© 2024 Louisville Public Media

Public Files:
89.3 WFPL · 90.5 WUOL-FM · 91.9 WFPK

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact info@lpm.org or call 502-814-6500
89.3 WFPL News | 90.5 WUOL Classical 91.9 WFPK Music | KyCIR Investigations
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Stream: News Music Classical

Head of the FBI in Louisville says investigating Jan. 6 and domestic terrorism is “top priority”

Video footage of a man dousing Capitol police with mace.
Patrick Schwartz, a Kentuckian, douses Capitol Police officer with mace during riots at the January 6, 2021 attempted insurrection.

KyCIR interviewed Michael Stansbury, the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Louisville field office, about the agency's focus following Jan. 6. Stansbury said investigating political violence is a top priority for the office.

At least 25 Kentuckians were arrested and criminally charged for taking part in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack at the U.S. Capitol Building, when hundreds of people descended on the nation’s capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the election of President Joe Biden.

Those 25 people were charged as part of a sprawling, nationwide investigation into the events of that day. A KyCIR review of court records found that people traveled from Kentucky with the intention of stopping the peaceful transition of power and were prepared to use violence to do so. Some of those charged were part of organized militias and extremist groups.

KyCIR interviewed Michael Stansbury, the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Louisville field office, about the investigations following Jan. 6. Stansbury, who has been in this role since last September, said investigating political violence is a top priority for the office.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So January 6, 2021, a major event at the Capitol Building kicked off a massive investigation nationwide. What can you tell me about what that's looked like here in Kentucky, what you've accomplished so far, and basically where that investigation stands?

Well, the investigation itself is still ongoing. You have to almost split it into several individual investigations. Our main focus on this, at least in Kentucky, is identifying the people who committed violations of federal law that entered the Capitol and engaged in criminal activity that were from Kentucky.

We're working with our Washington field office who has the overall investigation, and then when charges are warranted, we're working with them and working with the United States Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia, and bringing those charges forward.

There were several individuals from Kentucky who were in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, several attended the rally, which was certainly lawful. Several marched over to the Capitol and to a certain area, which was again certainly lawful and certainly OK. But we did have some individuals that entered that restricted zone and then, more significantly, actually entered and breached and went into the Capitol. And some engaged in various types of other criminal activity while they were inside the Capitol which include interfering with the Capitol Police attempting to stop people from entering the Capitol.

Going a little bit further on the investigation, one of the things which is obviously led, again, by our Washington Field Office, but then with all 56 offices across the country working together, is it is our job to make sure and determine whether there was an organized effort or a grander scheme to come in and commit this act. Did people come together? Did they plot it? I would say that for the most part, though, our concern here in Kentucky has been the people that actually violated the laws and then determining whether they were involved in anything bigger.

That's a key question of the planning and the intent heading into January 6. Can you tell me about what you found?

Everyone knows the vast majority of people that marched on the Capitol, that entered the Capitol, were following the person in front of them. I think that's a pretty fair statement and I'm certainly not minimizing their activity, and especially those that engaged in assaults and other types of criminal activity there. But that was the vast majority.

I think the court records also show through the investigations that there were some smaller numbers of groups, individuals that had planned to engage and instigate things and cause trouble.

I think we all know that there was definitely a small number of people that wanted what happened to happen. And for the large part, I would say most of those people have been dealt with in the criminal justice system and have been prosecuted in Washington D.C.

A headshot of Michael Stansbury.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Michael Stansbury, special agent in charge of the FBI's Louisville field office.

How high of a priority is this?

This is a top priority. Obviously, protecting the people from terrorism is the number one priority of the FBI, whether that's international terrorism, or domestic terrorism. So, it is a top priority. And the thing is, people need to understand that this — there's lots of characterizations about the Capitol. Was it a riot? Was it an insurrection? And a lot of those groups have different viewpoints. But the one thing that is certain is people violated federal law when they stormed the Capitol. And it's the FBI's job to conduct an investigation and to take that information to the US Attorney's Office and hold those people accountable for that activity. That's our job.

I mean, if you went up there today, right now, and ran past security, you're going to get arrested. And I don't think anybody would think anything of this. I'm not sure why there's so much angst about the fact that the FBI is actively seeking out, doing investigations, and prosecuting the people that broke the law on that day.

The characterizations that we've seen recently passed by the Kentucky Republican Party, were that this is an expression of free speech rights, and that people are being mistreated by the legal system, specifically held without due process. Do you have any response to that?

I can't really speak to the specifics of what they said about their due process. I can assure you that in my 24 years in the federal system that ensuring people's due process is looked out for is of the highest importance and that the courts do it — there’s a process in place.

I can't speak to the specific cases. But, a lot of times people say, ‘well, they've not brought people to trial, you know, they've not done things yet.’ Their defense teams, and I can't say to all them, but they asked for continuances. There's other things, there's other processes, those are up to the court. I am unaware of anybody being treated unfairly. Now, we can all have opinions whether we think this individual should have been arrested for going in and been charged, and that's certainly fine to do. But, you know, the key is, if somebody else had gone into the Capitol, under the same circumstances, would they have been arrested and charged the same way? And I think the answer is resoundingly yes. They would have.

It seems to me, from my review of the court records, that not just in Kentucky, but nationwide, most people at this point have taken plea deals for misdemeanor charges, (such as) entering grounds where they weren't supposed to be. And then there's a small  minority that were charged with acts of violence and things that are more serious. So, talk to me a little bit about that delineation and how that informs your investigation.

When you have individuals, or groups, that are leading the charge — they're the ones committing the violence, they're the ones assaulting the officers — those are obviously the priorities. Our investigations would involve us interviewing those officers, interviewing all the people around there trying to find out everything we can. What was their intent? What was their motive behind it? Were they directed to do that or is it something they simply got out of hand?

So, those are obviously our priority investigations on this, that's where it started — the people that were engaged in the acts of violence. There's a lot of footage out, there's a lot of other information out there. And we continue to this day to identify people. People have come forward that we previously didn't know about that were engaged in these types of acts and we open investigations to determine what their involvement was and whether charges should be brought. So, that is where we focus the majority of our time.  

We're not going out there trying to just identify everybody that showed up. That's not our issue. It's the ones that breached the Capitol. And then the priority, again, the ones that were leading the charge, committing the assaults, trying to get into various restricted areas within the capital itself and taking it the furthest.

My reporting identified a handful of people that were involved in organized militia groups that did have plans, that were pretty explicit about that their intentions were stopping a peaceful transfer of power. And a lot of them mentioned kicking off a civil war. It's not illegal to be a part of a militia. But where does that kind of activity turn into a problem?

It turns into a problem when you actually start breaking the law. We don't have a domestic terrorism statute in the federal books, we use our actual laws that we have. We have an international terrorism statute. And I'm certainly not advocating for a domestic terrorism statute, because there's challenges in trying to prove that. But you look at the underlying crimes. It's when people start to think of it as a conspiracy. You know, I'm planning to do something, it's when I take that overt act to do it. I'm planning to commit a mass shooting or to commit a bombing, and then I start acquiring the materials — I start doing things. That is the part where we need to step in. That overt act that really brings in the attention.

You know, when someone that's maybe a member of an organization is a convicted felon who is not authorized to have guns, and they then start reaching out to other folks to buy them guns and possess them. Those are things that we want to then step in to try and prevent them because they've already demonstrated what their intent is. And now they've taken that overt act by trying to acquire a firearm to carry it out. Just as an example.

So what can you tell me about what the investigation found about these members of organized groups? Is it fair to say that there's an active and organized presence of these groups in Kentucky?

I think it's fair to say that the groups are in Kentucky, and they're active. I certainly couldn't say what the group's intent is in the state of Kentucky and what they want to do. And certainly, just because someone is a member of a group doesn’t mean that they are criminals and that they want to overthrow the government. There might be various members that do, but that's not a requirement to be a member.

Again, our job is to make sure that Kentucky is safe. You can't control people's thoughts. We have enough people that, when something comes up, when something happens, they're going to tell us about it, and we can make sure we step in and prevent it before it does happen. That's the main thing that we try to focus on in these investigations.

Can we count on your support?

Louisville Public Media depends on donations from members – generous people like you – for the majority of our funding. You can help make the next story possible with a donation of $10 or $20. We'll put your gift to work providing news and music for our diverse community.