Fail: Was January 6 an Intelligence or Police Failure or Both?

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

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, Mar. 2, when FBI Director Chris 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 instead recalled 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 report created within the Capitol Police that warned that Congress could be targeted. That report, created on Jan. 3, cautions 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 says 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.

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