The House Homeland Security Committee’s annual hearing on “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland” had a domestic focus Thursday, with member questions to FBI Director Christopher Wray directed at the security of the November election and the U.S.-based groups associated with riots and other violence that began this year.
Lawmakers anchored much of the three-hour discussion on topics such as Antifa, QAnon and Boogaloos, which have become major social issues in the presidential race. Protests and counter-protests over the last several months have been blamed for clashes in the streets that have led to multiple deaths, destroyed buildings and instances of violence against law enforcement.
Wray repeatedly said that there is no mechanism under U.S. law for the FBI to label domestic organizations as terrorist groups, and he said the FBI is focused on the violence any group might do, not their ideology.
“One of the concerns we have amidst all the current unrest is a growing trend of, protest begets counter protests, begets violence against one side against the other,” Wray told the committee. “So there’s sort of this increasing phenomenon of individuals attacking each other in addition to attacking law enforcement, and that’s not good for anybody.”
When Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., asked whether it was right-wing or left-wing extremists who posed a greater danger, Wray said it was “not one ideology, but rather lone actors, largely self-radicalized online who pursue soft targets using readily available weapons.”
Wray said the FBI views QAnon, a far-right conspiracy group asserting that there is a secret battle against so-called deep state actors engaged in a global child sex trafficking ring, “as less of an organization and more of a complex set of conspiracy theories.”
The FBI reportedly has dubbed QAnon, which Trump has praised and several Republican congressional candidates had voiced support for, a domestic terrorism threat.
Wray said the FBI sees the left-wing anti-fascist movement known as Antifa “as more of an ideology or a movement than an organization,” though some domestic terrorism investigations target those who self-identify with the Antifa movement.
And he said the FBI has seen individuals who identified with the Antifa movement “coalescing regionally into what you might describe as small groups or nodes. And we are actively investigating the potential violence from those regional nodes, if you will.”
Some Republican lawmakers have called for investigations into Antifa and its funding in connection to arsons and riots that were spurred during demonstrations that started in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. The FBI has not identified Black Lives Matter “in any way,” Wray said.
Boogaloos is considered a right-leaning, anti-government movement that started online and reportedly has connections to white supremacy and advocating for a second civil war. Wray said Boogaloos, like Antifa, is more of a movement or an ideology than a group itself.
Self-identifying members of Boogaloos have been charged in connection with the shooting death of a federal agent in California, as well as providing support from Minnesota to Hamas, a militant Islamic Palestinian nationalist movement, lawmakers and Wray said.
“I think one of the things that a lot of people don’t understand about people who subscribe to this sort of Boogaloo thinking is that their main focus is just dismantling, tearing down government, and they’re less clear on what it is they think they’re going to replace government with,” Wray said. “I’m not even sure they would all agree with each other.”
Foreign adversaries including China and Russia have tried to “sort of piggyback on a lot of the unrest activity that has been occurring,” Wray said.
Wray said he expressed concerns about misinformation on social media about the infectiousness of the coronavirus or about treatments, cures or vaccines, but that the FBI isn’t the “truth police.”
“Especially on something like medical issues we defer to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the medical professionals to correct misinformation there,” Wray said. “But it’s important that people get their info in this context from medical professionals and not social media.”
Wray told lawmakers that the FBI hasn’t seen Russia target election infrastructure this election cycle as it did in 2016. But Russia has been “very active” on social media and online, primarily to denigrate Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
And Wray said his biggest concern related to election security in November is “the steady drumbeat of misinformation and sort of amplification of smaller cyber intrusions” that could contribute over time to a lack of confidence by American voters in the validity of their vote.
“I think that would be a perception, not a reality. I think Americans can and should have confidence in our election system and certainly in our democracy,” Wray said. “But I worry that people will take on a feeling of futility because of all of the noise and confusion that’s generated, and that’s a very hard problem to combat.”