Questions to Guide an Investigation of the Capitol Attack

The invasion of the United States Capitol was an entirely predictable event, which makes the wholesale security collapse all the more unconscionable. Threats on social media grew more frequent and specific after President Donald Trump called on his supporters to gather in Washington, D.C., and push Congress to overturn the election results. Somehow though, several security leaders said they could not have imagined the violence that happened on January 6.

Congress should establish a commission to investigate the failure and make recommendations to prevent it from happening again, including by taking on its underlying causes. These are the questions that should guide the effort.

  1. What did the official intelligence assessments say and how much effort is devoted to understanding far-right extremism? The U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, National Guard, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and D.C. Metropolitan Police Department all have intelligence units that should have warned about the threat and shared information and assessments with each other. In addition to evaluating the intelligence warnings (or lack thereof) before January 6, fully understanding the depths of the overall security failure requires accounting for the resources that federal, state, and local security forces dedicate to understanding and tracking the domestic far-right extremist threat. It will be especially important to compare the level of effort and warnings to previous events involving other groups, such as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Washington this past summer.
  2. What steps were taken ahead of the January 6 events to mitigate the threat of violence? While U.S. domestic security elements have said far-right, white supremacist extremism is the top domestic threat and they are undertaking efforts to counter it, they need to account for these efforts leading up to the attack. In the weeks before January 6, the president and his supporters in Congress and the right-wing media doubled-down on false claims of election fraud and called on his supporters to gather in Washington. In response, they openly discussed their travel plans and made threats against the Capitol and elected officials on the internet. Did proactive interdiction efforts ramp-up alongside the threat as they would have if a non-white, ISIS-inspired domestic extremistmade similar threats, for example? There should have been a major increase in efforts to monitor, evaluate, and disrupt plots to keep pace with the change in circumstances and discussions of violence following the election. The investigation should also look into the scale and effectiveness of government cooperation with social media companies, where much of the threat manifested, and what more the companies could have done.
  3. What security planning and preparation was done for the events? In Washington, major security events are common and advance coordination between many federal and local forces is routine. Security plans were surely made for coinciding events that included the president, the next three leaders in the line of succession, and every member of Congress. But the horrific images we have seen make clear that the planning efforts were based on faulty assumptions and woefully inadequate. Every detail should be accounted for—from what the planners expected and what guidance they gave officers to how they envisioned cooperation between forces and what contingency measures were in place. These preparations and the various forces’ postures on January 6 should be compared to other cases, such as past mobilizations for joint sessions of Congress and major protests at the Capitol. There is evidence that some security measures, particularly the mobilization of the National Guard, used for the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020 were intentionally avoided. The lead decision-makers and their thinking behind all of these choices must be examined along with whether the security forces involved have policies to ensure mobilizations are calibrated to the event and threat.
  4. How did the day unfold? A thorough investigation of January 6 must include a minute-by-minute accounting of the day’s events that incorporates all the relevant actors. It should evaluate the speeches at the rally on the Ellipse, the crowd dynamics throughout the day, and the degree to which security forces noted and adapted to the size and mood of the crowd. There have been effectively no official briefings about the attack and there is little clarity regarding how security forces responded and made decisions throughout the day, including with respect to the reported delays in deploying back-up forces such as the National Guard. The Department of Defense released a timeline of their response and the secretary of the Army spoke with at least one member of Congress, but many questions remain. For example, many reports indicate the crowd was larger than security forces expected, but why did police not request reinforcements between when they saw the larger crowds and when the group moved toward the Capitol? Why did they also fail to note and adjust to the belligerent tone of the speeches and the prevalence of body armor, helmets, and other signs of readiness for violence? Reviewing communications within and among security components will help identify the failures in identifying the threat, adapting to it, and managing it throughout the day. Finally, with extremists breaching the House and Senate chambers shortly after members were evacuated, any inquiry should also look whether more and worse violence was planned or possible and what prevented it.
  5. Who incited, assisted, and participated in the attacks? Understanding who was behind the violence will require care to gather every shred of relevant information while protecting the First Amendment rights of those who did not commit crimes. The starting points include who participated in the attack, how did they come to adopt extremist views and embrace violence, and to what extent did they plan and coordinate with others in advance. Every angle should be evaluated, including whether any foreign individuals or groups participated and the extent of any police, military, or elected official involvement. Large amounts of video and photo evidence are facilitating arrests and can help focus initial questioning on those who appear to have played central roles in the violence. The investigation should also learn everything possible about who organized and funded the rally and whether the speakers—including the president—had specific plans and intentions for what would happen after their incendiary remarks.
  6. What should be done to prevent future violence and stop far-right extremism? The preceding questions will help us understand what happened on January 6 and hold accountable those responsible. They will also inform the urgent work of preventing future attacks, identifying how pervasive far-right extremism is in our institutions, and addressing its underlying causes society-wide. Correctly diagnosing the problem will be essential to prevention, and a full investigation will provide the needed facts. But we should acknowledge right away that white supremacy appears to be a dominant driver and common thread among participants. Whether in the prevalence of symbols of racism and hate in the overwhelmingly White crowd, the violent racist content on attackers’ social media, or the overall focus on invalidating the votes of predominantly Black communities, it is not subtle. Belief in anti-government conspiracy theories, especially QAnon, and the unprecedented lying by the president and his supporters in Congress highlight a broader surge in disinformation in right-wing political discourse that appears to be another key driver. We should also note that while the attacks were unquestionably terrorism, emphasizing the method rather than the motivations risks producing a far too narrow approach to stopping it. A full investigation should draw hard lessons from the failure of massive global counterterrorism expenditures to reduce the prevalence of violent extremism worldwide and make recommendations based on the latest evidence-based thinking on countering extremism. But it should also identify and elevate recommendations for eliminating systemic racism in the United States and illustrate how doing that long overdue work will help diminish far-right extremism. To be fully successful, a national commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol must provide a framework for a far more ambitious, organized, and whole-of-society effort to close the widening domestic fissures that would drive further violence.

Editor’s Note: Please see Mark Nevitt’s recent piece for immediate issues that should be addressed to prevent additional violence surrounding the upcoming Presidential Inauguration.

Image: Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the US Capitol in Washington D.C on January 6, 2021. Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

 

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About the Author(s)

Kyle Murphy

Kyle Murphy served as a senior intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he authored assessments on political and security issues that covered every region in Africa and many of the non-state and outside actors on the continent. He previously served at the White House from 2015-2017 as the National Security Council (NSC) director for West Africa and as the acting senior director for Africa during the 2017 presidential transition. Follow him on on Twitter (@kyle_a_murphy).