Days after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, Steven D’Antuono, the head of the FBI’s Washington field office, said the FBI had no intelligence that suggested there would be anything that day but a lawful pro-Trump rally. Six months later, FBI Director Christopher Wray reiterated the claim when he told Congress that the agency he leads had had no specific “intelligence indicating that hundreds and hundreds of people were going to breach the Capitol complex.”
Did our law enforcement and intelligence agencies fumble the ball? Or was their failure more akin to intentional grounding?
But at Thursday’s hearing of the House Jan. 6 committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., touted “evidence that President Trump was aware of the risk of violence” and that “the FBI, U.S. Capitol Police, Metropolitan Police and other agencies all gathered and disseminated intelligence suggesting the possibility of violence at the Capitol prior to the riot.”
The Biden administration should be demanding answers. Did the leaders of our nation’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies fumble the ball that day? Or was their failure to prevent violence more akin to intentional grounding? Without substantive answers from agency leaders many of us will be left to conclude that there was a willful blindness to the signs that were staring them in the face. Was there institutional sympathy for the rioters’ cause? Were there orders from higher-ups to downplay the available intelligence? Do existing guidelines and laws constrain robust collection and investigation of domestic terror threats? If the premier agencies in federal law enforcement are to maintain credibility, they must be transparent with the public they depend upon and protect.
The FBI is the nation’s primary counterterrorism agency, and Schiff said Thursday that “days before Jan. 6, the president’s senior advisers at the Department of Justice and FBI, for example, received an intelligence summary that included material indicating that certain people traveling to Washington were making plans to attack the Capitol. This summary noted online calls to occupy federal buildings, rhetoric about invading the Capitol building and plans to arm themselves and to engage in political violence at the event.”
The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for approving and disseminating critical intelligence to state and local law enforcement. But according to a March 4 report from the DHS inspector general, DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis “identified specific threat information related to the events on Jan. 6, 2021, but did not issue any intelligence products about these threats until Jan. 8, 2021.” That report also found that “the Field Operations Division (FOD) considered issuing intelligence products on at least three occasions prior to Jan. 6, 2021, but FOD did not disseminate any such products ultimately. It is unclear why FOD failed to disseminate these products.”
Despite what they knew, neither the FBI nor the DHS prepared a disseminable threat assessment for the January Electoral Collage vote ratification or for the rally on the Ellipse.
As for the agency whose paramount mission is to protect the president and vice president of the United States, Schiff said, the committee has obtained “nearly 1 million emails, recordings and other electronic records from the Secret Service.” He said that “As early as Dec. 26, Secret Service officials were sharing one tipster’s warnings about extremist groups coming to the Capitol with murderous plans. ‘They think they will have a large enough group to march into D.C. armed and will outnumber the police so they can’t be stopped,’ the tip read. ‘Their plan is to literally kill people,’ the tipster wrote. ‘Please, please take this tip seriously and investigate further.’”
Previous reporting revealed the Secret Service learned on Parler of a threat against Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on Jan. 4 but did not let the Capitol Police know about it until 5:55 p.m. on Jan. 6, when police officers had already been fighting the rioters for hours and some rioters had posted photos from inside Pelosi’s office.
Then there’s the Defense Department, the agency responsible for authorizing deployment of the District of Columbia National Guard. According to testimony to the committee from Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there were calls among the top brass to discuss planning for Jan. 6, and Thursday, Schiff referred to a call with President Trump’s White House National Security staff in early January 2021 wherein: “Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist warned about the potential that the Capitol would be the target of the attack.”
It’s important that the committee provide us a play-by-play analysis of what went wrong across these agencies.
But when Jan. 6 arrived, our law enforcement and intelligence agencies and our military operated like a football team that had ignored the scouting report on its opponent. The FBI, Homeland Security, Secret Service and Defense Department seemed outnumbered and unprepared on Jan. 6. Before its time runs out, it’s important that the committee provide us a play-by-play analysis of what went wrong across these agencies and offer solid recommendations on how to avoid a repeat of that colossal failure.
There’s a difference between losing by clumsily dropping the ball and willfully throwing the game. If the government failure was a fumble caused by outdated policies, inadequate laws and authorities, or insufficient collection and dissemination, then those weaknesses need to get fixed. But if this was a refusal to play to win, that is, a decision to let the opponent have its way, then we’ll need some new players in key positions.