A Proud Boys supporter in New York accused of posting violent threats on the social media network Parler. A Colorado man charged with sending a text about “putting a bullet” in Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A man near Chicago implicated in a voice mail message about killing Democrats on Inauguration Day.
They were all arrested in recent weeks as part of an escalating effort by law enforcement officials across the country to react more quickly to menacing rhetoric in the wake of the deadly U.S. Capitol breach.
Law enforcement agencies have long struggled to decipher whether online statements could lead to real danger, wary of bringing cases hinged largely on speech that could be protected by the First Amendment. But the volume of tips about threats has skyrocketed since the Capitol assault, leading some officials to decide not to wait to see if violent language developed into action.
Nearly a dozen people who the authorities said made politically motivated threats by social media or phone have been charged with federal crimes. Although most of them were nowhere near Washington on the day of the riot, they have become part of its sprawling fallout, with investigators also scouring the country to track down hundreds of rioters and probing whether right-wing extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys had organized the attack.
“The riot increased our sense of urgency because it showed the possibility of what could happen,” said a senior law enforcement official in New York, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations.
The effort has also coincided with a greater willingness by the Department of Homeland Security under the new Biden administration to publicly label domestic right-wing and militia groups as a national threat. Last week, the agency issued a public bulletin for the first time to warn that violent extremists, fueled by the 2020 election outcome and other “perceived grievances,” could commit further attacks.
It was not yet clear whether the riot would prompt more government surveillance of extremist groups online. The arrests of rioters, even on misdemeanor charges such as illegal entry, have given investigators the legal justification to obtain search warrants for their phones and electronic communications, potentially providing the government with access to a trove of intelligence on such groups.
Cases based on violent threats are no slam dunk. In 2016, a jury failed to convict an Orange County, Calif., man who wrote blog posts about beheading a top F.B.I. official, with the trial ending in an acquittal on some charges and a mistrial on others. His lawyers said the blog posts were intended to be satire and were protected by the Constitution.
Prosecutors must prove that the threat was serious and specific, with an intention to harm or kill. Social media posts before the riot about an armed revolution or even storming the Capitol would have been too vague to charge, legal experts said.
Last year, federal prosecutors around the country brought only 30 cases characterized as “domestic terrorism” that led with the charge of transmitting a threat, according to an analysis by a Syracuse University research group. Still, that number was the highest since at least 2000.
“Historically, these kinds of cases are not high on prosecutors’ priority lists,” said Daniel Silver, a former federal prosecutor in New York who supervised terrorism cases. “You really have to show the person intended to cause imminent violence as opposed to just expressing their opinion.”
Instead, prosecutors sometimes turn to other charges that are easier to prove against someone who is posting violent threats.
For instance, Eduard Florea, a software engineer in Queens, alarmed law enforcement officials with death threats that they said he had posted on Parler against Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia around the day of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. He wrote in obscenity-laden posts that Mr. Warnock would have a hard time casting votes “when he’s swinging with the fish,” and that “dead men can’t pass laws,” prosecutors said. On the afternoon of the riot, he said he was armed and ready, writing, “Kill them all,” according to the complaint.
But Mr. Florea was not initially charged with transmitting a threat. He was hit with a weapons charge after agents searched his home and said they found ammunition, which he was not allowed to possess because he has a felony criminal record. He told the agents that he had applied to join the Proud Boys, according to prosecutors, and traveled with them last year to vandalize a church in Washington.
His lawyer, Mia Eisner-Grynberg, declined to comment. At his bail hearing, she said he did not condone violence, arguing that the “rhetoric was extremely high on all sides” during the riot.
When law enforcement officials are concerned about a violent social media threat that has not led to any real-world action, that person will often get a knock on the door from the F.B.I. with a warning.
But former officials have called the riot a “9/11 moment” for domestic violent extremism, a catalyzing event that has pushed local and federal resources around the country to focus on one top priority, with a much lower tolerance to wait and see if threats materialize.
“Before the riot, you might have let someone sit out there and stew and vent,” said Mitch Silber, a former head of the New York Police Department’s intelligence analysis. “Now your calculus has changed. You almost don’t have the luxury to let things play out.”
Early last year, F.B.I. agents confronted Louis Capriotti in Orland Park, Ill., after he had left several screaming voice mail messages for members of Congress that insulted their “race, religion, political affiliation, or physical appearance,” a criminal complaint said. Mr. Capriotti acknowledged that the messages could be seen as threatening and said he meant no harm, according to the complaint. The agents told him to stop calling.
Capitol Riot Fallout
From Riot to Impeachment
The riot inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, followed a rally at which President Trump made an inflammatory speech to his supporters, questioning the results of the election. Here’s a look at what happened and the ongoing fallout:
- As this video shows, poor planning and a restive crowd encouraged by President Trump set the stage for the riot.
- A two hour period was crucial to turning the rally into the riot.
- Several Trump administration officials, including cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao, announced that they were stepping down as a result of the riot.
- Federal prosecutors have charged more than 70 people, including some who appeared in viral photos and videos of the riot. Officials expect to eventually charge hundreds of others.
- The House voted to impeach the president on charges of “inciting an insurrection” that led to the rampage by his supporters.
Source: Read Full Article