through social media, and what resources the FBI needs to confront this threat moving forward, and are they properly focused on white supremacist as a threat to our security?

KING: Let me follow up on that. Our reporter Claudia Grisales reminded us this morning that in a House hearing late last year, Wray defended the FBI's approach to domestic terrorism by stressing that the FBI investigates violence; it does not investigate ideology. Does that need to change?

COONS: Well, if they are investigating violence without any attention to the underlying causes, to the things that motivate and lead to violence, they may not be looking at this with a wide-enough aperture. I'm concerned that as Congress wrestles with what happened on January 6, we're not working from the same set of facts.

There is a persistent and broad effort - we saw some of this at CPAC this past weekend - to characterize the riot of January 6 as something that was caused by the progressive left, rather than what has been demonstrated through courtroom testimony, through videos, through widespread public documentation that this was an attempt to overturn the election by a group of Trump supporters who were largely motivated to do that by direct calls by President Trump for an attempt to overturn the election, which turned into a violent assault on the Capitol and the members of Congress.

KING: Let's talk about what happened that day or what we have heard happened. Last week, the former Capitol Police chief, Steven Sund, testified. He was asked about an intelligence bulletin that the FBI issued the day before the attack. Now, it detailed calls for violence. Sund said he didn't see that FBI bulletin until many days after the insurrection. Does that raise for you the question of whether we need to change or improve the way intelligence is moving between agencies?

COONS: Yes, that was the conclusion I drew, was that there were real challenges in terms of how effectively the leadership was preparing to protect the Capitol. Look - I'll remind you, Noel, the Capitol building of the United States is a symbol of democracy, not just here but around the world. And the videos of this violent assault on our Capitol, our secular shrine to democracy - we're seeing throughout the United States and throughout the world, it caused real harm to us. There were also people killed in this assault. The Capitol Police are charged with keeping us and our buildings safe and demonstrably failed to do so.

So Senator Klobuchar has been leading a great series of investigatory meetings and now a public hearing into this. And I think that's the corollary to the work we're doing on judiciary today. Today, we're looking through the FBI at how federal law enforcement was examining white supremacists and potentially dangerous groups. The Rules Committee, led by Senator Klobuchar, is looking into the Capitol Police and what happened inside the Capitol complex.

KING: Director Wray has said in the past that the biggest threat is from, quote, "lone actors" who have been radicalized online. And that is a fair point. One person with a weapon can do a lot of damage. Do you have questions for Wray about how the FBI responds to this threat beyond a catastrophe like the one that occurred on the 6 - the everyday threat, you might call it?

COONS: That is one of the areas that members of the committee will ask him about today. I'm also the new chairman of a subcommittee on privacy and technology, and I intend to use that subcommittee to look at social media and the ways in which the whole business model of social media outlets, like Facebook, is to hold people's attention to, frankly, make money off of eyeballs, by having algorithms that accelerate and accentuate the focus on extremism, on outrage. There are ways in which social media is driving us farther apart and radicalizing people online, and that's the sort of thing I will both be asking FBI Director Wray about today and those who are responsible for and lead platforms like Twitter and Facebook in the months ahead.

KING: The acting Capitol police chief has testified, saying last week that militia groups want to blow up the Capitol - or they have talked about this among themselves - blowing up the Capitol around the time of President Biden's State of the Union address. Talk to me about how much this worries you and what you want to know from FBI Director Wray about how the bureau will respond to that threat.

COONS: Well, law enforcement protecting a particular target or group often requires coordination between federal resources and what are typically state and local resources. So I want to know both what is the FBI - which has a nationwide network and a lot of resources - doing to stay on top of these developments, these threats that are being seen or heard, and communicating directly to the leaders of Congress and to the leaders of the Capitol Police to make sure that we are safe, and what are they doing to coordinate with the Secret Service to make sure our president is safe?

That's why we still have thousands of National Guardsmen here, a large fence barrier here, because there are continuing credible threats to attack the Congress and the members who serve there and the staff who work there.

KING: Continuing credible threats. Let me ask you, lastly - you are close to President Biden. Can you shed any light on what kind of relationship he has with FBI Director Wray?

COONS: I don't know what their relationship is, but I know this - that President Biden is determined that the Department of Justice and the FBI should operate independent of any political interference or direction from the White House.

KING: Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware. Thank you so much for taking the time this morning. We appreciate it.

COONS: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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