FBI, Homeland Security failed to envision Capitol storming despite warnings – report

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security downplayed or ignored “a massive amount of intelligence information” ahead of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, according to the chairman of a Senate panel that on Tuesday is releasing a new report on the intelligence failures ahead of the insurrection.

The report details how the agencies failed to recognize and warn of the potential for violence as some of then-president Donald Trump’s supporters openly planned the siege in messages and forums online.

Among the multitude of intelligence that was overlooked was a December 2020 tip to the FBI that members of the far-right extremist group Proud Boys planned to be in Washington, DC, for the certification of Joe Biden’s victory and their “plan is to literally kill people,” the report said. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the agencies were also aware of many social media posts that foreshadowed violence, some calling on Trump’s supporters to “come armed” and storm the Capitol, kill lawmakers or “burn the place to the ground.”

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the Democratic chairman of the Homeland panel, said the breakdown was “largely a failure of imagination to see threats that the Capitol could be breached as credible,” echoing the findings of the September 11 commission about intelligence failures ahead of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The report by the panel’s majority staff says the intelligence community has not entirely recalibrated to focus on the threats of domestic, rather than international, terrorism. And government intelligence leaders failed to sound the alarm “in part because they could not conceive that the US Capitol Building would be overrun by rioters.”

Still, Peters said, the reasons for dismissing what he called a “massive” amount of intelligence “defies an easy explanation.”

While several other reports have examined the intelligence failures around January 6 — including a bipartisan 2021 Senate report, the House January 6 committee last year and several separate internal assessments by the Capitol Police and other government agencies — the latest investigation is the first congressional report to focus solely on the actions of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

In the wake of the attack, Peters said the committee interviewed officials at both agencies and found what was “pretty constant finger pointing” at each other.

“Everybody should be accountable because everybody failed,” Peters said.

Chairman Sen. Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, seen during a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 18, 2023. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

Using emails and interviews collected by the Senate committee and others, including from the House January 6 panel, the report lays out in detail the intelligence the agencies received in the weeks ahead of the attack.

There was not a failure to obtain evidence, the report says, but the agencies “failed to fully and accurately assess the severity of the threat identified by that intelligence, and formally disseminate guidance to their law enforcement partners.”

As Trump, a Republican, falsely claimed he had won the 2020 election and tried to overturn his election defeat, telling his supporters to “fight like hell” in a speech in front of the White House that day, thousands of them marched to the Capitol. More than 2,000 rioters overran law enforcement, assaulted police officers, and caused more than $2.7 billion in damage to the Capitol, according to a US Government Accountability Office report earlier this year.

Breaking through windows and doors, the rioters sent lawmakers running for their lives and temporarily interrupted the certification of the election victory by Biden, a Democrat.

Even as the attack was happening, the new report found, the FBI and Homeland Security downplayed the threat. As the Capitol Police struggled to clear the building, Homeland Security “was still struggling to assess the credibility of threats against the Capitol and to report out its intelligence.”

And at a 10 a.m. briefing as protesters gathered at Trump’s speech and near the Capitol “wearing ballistic helmets, body armor, carrying radio equipment and military grade backpacks,” the FBI briefed that there were “no credible threats at this time.”

The lack of sufficient warnings meant that law enforcement were not adequately prepared and there was not a hardened perimeter established around the Capitol, as there is during events like the annual State of the Union address.

US Capitol Police push back rioters who were trying to enter the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The report contains dozens of tips about violence on January 6 that the agencies received and dismissed either due to lack of coordination, bureaucratic delays or trepidation on the part of those who were collecting it. The FBI, for example, was unexpectedly hindered in its attempt to find social media posts planning for January 6 protests when the contract for its third-party social media monitoring tool expired. At Homeland Security, analysts were hesitant to report open-source intelligence after criticism in 2020 for collecting intelligence on American citizens during racial justice demonstrations.

One tip received by the FBI ahead of the January 6 attack was from a former Justice Department official who sent screenshots of online posts from members of the Oath Keepers extremist group: “There is only one way in. It is not signs. It’s not rallies. It’s f—— bullets!”

The social media company Parler, a favored platform for Trump’s supporters, directly sent the FBI several posts it found alarming, adding that there was “more where this came from” and that they were concerned about what would happen on January 6.

“(T)his is not a rally and it’s no longer a protest,” read one of the Parler posts sent to the FBI, according to the report. “This is a final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill. (…) don’t be surprised if we take the #capital (sic) building.”

But even as it received the warnings, the Senate panel found, the agency said over and over again that there were no credible threats.

“Our nation is still reckoning with the fallout from January 6th, but what is clear is the need for a reevaluation of the federal government’s domestic intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination processes,” the new report says.

FBI director Christopher Wray speaks to the Atlanta Press Club in Atlanta, June 20, 2023. (John Bazemore/AP)

In a statement, Homeland Security spokesperson Angelo Fernandez said that the department has made many of those changes two and a half years later. The department “has strengthened intelligence analysis, information sharing, and operational preparedness to help prevent acts of violence and keep our communities safe.”

The FBI said in a separate response that since the attack it has increased focus on “swift information sharing” and centralized the flow of information to ensure more timely notification to other entities.

“The FBI is determined to aggressively fight the danger posed by all domestic violent extremists, regardless of their motivations,” the statement said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has defended the FBI’s handling of intelligence in the run-up to January 6, including a report from its Norfolk field office on January 5 that cited online posts foreshadowing the possibility of a “war” in Washington the following day. The Senate report noted that the memo “did not note the multitude of other warnings” the agency had received.

The faultfinding with the FBI and Homeland Security Department echoes the blistering criticism directed at US Capitol Police in a bipartisan report issued by the Senate Homeland and Rules committees two years ago. That report found that the police intelligence unit knew about social media posts calling for violence, as well, but did not inform top leadership what they had found.

Peters says he asked for the probe of the intelligence agencies after other reports, such as the House panel’s investigation last year, focused on other aspects of the attack. The January 6 panel was more focused on Trump’s actions, and concluded in its report that the former president criminally engaged in a “multi-part conspiracy” to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election and failed to act to stop his supporters from attacking the Capitol.

“It’s important for us to realize these failures to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Peters said.

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