The FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had intelligence that indicated the potential for violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but failed to treat it as credible and disseminate the information to law enforcement partners, according to a new congressional report. The news comes as FBI Director Christopher Wray is set to testify before the House Judiciary Committee and face questions about the “politicization” of the FBI.
Last month the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released its analysis of intelligence failures in the lead-up to the attack on the Capitol. The report says federal agencies didn’t take the threat of an attack on the Capitol seriously; failed to follow their own policies for sharing intelligence, including information found on social media; and blamed each other afterwards instead of coordinating to prevent violence beforehand.
Federal agencies received intelligence about the possibility of an attack on the Capitol
The report shows that the FBI and DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) collected tips and intelligence that threatened or predicted the kind of violence that occurred on Jan. 6. This included plans to come to Washington, D.C. armed, threats against politicians and opposing protesters, and sharing of maps of the Capitol’s tunnel system.
Some of this information had been previously reported, but Erik Dahl, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School who has written extensively about the specific intelligence failures in the lead up to 9/11, told Just Security in an email that while reading the report he was surprised by “the sheer volume of warnings that were in the system before January 6.”
The agencies, however, largely did not deem those threats to be credible or imminent. Many were dismissed as hyperbole. The report determines that this was in part due to a mistaken belief that the Capitol could not be stormed.
Among other recommendations, the committee states that “the agencies should assess potential biases toward discounting intelligence that indicates an unforeseen or unprecedented attack or event.”
Dismissals of the potential for an attack on the Capitol, the report says, relied in part on expectations that any violence would be similar to what had occurred in D.C. since the 2020 election – conflict primarily between protesters and counterprotesters.
A former senior FBI official who left the Bureau prior to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, said they wished the report had gone deeper on why there were so few intelligence products related to Jan. 6. They emphasized that threat assessments for major events, like a presidential inauguration or even the fourth of July, are commonplace and communication between federal agencies and other law enforcement in the D.C. area is usually frequent in the runup to those events.
The former FBI official said the report and the FBI itself have failed to answer why coordination and intelligence products did not happen as usual ahead of Jan. 6.
The FBI and DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis failed to follow their own policies
The report shows that federal agencies did not follow their own policies for documenting intelligence and did not sufficiently share what they found with their partners in other agencies.
Those gathering intelligence at the FBI deemed online threats of violence on Jan. 6 not to be specific or credible. This meant that the intelligence did not meet the standard for further investigation. However, that should not have precluded the FBI from recording the information or sharing it with law enforcement partners, which they largely failed to do.
The former FBI official said while there are restrictions on how the FBI can use first amendment protected speech – namely that it cannot be the sole basis for opening an investigation – open source intelligence is still important. The official said that this kind of information has been used for years to create threat assessments and can be used in concert with other, non-first amendment protected information as the basis for conducting an investigation.
The report also noted that the FBI’s contract for social media monitoring software expired at the end of 2020. The software was replaced with a new system that required training and did not immediately include the keyword searches that had been built on the previous software.
The former official said that in the years since Jan. 6, the FBI has increased its commitment to using open source social media information.
At I&A, the report says, Jan. 6 came in the midst of a “pendulum swing” after the racial justice protests of 2020, including in Portland, Oregon. The office had been accused of overreach, including producing intelligence on journalists covering the protests. In response to these accusations, “intelligence collectors were encouraged to issue reports ‘only when they were confident the threats were real.’”
The shift in guidance meant collectors set a significantly higher bar for what intelligence was kept and shared, especially from social media. The shift also caused confusion among those collecting open-source intelligence online.
Dahl said in the wake of the Portland protests, analysts were “gun-shy” about using social media intelligence.
“As a nation we need to figure out how to provide effective warning intelligence about domestic threats, while also protecting civil liberties and the freedom of speech,” Dahl said. “And this report shows we have a long way to go.”
Despite this shift to a more cautious approach, the report says I&A guidance meant that collectors should have reported social media intelligence that “includes information that demonstrates a risk of violence during a heightened threat environment,” even if they did not deem the intelligence to include true threats.
The FBI did create a repository for intelligence related to Jan. 6, but failed to record all the information the Bureau received. The report says this meant the FBI considered individual pieces of intelligence on their own merits, but failed to look comprehensively at the possibility for violence on Jan. 6. The agency repeatedly downplayed the risk of anything other than a protest, including after people arrived at former President Donald Trump’s speech at the Ellipse wearing body armor.
According to Dahl, this detail of the report shows that, “the intelligence failure was not just in misunderstanding the threat leading up to January 6, but it was also a failure on that day itself.”
The FBI also chose to share the intelligence they’d gathered through informal channels, the report says. While field offices did issue two Situational Information Reports, information was generally shared on more informal calls and emails.
Dahl said that while informal channels are useful, “formal processes are critical for sharing intelligence more widely, and for forcing intelligence agencies to go on record with their overall assessments, and neither of those happened effectively in this case.”
The report also shows that the more informal calls between agencies may not have captured the specifics, severity, or scope of the threats known through intelligence.
Federal agencies failed to effectively coordinate with one another
The report includes several examples of federal agencies’ failure to coordinate and work together effectively.
In communicating with each other, federal agencies did not consistently give the full picture of the intelligence they had collected, including by providing intelligence products.
The report also delves into the question of which agency was in charge on Jan. 6. While some officials believed DOJ to be the lead agency, DOJ denied this. Others thought that the U.S Department of Defense was taking the lead.
The report includes members of the intelligence community questioning the need for a lead agency at all, calling the issue “semantic” and saying it would be difficult to unite all agencies under one authority because of jurisdiction issues.
Dahl said, “rather than a culture of collaboration, the report paints a picture of communication failure, as officials were uncertain about who was in charge and unclear about what threat information could be shared and with whom.”
To solve this issue, the report recommends that future joint sessions of Congress to certify election results be designated as National Special Security Events, which would make the U.S. Secret Service the lead agency automatically.
The lack of a lead agency has also allowed agencies to shift blame onto one another in the wake of the attack on the Capitol. Other agencies have often placed the failures of Jan. 6 at the feet of the U.S. Capitol Police. Current and former officials have been less eager to acknowledge their own failure to anticipate or prevent the attack.
The former FBI official said that shifting blame can lead agencies to pull back even further from communicating with each other – conversations that should be keeping the country safe.
The former official also said they’re disappointed in agencies’ impulse to not answer questions about their work in the lead up to Jan. 6, or to wait for the results of lengthy inspector general reports.
At the FBI in particular, the former official sees a need for an internal investigation into the failures that led to Jan. 6, including going through the raw intelligence available prior to Jan. 6 and understanding the assumptions made based on the total of that intelligence. This investigation, they said, could be quicker and more detailed than those by the inspector general or congressional committees. They also said it is possible such an investigation has occurred but has not been shared with the public, which would indicate a need for greater transparency.
While the report certainly does not answer all questions around how intelligence was analyzed in the lead up to Jan. 6, it gives a detailed rebuttal of initial statements that the government had no information to anticipate the attack on the Capitol.