WASHINGTON — The FBI is investigating whether foreign governments, organizations or individuals provided financial support to extremists who helped plan and execute the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, one current and one former FBI official told NBC News.
As part of the investigation, the bureau is examining payments of $500,000 in bitcoin, apparently by a French national, to key figures and groups in the alt-right before the riot, the sources said. Those payments were documented and posted on the web this week by a company that analyzes cryptocurrency transfers. Payments of bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, can be traced because they are documented on a public ledger.
Separately, a joint threat assessment issued this week by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and various other federal and D.C.-area police agencies noted that since the Jan. 6 riot, “Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence actors have seized the opportunity to amplify narratives in furtherance of their policy interest amid the presidential transition.”
Russian state and proxy media outlets “have amplified themes related to the violent and chaotic nature of the Capitol Hill incident, impeachment of President Trump, and social media censorship,” the unclassified intelligence report said. “In at least one instance, a Russian proxy claimed that ANTIFA members disguised themselves as supporters of President Trump, and were responsible for storming the Capitol building.”
Chinese media, meanwhile, “have seized the story to denigrate U.S. democratic governance, casting the United States as broadly in decline — and to justify China’s crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong.”
The examination of possible foreign influence related to the Capitol riot, which involves the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, comes after years of what current and former FBI officials say is mounting evidence that Russia and other foreign adversaries have sought to secretly support political extremists on the far right and far left.
Law enforcement officials and terrorism experts say there has long been “a mutual affection between Western white supremacists and the Russian government,” as two scholars put it in a February paper on the JustSecurity web site.
Some senators were concerned enough about the issue that they inserted a requirement in the 2021 defense bill that the Pentagon “report to Congress on the extent of Russian support for ‘racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist groups and networks in Europe and the United States’ — and what can be done to counter it.”
The current FBI official told NBC News that the bureau did not necessarily suspect Russian involvement in the bitcoin transfers, which appear to have been made by a French computer programmer who died by suicide on Dec. 8 after triggering the transfers, according to French media.
But the cryptocurrency payments prompted the FBI to examine whether any of the money was used to find illegal acts, which, if true, raises the possibility of money laundering and conspiracy charges, the FBI official said.
On Dec. 8, Chainalysis reported, the donor sent 28.15 BTC — worth about $522,000 at the time of transfer — to 22 separate addresses, many of which belong to far-right activists.
The Chainalysis blog post, first highlighted by Yahoo News, said far-right podcaster Nick Fuentes received the most money, 13.5 BTC — worth approximately $250,000.
Fuentes, who spoke at pro-Trump rallies last year in Michigan and Washington, D.C., told the ProPublica news organization that he was at the “Stop the Steal” rally on Wednesday but didn’t follow the mob into the Capitol.
One group of Fuentes’ supporters, which calls itself the Groyper Army, was filmed running through the Capitol carrying a large blue flag with the America First logo, ProPublica reported.
“We’re looking at and treating this just like a significant international counterterrorism or counterintelligence operation,” Michael Sherwin, the U.S. attorney in D.C., said at a news briefing last week.
“We’re looking at everything: Money, travel records, looking at disposition, movement, communication records.”
Ken Dilanian is a correspondent covering intelligence and national security for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Normally after a major event like this — a terrorist assault on the heart of our government — top federal law enforcement officials would step up to give the most comprehensive account of what they know. They would move quickly to inform and reassure the public — to tell us who did what, how it happened, and what the threat is now.
Not so well.
Perhaps the most notable part of the update was who wasn’t giving it. The top officials from Justice and the FBI — Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Director Christopher Wray — weren’t there. Nor were other senior officials from relevant agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, we saw the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington office, Steve D’Antuono, and the acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia, Michael Sherwin.
While these two officials are no doubt the ones most closely monitoring the investigations into the insurrection, the absence of their bosses — or even their deputies — was unexpected, given the magnitude of the attack.
The news conference focused almost exclusively on the investigation into the attack — on the crime-solving. It is, of course, the Justice Department’s job to gather evidence, track down suspects and bring perpetrators to justice.
We learned from D’Antuono that the FBI was treating the Capitol attack the same way it would an international terrorist incident, and that it had opened 170 “subject files” (referring to individuals identified as persons who potentially committed crimes), and of those has charged more than 70 individuals.
Sherwin emphasized that each perpetrator will be charged with the most severe crime warranted, including and up to seditious conspiracy.
But both officials appeared to skirt around explaining what federal law enforcement knew and did before that day’s Trump rally and the attack that followed it, in particular how the feds had coordinated with other agencies to prepare for trouble.
Nor did they mention the threat bulletin now issued to all 50 states warning of armed protests planned at every state’s capitol and in Washington in the days leading up to the inauguration on January 20.
Goal #2: Stop misinformation and conspiracy theories by offering facts
Many Americans are wondering how this attack was allowed to happen. Since 9/11, law enforcement has greatly increased its abilities to sniff out and disrupt developing terrorism plots. The FBI most recently thwarted an apparent plan by militia groups to kidnap and kill the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, in October.
It is hard to understand how — particularly in light of the many threats of violence made openly by pro-Trump groups and individuals on social media — the FBI and its law enforcement partners were not better prepared for what took place.
Unfortunately, neither D’Antuono nor Sherwin offered much in the way of explanation. To be sure, law enforcement is often unable to comment on things that might compromise ongoing investigations. But if that is the case, they normally just say that. On Tuesday, however, D’Antuono puzzlingly acknowledged that the FBI had information from its Norfolk field office indicating plans for violence at the Capitol.
, Friday, that the FBI did not have any such information in its possession at all before the attack. Nor did he explain why the Norfolk tip was not followed up on after the Joint Terrorism Task Force received it.
By not filling in these gaps, or even stating clearly that the FBI was reviewing all of the intelligence that was known beforehand, the officials invited more speculation about whether the government’s flat-footed response to the Capitol assault was caused by negligence or — far worse — an intentional intelligence failure.
They missed an opportunity to be as robust as possible in laying out how law enforcement approached this highly publicized rally, and potentially contributed to a further erosion of trust in law enforcement and the proliferation of unfounded conspiracy theories.
Goal #3: Deter future violence by sending a strong message
Many members of the Capitol mob were undoubtedly watching the news conference to find out what the FBI knew. On this front, both officials sent a clear message that they would use every resource at their disposal to identify and prosecute everyone who attacked the seat of our democracy.
Make no mistake: The people who planned and participated in this atrocity will get a knock on their doors from the FBI soon enough.
But the domestic terror threat is not limited to that one mob. The very fact that the FBI has issued a threat bulletin to all 50 states reveals that the depraved ideology based on the lie about the “rigged” election spreads far and deep.
But neither D’Antuono nor Sherwin addressed this future threat, issued a warning to anyone planning violence, or even referred to the people involved in this violence as domestic terrorists.
This may be because they have seen how the President reacts when such language is used against his defenders and allies. After all, neither the FBI nor the DOJ can afford, in this critical moment, to lose their leadership because Trump decided to fire them. Unfortunately, if that fear is what resulted in the gaps in Tuesday’s remarks, it may embolden the very people they are protecting us against.
Yet Ryan, 50, is accused of rushing into the Capitol past broken glass and blaring security alarms and, according to federal prosecutors, shouting: “Fight for freedom! Fight for freedom!”
But in a different way, she fit right in.
Despite her outward signs of success, Ryan had struggled financially for years. She was still paying off a $37,000 lien for unpaid federal taxes when she was arrested. She’d nearly lost her home to foreclosure before that. She filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and faced another IRS tax lien in 2010.
Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.
The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.
The financial problems are revealing because they offer potential clues for understanding why so many Trump supporters — many with professional careers and few with violent criminal histories — were willing to participate in an attack egged on by the president’s rhetoric painting him and his supporters as undeserving victims.
While no single factor explains why someone decided to join in, experts say, Donald Trump and his brand of grievance politics tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.
“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”
The financial missteps by defendants in the insurrection ranged from small debts of a few thousand dollars more than a decade ago to unpaid tax bills of $400,000 and homes facing foreclosure in recent years. Some of these people seemed to have regained their financial footing. But many of them once stood close to the edge.
Ryan had nearly lost everything. And the stakes seemed similarly high to her when she came to Washington in early January. She fully believed Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen and that he was going to save the country, she said in an interview with The Post.
But now — facing federal charges and ab
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