FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said Thursday that “Antifa is a real thing,” pushing back against Democrats who have questioned the threat of left-wing violence during this year’s racial justice protests.
Mr. Wray, in testimony to Congress, said that while white supremacists have been the most lethal domestic terrorist threat in recent years, anti-government anarchists have shot up the list this year. Many of those tell investigators that they are backers of Antifa, or anti-fascist ideology.
“Antifa is a real thing; it’s not a fiction. But it’s not an organization or a structure. We understand it to be more of a kind of a movement, or maybe you could call it an ideology,” Mr. Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee.
He made the comments as Republicans and Democrats were sparring over the nature of the violence that has struck many American cities this year.
Democrats say the chief domestic terrorist threat is white supremacists. Republicans say left-wing violence is a major factor, particularly when coupled with this year’s racial justice protests.
Mr. Wray served a reality check on both sides.
He said the FBI sees three types of actors protesting in cities this year. The largest group is made up of peaceful demonstrators. Then there are criminal opportunists, who are committing vandalism and looting. Those bent on attacking government and society itself are the ones torching police cars and lobbing firebombs at government buildings.
“Those groups are motivated by a wide variety of ideologies and agendas,” Mr. Wray said.
Earlier this year, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, called Antifa violence in Portland, Oregon, a “myth,” sparking a heated debate over the movement.
Mr. Wray, though, said it’s no myth.
“To be clear, we do have quite a number of properly predicated domestic terrorism investigations into violent anarchist extremists, any number of whom self-identify with the Antifa movement,” he said. “That’s part of this broader group of domestic violent extremists that I’m talking about, but it’s just one part of it.”
Although the FBI has yet to uncover an organization or structure to Antifa, he said, officials do see signs of regional cooperation, with self-described adherents operating in “regional nodes.”
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, urged Mr. Wray to look at who is funding the protests and said reducing Antifa to an ideology “seems to me to be downplaying it.”
“It coordinates regionally and nationally, wears a standardized uniform, it collects funds to buy high-powered lasers to blind federal officers, build homemade explosive devices, feed the rioters since they clearly aren’t working and then bail out those who have been arrested,” Mr. Crenshaw said. “It formed an autonomous zone in an American city and besieged a federal courthouse in another, so, I mean, it just seems to be more than an ideology.”
Democrats sought to protect the larger Black Lives Matter movement from the taint of Antifa.
“Have you seen any excessive violence that can be attributable to Black Lives Matter as opposed to any other groups that may be involved in violence?” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat.
“I can’t think of one sitting here right now,” Mr. Wray replied.
Rep. Al Green, Texas Democrat and pioneer of articles of impeachment against President Trump, demanded that Mr. Wray launch an investigation into Michael Caputo, a spokesman at the Health and Human Services Department who took a leave of absence this week after a Facebook video warned of armed insurrection after the presidential election.
“Can you explain to me kindly, sir, why you have not pursued the facts and the law as it relates to Mr. Caputo and the statements?” Mr. Green asked.
Mr. Wray said he wasn’t familiar with the remarks and the FBI doesn’t investigate rhetoric, but he told Mr. Green that he will pursue proper criminal leads.
The debate over domestic extremism erupted during the Homeland Security Committee’s annual hearing on threats to the U.S. Mr. Wray appeared alongside National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller.
An empty seat was left for acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, who declined to appear, citing a tradition that officials who have a pending nomination before the Senate don’t testify outside of the confirmation process.
Committee Chair Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, said Mr. Wolf had agreed to appear but withdrew that commitment after he was officially nominated this month. Mr. Thompson issued a subpoena last week to try to force Mr. Wolf to testify, but the acting secretary didn’t show.
“That he would refuse to come before the committee after committing to do so should appall every member of this committee,” Mr. Thompson said.
Homeland Security offered to have the No. 2 official at the department, Ken Cuccinelli, appear instead. Mr. Thompson did not accept that offer.
Mr. Wray ended up fielding most of the questions, which occasionally delved into foreign threats.
He said the FBI opens a counterintelligence probe of Chinese-linked threats “every 10 hours” and has more than 2,000 of them open right now.
That’s “by far the biggest chunk” of the bureau’s counterintelligence work, he said.
He said Russia is “very active” in trying to influence the U.S. presidential election through social media and other discord-sowing means, but the intelligence community has not seen attempts to hack the elections infrastructure like it did in 2016.
Mr. Wray said Russia’s efforts are “primarily to denigrate Vice President [Joseph R.] Biden and what the Russians see as an anti-Russia establishment” in Washington.