As scores of Proud Boys made their way, chanting and shouting, toward the Capitol on Jan. 6, one member of the far-right group was busy texting a real-time account of the march.
The recipient was his FBI handler.
In the middle of an unfolding melee that shook a pillar of American democracy — the peaceful transfer of power — the bureau had an informant in the crowd, providing an inside glimpse of the action, according to confidential records obtained by The New York Times. In the informant’s version of events, the Proud Boys, famous for their street fights, were largely following a pro-Trump mob consumed by a herd mentality rather than carrying out any type of preplanned attack.
After meeting his fellow Proud Boys at the Washington Monument that morning, the informant described his path to the Capitol grounds, where he saw barriers knocked down and Trump supporters streaming into the building, the records show. At one point, his handler appeared not to grasp that the building had been breached, the records show, and asked the informant to keep him in the loop — especially if there was any violence.
The use of informants always presents law enforcement officials with difficult judgments about the credibility and completeness of the information they provide. In this case, the records obtained by The Times do not directly address whether the informant was in a good position to know about plans developed for Jan. 6 by the leadership of the Proud Boys, why he was cooperating, whether he could have missed indications of a plot or whether he could have deliberately misled the government.
But the records, and information from two people familiar with the matter, suggest that federal law enforcement had a far greater visibility into the assault on the Capitol, even as it was taking place, than was previously known.
At the same time, the new information is likely to complicate the government’s efforts to prove the high-profile conspiracy charges it has brought against several members of the Proud Boys.
On Jan. 6, and for months after, the records show, the informant, who was affiliated with a Midwest chapter of the Proud Boys, denied that the group intended to use violence that day. In lengthy interviews, the records say, he also denied that the extremist organization planned in advance to storm the Capitol. The informant’s identity was not disclosed in the records.
The records describing the informant’s account of Jan. 6 — excerpts from his interviews and communications with the FBI before, during and after the riot — dovetail with assertions made by defense lawyers who have argued that even though several Proud Boys broke into the Capitol, the group did not arrive in Washington with a preset plot to storm the building.
They also raise new questions about the FBI performance in tracking the threat from far-right groups like the Proud Boys.
The records — provided to The Times on the condition that they not be directly quoted — show the FBI was investigating at least two other participants in the rally Jan. 6 and asked the informant to make contact with them, suggesting that they might be Proud Boys.
Moreover, the records indicate that FBI officials in Washington were alerted in advance of the attack that the informant was traveling to the Capitol with several other Proud Boys.
The FBI also had an additional informant with ties to another Proud Boys chapter that took part in the sacking of the Capitol, according to a person familiar with the matter, raising questions about the quality of the bureau’s informants and what sorts of questions they were being asked by their handlers before Jan. 6.
Christopher Wray, the bureau’s director, acknowledged to Congress in March that the FBI was studying the quality of the intelligence it had gathered about Jan. 6.
“Anytime there’s an attack — especially one that’s this horrific, that strikes right at the heart of our system of government, right at the time the transfer of power is being discussed — you can be darn tootin’ that we are focused very, very hard on how can we get better sources, better information, better analysis so that we can make sure that something like what happened on Jan. 6th never happens again,” he said during the congressional hearing.
In a statement, the FBI said that intelligence gathering was central to its mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution.
“While the FBI’s standard practice is not to discuss its sources and methods, it is important to understand that sources provide valuable information regarding criminal activity and national security matters,” the bureau said.
The new information was revealed at a time when misinformation continues to circulate among far-right commentators and websites accusing the FBI of having used informants or agents to stage the attack Jan. 6. But if anything, the records appear to show that the informant’s FBI handler was slow to grasp the gravity of what was happening that day. And the records show that the informant traveled to Washington at his own volition, not at the request of the FBI.
The question of whether extremist groups like the Proud Boys conspired in advance of Jan. 6 to organize the worst assault on the Capitol in more than 200 years is one of the most important avenues of inquiry being pursued by authorities. But the records describing the informant are only one piece of a much larger puzzle that includes other information about the group.
The informant, who started working with the FBI in July 2020, appears to have been close to several other members of his Proud Boys chapter, including some who have been charged in the attack. But it is not clear from the records obtained by The Times how well he knew the group’s top leaders or whether he was in the best position to learn about potential plans to storm the Capitol.
As more and more Proud Boys have been arrested in connection with the attack, the group has been increasingly plunged into an atmosphere of suspicion about the presence of informants in their ranks.
The dark mood started three weeks after the riot, when it emerged that Enrique Tarrio, the group’s leader, had himself worked as an FBI informant well before he joined the Proud Boys.
Tarrio was not at the Capitol on Jan. 6, having been ordered by a local judge to stay away from Washington after his arrest days earlier on charges of illegally possessing ammunition magazines and burning a Black Lives Matter banner after a pro-Trump rally in December. He is currently serving a five-month sentence on the charges.
Prosecutors have filed conspiracy charges against 15 members of the Proud Boys in four separate but interlocking cases, and they are some of the most prominent allegations levied in more than 600 cases brought in connection with the Capitol attack.
In seeking to prove that the Proud Boys planned the assault in advance, then worked together Jan. 6 to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College vote, prosecutors have claimed in court papers that their leaders raised money to bring people to Washington; gathered equipment like protective vests and multichannel radios; and ordered subordinates to avoid wearing their typical black-and-yellow polo shirts in favor of more ordinary clothes.
The FBI has also collected incendiary social media posts and recordings of podcasts in which prominent Proud Boys members embrace a kind of revolutionary zeal after former President Donald Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden, with some suggesting that “traitors” should be shot or that civil war was on the horizon.
As part of their investigation, federal agents ultimately obtained thousands of private group chats sent among dozens of Proud Boys on the messaging app Telegram. In one of the chats, written the night before the riot, a Proud Boys leader told his troops to be decentralized and use good judgment, adding, “Cops are the primary threat.”
But statements from the informant appear to counter the government’s assertion that the Proud Boys organized for an offensive assault on the Capitol intended to stop the peaceful transition from Trump to Biden.
On the eve of the attack, the records show, the informant said that the group had no plans to engage in violence the next day, except to defend itself from potential assaults from leftist activists — a narrative the Proud Boys have often used to excuse their own violent behavior.
Then, during an interview in April, the informant again told his handlers that Proud Boys leaders gave explicit orders to maintain a defensive posture Jan. 6. At another point in the interview, he said that he never heard any discussion that day about stopping the Electoral College process.
The records show that, after driving to Washington and checking into an Airbnb in Virginia on Jan. 5, the informant spent most of Jan. 6 with other Proud Boys, including some who have been charged in the attack. While the informant mentioned seeing Proud Boys leaders that day, like Ethan Nordean, who has also been charged, there is no indication that he was directly involved with any Proud Boys in leadership positions.
In a detailed account of his activities contained in the records, the informant, who was part of a group chat of other Proud Boys, described meeting up with scores of men from chapters around the country at 10 a.m. Jan. 6 at the Washington Monument and eventually marching to the Capitol. He said that when he arrived, throngs of people were already streaming past the first barrier outside the building, which, he later learned, was taken down by one of his Proud Boy acquaintances and a young woman with him.
The records say that the informant entered the Capitol after debating whether to do so with his compatriots. He then told his handlers, according to the records, that after police officers informed him that someone — possibly pro-Trump rioter Ashli Babbitt — had been shot inside the building, he left through a window. The records say that he hurt no one and broke nothing.
According to the records, the informant first began to tell the FBI what he knew about Jan. 6 in late December after a pro-Trump rally in Washington that month turned violent. He showed his handlers screenshots of an online chat board known to be popular among Trump supporters indicating that some so-called normal conservatives were planning to bring weapons to Washington in January, the records show.
But the records contain no indication that the informant was aware of a possible plot by Proud Boys leaders to purposefully instigate those normal Trump supporters — or what members of the group refer to as “normies” — on Jan. 6.
According to court papers in one case, a Proud Boys leader from Philadelphia wrote on the group’s Telegram channel on the morning of Jan. 6, “I want to see thousands of normies burn that city to ash today.”
Then, after the attack was over, another leader of the chapter summed up his thoughts about the riot on the chat, according to court papers.
“That was NOT what I expected to happen today,” he wrote. “All from us showing up and starting some chants and getting the normies all riled up.”