It’s been obvious since Jan. 6, 2021 that intelligence agencies and law enforcement failed massively at preventing and responding to the attack on the U.S. Capitol. A new report from Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee details how federal agencies allowed the threat from Trump supporters to go without response, leading to the disastrous lack of preparation we all saw in action (or inaction) that day.
“Our intelligence agencies completely dropped the ball,” said Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, to The New York Times. He added: “Despite a multitude of tips and other intelligence warnings of violence on Jan. 6, the report showed that these agencies repeatedly—repeatedly—downplayed the threat level and failed to share the intelligence they had with law enforcement partners.”
You wouldn’t say that was a quote that goes easy on the intelligence agencies, but when Peters says they “downplayed the threat level,” he’s underselling it. The report finds that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis collected vast numbers of tips and social media posts showing threats of violence and hinting at specific plans. They had information about a traffic surge to a website showing maps of the Capitol’s tunnels. The FBI got tips and referrals about threats of violence from a former acting assistant attorney general for national security, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, and even far-right social media platform Parler.
On Jan. 2, Parler sent the FBI a post reading, “[t]his is not a rally and it’s no longer a protest. This is a final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill. … don’t be surprised if we take the #capital building.” Another said, “[p]eaceful protests have long gone … Everyone is coming with weapons. They may be concealed at first but if congress does the wrong thing expect real chaos because Trump needs us to cause chaos to enact the #insurrectionact.”
The report concludes that “part of the reason FBI failed to take more action to warn its federal partners and the public was because it failed to seriously consider the possibility that threatened actions would actually be carried out, and it dismissed each individual threat as not credible in isolation but failed to fully consider the totality of threats and violent rhetoric associated with such a contentious event.” Additionally, the FBI assumed that “potential clashes between protesters (e.g., the Proud Boys) and counter-protesters (e,g., Antifa)” were the major threat, rather than “focusing more attention and reporting on the growing threat to elected officials and the Capitol itself.”
The FBI would not seriously contemplate the possibility that this particular group of protesters really might be as violent as they were saying they would be, and it’s not hard to see why when you consider who those protesters were. In the end, “many of the threatened actions that the FBI had deemed not credible were actually carried out on January 6th. For example, among the threats directed toward the events on January 6th that FBI deemed not credible were threats to engage in violence, use makeshift weapons, use crowd numbers to overwhelm the police, and storm the Capitol.”
It wasn’t just the FBI. The I&A also saw huge amounts of evidence that violence was coming and dismissed it, the report finds. That dismissal came in part with direct reference to the heavy-handed response to other recent protests, but which ones are instructive:
Moreover, I&A’s mistakes during racial justice demonstrations in 2020 – during which the agency was criticized for over-collecting intelligence on American citizens – resulted in a “pendulum swing” after which analysts were then hesitant to report open-source intelligence they were seeing in the lead-up to January 6th.
Isn’t it interesting how it worked out that the over-collection of intelligence on American citizens happened mostly to Black people protesting racial injustice and the hesitance to report threats then benefited mostly white people attacking Congress? When it came to racial justice protests, DHS “deployed helicopters, airplanes and drones over 15 cities where demonstrators gathered to protest the death of George Floyd, logging at least 270 hours of surveillance,” but by the time it came to explicit threats to storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn an election, DHS concluded that it couldn’t even share those publicly posted social media threats. That’s a heck of a “pendulum swing.”
Similarly, when it came to the George Floyd protests, “The DHS report found that I&A collectors were pressured to find evidence to support management’s conclusion about the Portland protests, such as by linking the protests to Antifa despite the fact that ‘overwhelming intelligence regarding the motivations or affiliations of the violent protesters did not exist.’” When it came to Jan. 6, the FBI was focused on the possibility of clashes between Trump-supporting protesters and purely hypothetical antifa counter-protesters, even though there was substantial evidence for an attack by Trump supporters and basically nothing suggesting there would be significant numbers of counterprotesters.
Because the agencies refused to connect the dots on the evidence and believe what they were seeing, they failed to document the threats and pass them along to other law enforcement agencies. The FBI released only two written products warning of threats, both coming out of field offices on the evening of Jan. 5, without the authority that would have come with a warning from headquarters. A DHS “National Civil Unrest Summary” issued on the morning of Jan. 6 “gave no indication of the potential for violence.”
Moreover, I&A couldn’t believe what it was seeing even as the mob entered the Capitol:
At 2:58pm [on Jan. 6, with the mob already inside the Capitol], an I&A email stated, “[i]n the past 48 hours there has been significant chatter on the forum thedonald[.]win that was at the time considered to be hyperbole and as such protected speech. … Other threads over the past 48 hours have called for more violent actions but at this time no credible information to pass on has been established.”
Whose threats get counted as hyperbole rather than credible and actionable information? Not Trump-supporting heavily armed white guys, that’s for sure! At 4:27 PM, another internal email echoed this, saying, “So far we have not had anything that has met our threshold for reporting these incidents.” The report notes:
An internal I&A timeline of these events shows that this exchange occurred after MPD had declared a riot, USCP had declared a lockdown at the Capitol, the “Capitol [had] been breached and people [were] outside the Senate Chamber,” USCP had sent an “immediate request” for intelligence, the House of Representatives and Vice President had been evacuated, guns had been drawn inside the House chamber, shots fired had been reported, and Congressional “[M]embers [had] barricaded the entrance” to the House chamber. Even after those events had transpired, I&A was still struggling to assess the credibility of threats against the Capitol and to report out its intelligence.
They were watching it happen, unable to decide whether to believe the reports they had collected saying exactly that thing would happen.
There’s much more in the 106-page report. The failure to report threats was based in part on multiple specific violations of policy and procedure. Days before Jan. 6, an FBI contract for a social media monitoring service lapsed, creating a gap in their tracking. Officials disagreed on which agency was supposed to be leading the response, with the Defense Department saying it was the Justice Department and the Justice Department disagreeing. It was a clown show with deadly results, and it continues to be hard to believe—impossible to believe, even—that the response would have been so weak if the people posting threats to the Capitol had been Black or on the political left.