Christopher Wray is only the eighth director to lead the FBI — and the only one whose appointment was announced on Twitter.
For the past 3 1/2 years, he has been grinding through fierce criticism by former President Donald Trump. He's also guided the bureau through some wounds the FBI inflicted upon itself, including employees' text messages about political candidates in 2016, the guilty plea by an FBI lawyer for altering a document, and a watchdog report that uncovered surveillance applications filled with big mistakes.
Now the laconic Wray, 54, is opening up, ever so slightly, to address what he calls a metastasizing threat of violent domestic extremists and the sprawling investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
He spoke with NPR on Thursday afternoon about the state of the bureau and how the FBI is confronting white supremacist and militia-based terrorism. He also addressed the ongoing investigation into the recent shootings in the Atlanta area.
Atlanta-area mass shooting
So obviously, it's a heartbreaking incident, and it hits particularly close to home for me since I consider Atlanta home. And so I certainly grieve for the victims and their families. The FBI is supporting state and local law enforcement, specifically APD, the Atlanta Police Department, and the [Cherokee County] Sheriff's Office. So we're actively involved but in a support role.
And while the motive remains still under investigation at the moment, it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated. But I really would defer to the state and local investigation on that for now.
Threats from domestic terrorists
I elevated racially motivated violent extremism to our top threat priority level about a year and a half ago or so. And I've been trying to call out this threat for a number of years now since I've been in this job.
We have doubled the number of domestic violent extremist investigations we've had since where they were when I started as director, and we were up to about 2,000. And that was before the Jan. 6 siege. So I expect the numbers to be even higher this year. And arrests likewise went up dramatically from 2019 to '20.
And so at the same time, the international terrorism threat — especially international terrorist organizations that inspire homegrown violent extremists here in the U.S. — hasn't gone away by any stretch of the imagination. So we clearly are making do right now with what we have. But we need and will need more resources to tackle that problem.
The sprawling investigation into Jan. 6
You know, I was appalled that something like that could happen in this country and determined to make sure that it doesn't happen ever again. ...
We intend to see this to its conclusion, no matter how many people it takes us to devote to it, no matter how long it takes us to do it, we're going to see it to the end. ... If we have the evidence to charge somebody and they committed a crime on that day, I expect them to be charged. ...
We've arrested people all over the country. I think we have ... open investigations specifically related to the Jan. 6 siege in all but one of our 56 field offices, which gives you a sense of the national sprawl of the investigation. And in some of those instances, there have already been conspiracy charges — small, I would call them — sort of small cells of individuals working together, coordinating their travel, etc. I don't think we've seen some national conspiracy, but we're going to keep digging.
Whether the FBI dropped the ball before Jan. 6
Now, in the case of Jan. 6, specifically, as you said, we had tasked all of our field offices to be on the lookout for information related to any threat to the Capitol and to the National Capital Region on Jan. 6. And to feed that information back. We passed on the information that we did have, as best I can tell, in quite a number of ways. And we had been reporting and warning for a good chunk of 2020, together with the Department of Homeland Security and in a number of instances about the domestic violent extremist threat, about the possibility that the domestic violence extremist threat would carry into the election and beyond the election. ...
Now, what we did not have, as far as I can tell ... is any indication that hundreds and hundreds of people were going to breach the U.S. Capitol. And so we'll be looking hard to figure out, is there more we can be doing? How can we do more, even better?
Whether the law enforcement preparation and response would have been different on Jan. 6 if the rioters were Black or Muslim
Well, look, I'm only going to speak to the FBI's approach, the FBI's position. You know, some of what people talk about has to do with crowd-control tactics ... by law enforcement and defense of buildings and things like that. And that's not the FBI's role or responsibility — whether it's the Capitol, a courthouse, a church, you know, anything else.
Our approach, the FBI's approach — we have one approach, which is if you take the law in your own hands and commit violence, it doesn't matter what your motivation is, what your ideology is, we're going to pursue you to the fullest extent of the law. And that ... was our approach over the summer. That's been our approach with jihadists-inspired violent extremists, and that's been our approach to the siege on the Capitol.
Public confidence in the FBI
So in the last two years, the number of people across this country, qualified people, applying to be special agents, has tripled the years before, and it's the highest it's been in about a decade. So it was around 12,000 a year my first few years as director and went up to [36,000], 37,000. So those are people measuring their confidence level in the FBI by wanting to come work here and put their lives on the line.
But I also look at things internal, like our attrition rate. Our attrition rate is 0.4% now, which tells me something about how people feel about working here. At the end of the day, I think public confidence is measured by, you know two questions: If you were a victim ... who would you most want trying to seek justice on your behalf? And if you were a bad guy, who would you least want on your tail? And I think the FBI is the answer to both questions, 99 out of 100 times all over the country, and that to me is ultimately what really matters in terms of our brand.
Life after Trump
Trump soured on his choice to lead the bureau not too long after Wray took the job in the summer of 2017, and by the end of Trump's presidency, people in and outside the Justice Department wondered whether Wray might be fired. That never happened. NPR asked him how life had changed since he no longer woke up every day wondering if his job were on the line — and whether he hid a letter of resignation in a safe someplace, just in case, during the Trump era.
I guess all I would say is I'm a low-key guy, but nobody should mistake my demeanor for what my spine is made out of. And I made a commitment when I was nominated that I was going to do this job one way — by the book, and that's why I've tried to approach it since Day 1. That's the way I'm going to continue to approach [it].
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Chris Wray heads the FBI at a time when the bureau is dealing with multiple issues. Some in Congress say the FBI failed to warn adequately about the violent extremists who breached the Capitol building on January 6. The agency is also now helping to investigate shootings this week in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent. The shooter was white. Local authorities say it is too early to declare those killings a hate crime, but they haven't ruled it out.
Now, those murders come as Asian Americans are on edge over an increase in race-based violence and the growing threat from domestic terrorism in the U.S. With all that in mind, NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson sat down today to interview Chris Wray, and she is here now to tell us about it.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So let's start with this week's mass shooting in Atlanta. President Biden has ordered flags lowered to half-staff. He is headed to Georgia tomorrow to meet with local officials, members of the Asian American community. What did the FBI director tell you about their investigation so far?
JOHNSON: Chris Wray spent a lot of his adult life in Atlanta. He raised his kids in Georgia. So the violence there hit him personally this week. Here's more of what he told me.
CHRISTOPHER WRAY: So obviously, it's a heartbreaking incident, and it hits particularly close to home for me since I consider Atlanta home. And so I certainly grieve for the victims and their families. The FBI is supporting state and local law enforcement, specifically APD - the Atlanta Police Department - and the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office. So we're actively involved but in a support role. And while the motive remains still under investigation at the moment, it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated. But I really would defer to the state and local investigation on that for now.
JOHNSON: As you know, Mary Louise, Atlanta police say that nothing is off the table when it comes to hate crimes. But the FBI director is saying it still doesn't appear to have a racial motivation.
KELLY: OK, to the insurrection. There has been criticism of the bureau, as you know, and whether it did enough before January 6 to warn people that things could get really bad. I'm sure you asked Chris Wray about that. What did he say?
JOHNSON: I did. And Chris Wray basically said that they tasked all the FBI field offices to be on the lookout for information related to the threat to the Capitol. He said they had been warning for most of last year about the possibility of domestic terrorism around the election and even after the election. And he said the FBI had disseminated a report out of Norfolk, Va., to law enforcement the day before the siege on the Capitol. Here's more from Wray.
WRAY: Now, what we did not have, as far as I can tell, is any indication that hundreds and hundreds of people were going to breach the U.S. Capitol. And so we'll be looking hard to figure out, is there more we can be doing? How can we do more even better?
JOHNSON: You know, I'm not sure how satisfying that answer is going to be to members of Congress who hold the purse strings for the FBI budget. The FBI, we know, knew enough to knock on the doors of a handful of people before January 6 to tell them not to travel to D.C. And the FBI also got some leads late last year that armed militiamen and conspiracy theorists were coming to the Capitol, but no one seemed to have the appropriate sense of alarm. And as we know, tragically, five people died there.
KELLY: Yeah. And the investigation into that and how it happened is - I think it's the largest criminal probe in the history of the Justice Department. Is that right? Where do things stand now?
JOHNSON: We've seen hundreds of arrests, and they're not done. Wray says more of the story of January 6 will fill out as they continue to investigate. He expects new charges and perhaps some more serious counts are coming against defendants who are already in the system. Now, we've had charges that involve small cells of people working together and coordinating their travel. But importantly, Chris Wray says he hasn't seen some big national conspiracy, but the FBI is going to keep digging on that.
KELLY: May I ask one more thing, Carrie? You know, in the last months of the Trump White House, it seemed like there was barely a day that went past without some new rumor that Chris Wray was about to get fired. I wonder if you - did you ask about that - just how he is doing, what life is like for him now?
JOHNSON: Mary Louise, I tried. We know that Dr. Fauci famously said that life after Trump gave him a, quote, "liberating feeling."
JOHNSON: The FBI director is a little more of the silent type, unfortunately. I did ask him whether he had a resignation letter prepared in the Trump era, hidden away somewhere. And here's how he responded.
WRAY: I guess all I would say is I'm a low-key guy. But nobody should mistake my demeanor for what my spine is made out of. And I made a commitment when I was nominated that I was going to do this job one way - by the book. And that's the way I've tried to approach it since Day 1. That's the way I'm going to continue to approach.
JOHNSON: It's now about one week since Wray got a new boss, Attorney General Merrick Garland. And Wray, who is not known for being an effusive guy, says things so far are going, quote, "terrific."
KELLY: Terrific. All right. That's NPR justice - national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reporting on her sit-down today with the head of the FBI.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.