Sen. Mike Lee suggested Tuesday that the FBI might be inappropriately interviewing people who were in Washington on Jan. 6 but didn’t enter the U.S. Capitol or participate in the violence.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, the Utah Republican said he’s heard a number of accounts of people who were in the city that day but didn’t go near the Capitol who were “inexplicably” contacted by FBI agents who apparently were aware of their presence.
“I’m anxious to see those who committed unlawful, violent acts on Jan. 6 brought to justice,” Lee told FBI Director Christopher Wray. “I also believe that with this circumstance, like every other circumstance, we have to make sure that civil liberties of the American people are protected, that we watch over them.”
Wray appeared before the committee to answer questions about the Capitol insurrection, domestic terrorism and other threats.
In his opening statement, Wray said the FBI has received more than 270,000 digital media tips during its investigation of the incursion, including cases in which people have turned in their friends or family members. To date, the agency has arrested 270 people and opened investigations in all but one of its 56 field offices, he said.
One Utahn, John Sullivan, faces federal charges for his participation in the riot. Sullivan, who founded an organization called Insurgence USA, has said he was only there to document the event. Prosecutors contend Sullivan was not a bystander but a “brazen, vocal” participant in the riot.
A violent mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 as members of Congress counted electoral votes for president. Many had just attended a rally where former President Donald Trump urged his supporters to stop the certification of the vote. Five people died in the mayhem.
Wray testified that those arrested come from a variety of backgrounds, including violent militia extremists and white supremacists. The FBI has not found evidence of fake Trump supporters or antifa being involved in the attack, he said.
Lee questioned Wray about the means the FBI is using to find people who were in Washington but not part of the violence. He also pressed Wray on his thoughts about proposals to reform federal surveillance laws.
“Are you geolocating people through the FBI based on where they were on Jan. 6?” Lee asked.
Wray said there might instances where agents are using geolocation as an investigative tool but couldn’t speak to any specifics.
Lee asked whether the FBI is accessing cellphone tower metadata from cellphone companies and whether agents are obtaining search warrants.
“Are there instances in which you were interviewing people based solely on information derived from telecommunications providers providing geolocation information indicating that they were on or near the National Mall on Jan. 6?” the senator asked.
Wray said because the massive nationwide investigation involves thousands and thousands of interviews, it’s hard to say what led to an interview. He said the FBI has obtained a number of warrants during the investigation.
“All of our investigative work in response to the Capitol has been under the legal authorities that we have in consultation with the department and the prosecutors,” Wray said.
Lee said over the years he has raised questions about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the collection of metadata from communications companies. Regardless of the FBI director or presidential administration under different parties, the answers have been the same, he said.
“The most consistent theme in those answers has been, ‘Just trust us. Don’t worry. We’ve got good people, smart people, law-abiding people who are running this and we’ve procedural safeguards that are in place to prevent the type of abuse that you’re concerned about,’” Lee said.
Lee continues to push for reforms to federal surveillance laws, including requiring probable cause warrants to obtain internet search histories, browsing histories and geolocation information.
Wray said he is willing to provide Lee with an assessment of how those changes would impact the FBI.
Lee said he’s been assured many times that the agency would work with him.
“‘We will work with you’ has translated into opposition from inside the FBI every single time we try to bring about one of those reforms. Every time. As sure as the sun will come in the east tomorrow, we’ve been told by the FBI, ‘You can’t do that. Don’t worry we’ve got it with our own internal controls,’” Lee said.
“I hope you’ll be sympathetic to me this time around, recognizing that I’ve been told that over and over and over again, and we’re not going to accept that answer any more.”