WASHINGTON — A bomb threat by someone claiming to have been arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. A video game player threatening in Minecraft to bomb a federal building. Online calls to execute members of Congress. These are just some of the potential threats the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other agencies were tracking — and sharing with police nationwide — related to the anniversary of the insurrection.
"We are operating at a heightened level of vigilance because we are at a heightened level of threat,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters during a roundtable on Tuesday.
“The threat of domestic violent extremists is a very grave one.”
Donald Trump’s DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis was skewered for its failures to warn partner agencies of the potential threats of violence posted on social media in the run-up to the attack on the Capitol last year. (The head of the office previously told Congress it didn’t have any intelligence on the violence that took place. According to documents obtained by Yahoo News, for example, the day before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, the office shared an intelligence product with state, local and federal partners titled “Mozambique: Call for Counterterrorism Support Offers Engagement Opportunities.” Days before, it issued a report on potential trade opportunities with China regarding potatoes.)
Under the Biden administration, the office now appears to be moving in the other direction, and is sharing potential threats — in some cases immediately — with federal, state and local partners. This sharing of information and apparent interagency coordination also seems to reflect the White House’s new domestic extremism strategy.
John Cohen, the acting head of the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, alerted federal, state and local law enforcement and others to a series of potential threats and online activity tied to the anniversary, according to a Jan. 6 email obtained by Yahoo News. He said the DHS and the FBI observed an uptick in online activity on extremist-related platforms.
“While we still have no indication of a specific and credible plot, the DHS and the FBI have identified new content online that could inspire violence, particularly by lone offenders, and could be directed against political and other government officials, including members of Congress, state and local officials, and high-profile members of political parties, including locations outside of the National Capital Region,” Cohen wrote state, local, federal and tribal partners.
The email provided examples, including a video hosted on a forum known for QAnon content that called for lawmakers to be hanged in front of the White House, and an online post that referenced Jan. 6 as a day to conduct assassinations against Democratic political figures, including President Biden.
“We are making you aware of this information because we recognize the potential threat of violence could extend beyond the [Washington, D.C., area],” Cohen wrote.
On Friday, the DHS sent agency leadership and others a summary following up on some of the potential threats it was monitoring. A bomb threat was called in by someone who identified themselves as a participant in the attack on the Capitol, which resulted in a lockdown and sweep, but nothing was found.
The updated situation report sent out Friday morning also noted that Chinese and Iranian state media used the anniversary to attack the United States. There was, however, “no amplification of calls for violence, conspiracy theories, or allegations of election fraud across the board.”
The Jan. 7 situation report also noted that authorities followed up on a tip about about an individual threatening to “bomb a federal building (in Minecraft).” The DHS investigated the video game activity and determined it was a publicity stunt.
Some experts on domestic extremism, however, say this firehouse of potential, uncorroborated online activity may be more harmful in the long run than helpful for those on the receiving end.
Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said law enforcement agencies inundated with potential threats may not know what to focus on and could become dull to real, credible threats when they do emerge.
“What they need to do is focus — focus where there is evidence of criminality and not just a hypothetical possibility,” German told Yahoo News.
“We could be invaded by space aliens, but that’s not necessarily helpful,” he continued, “because law enforcement biased against space aliens could use that to take action that diverts resources away from real threats.”