Jan. 6, 2021 Violence in the Capitol

Was Jan. 6 an Intelligence Failure, a Police Failure or Both?

By Rohini Kurup, Benjamin Wittes
Monday, March 1, 2021, 3:45 PM

Weeks after the attack on the Capitol Building, Congress is getting underway with a serious effort to understand just what happened on Jan. 6. The work began in earnest last week and will continue this week—starting Tuesday, March 2, when FBI Director Christopher Wray will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the insurrection, domestic terrorism and other threats.

Wray has a fair bit of explaining to do—at least if you believe the local and Capitol police officials who testified at a Senate hearing on Feb. 23. Top Capitol security officials largely blamed federal intelligence agencies for their own failure to secure the Capitol on Jan. 6 from a mob of then-President Trump’s supporters, who overwhelmed police and stormed the Capitol as lawmakers were certifying the presidential election results. In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Rules Committee, officials argued that police were well prepared for the events the intelligence assessment led them to expect. They were not prepared, by contrast, for the events that took place, which the intelligence agencies did not anticipate.

Their argument is, as we shall explain, not wholly persuasive. But it does raise important questions about the FBI’s performance of its own function. These are questions Wray will need to answer.

Much of the hearing last week concerned itself with a question that is, frankly, less important: why the federal government was delayed in calling out the National Guard in response to the riots. The former police officials criticized the Pentagon for being too slow to deploy National Guard troops to help the police, and they gave conflicting accounts of their efforts to request National Guard assistance. In his remarks, former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said he went to then-Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger and then-House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving in the days before the attack to request the assistance of the National Guard. Sund stated in his written testimony that Irving turned down Sund’s request because Irving was concerned about the “optics” of having the National Guard present. Irving disputed that account, calling Sund’s claims “categorically false” and arguing that it was the “collective judgement" of Irving, Sund and Stenger that the troops were not required.

Sund and Irving also disagreed over when the then-Capitol Police chief called Irving to request National Guard assistance once the attack was underway. Sund said he called Irving at 1:09 p.m. on Jan. 6, but Irving denied receiving a call then and said that, instead, he received a call around 20 minutes later, in which he learned that the situation was deteriorating. He claims he wasn’t actually asked to call out the National Guard until after 2 p.m. Acting Washington, D.C., police chief, Robert Contee recalled that Sund was “pleading” with the Army to send National Guard troops, and he blamed the Army for its reluctance to send troops. Contee said he was “stunned” at the delayed response from the military.

These disputes are important in establishing a precise timeline of the afternoon’s events, and perhaps for reforming the process of emergency response in the future. But whichever account is accurate, the die was already cast by the time these calls were exchanged. There was already a riot going on. The more significant testimony concerned not the calling out of the National Guard but the Capitol Police’s readiness for the incident in the first place. Why were the police so unprepared for what happened?

Sund said that the intelligence community failed to detect key information about the threat of violence and that agencies did not adequately communicate what they did know to Capitol security officials. “A clear lack of accurate and complete intelligence across several federal agencies contributed to this event, and not poor planning by the United States Capitol Police,” he said. “We rely on accurate information from our federal partners to help us develop effective security plans.”

According to Sund, the intelligence he received indicated that the protests on Jan. 6 would be similar to previous pro-Trump protests that took place in November and December 2020, in which tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington and some violence occurred. The assessments he was given, he said, suggested that Jan. 6 might be worse—but he had no indication that it would be a preplanned assault on the Capitol.

Based on this intelligence assessment, Capitol Police planned for an increased level of violence by activating the full department, enhancing member protection and distributing protective equipment for officers, among other steps. In a meeting with top law enforcement and military officials the day before the attack, according to Sund, no entity—including the FBI—warned of a coordinated violent attack on the Capitol. “[N]one of the intelligence we received predicted what actually occurred,” Sund said. “We properly planned for a mass demonstration with possible violence. What we got was a military style coordinated assault on my officers and a violent takeover of the Capitol building.”

Sund also said that he saw a separate intelligence memo created within the Capitol Police that warned that Congress could be targeted. That memo, created on Jan. 3, cautioned that Trump supporters who saw the certification of the electoral votes as “the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election” could feel a “sense of desperation and disappointment” about the results of the election that “may lead to more of an incentive to become violent.” The memo said that the events of Jan. 6 may be particularly risky because organizers were urging people to come armed with guns and in combat gear. More protests were scheduled for Jan. 6 than were held in November and December, according to the memo, and the majority of the Jan. 6 protests were to be held on Capitol grounds. In response to the intelligence memo, Capitol Police set up barricades along a wider perimeter than it did for the previous rallies.

Contee, too, described preparing for events similar to the earlier pro-Trump rallies, noting that the intelligence pointed to the presence of some of the same groups that contributed to the violence during previous demonstrations. He said that the intelligence suggested that there might be violence in the streets, so the D.C. police increased its presence and, at the mayor’s request, more than 300 members of the National Guard were deployed across the city.

In his written remarks, Irving stated that while the Capitol Police’s intelligence suggested an elevated risk of violence—as had been a possibility during pro-Trump protests in November and December—it did not point to an attack on the Capitol. And he also commented that daily reports issued by the Capitol Police assessed the possibility of civil disobedience and arrests as “remote” to “improbable.”

In a separate hearing on Feb. 25 before the House Appropriations Committee, Acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman echoed the argument that the intelligence did not predict the scale of the violence. She explained in her written testimony:

Following the events of January 6th, it has been suggested that the Department either was ignorant of or ignored critical intelligence that indicated that an attack of the magnitude experienced on January 6th was known and probable. This implication simply is not true.

Although the Department’s January 3rd Special Assessment foretold of a significant likelihood for violence on Capitol grounds by extremists groups, it did not identify a specific credible threat indicating that thousands of American citizens would descend upon the U.S. Capitol attacking police officers with the goal of breaking into the U.S. Capitol Building to harm Members and prevent the certification of Electoral College votes. Nor did the intelligence received from the FBI or any other law enforcement partners include any specific credible threat that thousands of American citizens would attack the U.S. Capitol. Indeed, the United States Secret Service brought the Vice-President to the Capitol for the election certification that day because they were also unaware of any specific credible threat of that magnitude.

As we noted above, the claim that the Capitol Police were in no position to expect the violence that occurred is only partly persuasive. For one thing, the day before the insurrection, on Jan. 5, the FBI field office in Norfolk, Virginia, issued a report warning that extremists were calling for violence and preparing for “war.” This report was shared with the FBI’s Washington field office and the Capitol Police. According to the Washington Post, which first reported on the existence of the document, the report mentions people sharing a map of the tunnels in the Capitol and possible points for the would-be rioters to meet up before traveling to Washington. And the document flags online posts urging violence:

An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating “Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and antifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”

But Sund said he did not see this report before the attack. He told lawmakers that he only learned that his department received it the day before the February hearing and said the report never made it up the Capitol Police chain of command. Both Stenger and Irving also said they did not see the report. While the document was apparently transmitted to both the Capitol Police and the D.C. police, it was merely emailed at the staff level, not presented as an urgent matter that should preempt prior planning.

Moreover, this intelligence was just one part of a much broader array of publicly available information that suggested Trump supporters who planned to hold rallies in Washington would attempt to storm the Capitol and commit acts of violence.

In the days leading up to the attack, news outlets were already reporting on the possibility of violence as Trump called his supporters to Washington, telling them in a tweet on Dec. 19 that the House impeachment managers made famous, “Be there, will be wild!” On Dec. 30, a Washington Post editorial described Trump as “actively seeking to incite street protests” and said D.C. officials feared violence. That same day, the Post reported threats of violence found on online forums and chats as Trump supporters described tactics to smuggle guns into the District and called for “armed encampments” to be set up along the National Mall.

And the night before the Capitol was stormed, groups of men in body armor and helmets began to show up at pro-Trump rallies. The New York Times described them as members of the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group. By night time, the Metropolitan Police Department had arrested five people on assault and weapons charges, including one person who assaulted a police officer.

All of this might be consistent with the generalized threat assessment Sund described. And, indeed, much of the media coverage and public concern about violence was focused on the possibility of violence on the streets. But at least some of the then-president’s supporters were making clear that their intent was in fact to attack the Capitol and stage a violent takeover.

Threats on online forums were widely covered in the press. On Jan. 5, an NBC News story detailed the many calls for violence found on various social media sites: QAnon conspiracies on Twitter that described Jan. 6 as “Independence Day,” videos on TikTok with hundreds of thousands of views in which users urged fellow Trump supporters to carry guns despite firearm restrictions, and threats on Parler using hashtags associated with a second civil war. Users of online forums repeatedly announced their plans to “storm the Capitol.” And as the Daily Beast reported ahead of the attack, posts on the pro-Trump forum “The Donald” described breaking into federal buildings and plans for violence against law enforcement officers. “I’m thinking it will be literal war on that day,” read one popular comment. “Where we’ll storm offices and physically remove and even kill all the D.C. traitors and reclaim the country.”

Prominent supporters of Trump also used metaphors of war to describe what would happen on Jan. 6. “All hell will break loose tomorrow. It will be quite extraordinarily different. All I can say is strap in,” former Trump adviser Steve Bannon said on his podcast on Jan. 5. “Tomorrow is game day. So many people said, man, if I was in revolution I would be in Washington. Well, this is your time in history.” And on the morning of Jan. 6, Rep. Lauren Boebert tweeted, “Today is 1776.”

Did this material cumulatively constitute, right there in the public domain, what Pittman called “a specific credible threat” of an attack on the Capitol? It certainly seems like the information was there for the Capitol Police leadership to anticipate that Jan. 6 might be different in kind, not just in scale, from what happened at the earlier MAGA rallies. Indeed, given what a lot of the protesters were saying before the riot, the Capitol Police force posture and deployment seems woefully inadequate.

That said, Sund is not wrong that the Capitol Police is an intelligence consumer—not, for the most part, an agency that does a whole lot of intelligence collection and analysis on its own. And while there’s a considerable element of self-justification in Sund’s finger-pointing at the FBI, he’s asking a reasonable question.

Unlike the Capitol Police, after all, the FBI has significant authority to collect intelligence involving threats. It also has significant analytic capacity. How did the FBI not pick up on and report the possibility of an attack on the Capitol, given all of the social media chatter on the subject? And why, when it belatedly started to, did it report the possibility in such a middling fashion?

Wray has said on a number of occasions that white supremacists currently pose the most pressing domestic terrorism threat around. Given that, and given the social media chatter and the president’s rhetoric, why were the intelligence assessments given to the Capitol Police so wide of the mark?