Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin for the District of Columbia speaks at a press conference on Tuesday, January 12.
US Attorney: Looking at sedition and conspiracy cases
03:02 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Asha Rangappa is a senior lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. She is a former FBI special agent, specializing in counterintelligence investigations. Follow her @AshaRangappa_. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Six days after the siege on the US Capitol, officials from the FBI and Department of Justice held a news conference Tuesday to give an update.

Asha Rangappa

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.

So against these standards, how did Tuesday’s news conference measure up?

Not so well.

Goal #1: Inform and reassure the public

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.

This contradicted his earlier claim to reporters, 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.

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    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.