'You can't just push send': 20 years after 9/11, FBI accused of intel failure before Capitol riot
An FBI intelligence report describing plans for violence was emailed the night before the Jan. 6 riot and never read by Capitol Police or D.C. leaders.
WASHINGTON ‚ÄĒ Nearly two decades after the failure to share intelligence helped prevent the FBI from foiling the 9/11 attacks, the bureau is now accused of not making sure local police agencies fully appreciated the threats brewing among militia groups and white supremacists in the days before the assault on the United States Capitol.
An FBI intelligence report describing plans for violence at the Capitol was sent via email to lower-level officials the night before the Jan. 6 riot, and was never read by Capitol Police or Washington, D.C. leaders, according to testimony at Tuesday's Senate hearing.
Senators called that "an intelligence breakdown" by both the Capitol Police and the FBI.
You can't just push send‚Ä¶and hope it gets to the right person," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the Committee on Rules and Administration.
The intelligence failure that left the Capitol and Washington, D.C. police forces unprepared for the mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol goes well beyond a single unread email from an FBI field office, current and former American officials and experts say. At issue, they say, is a hesitancy by the FBI and other agencies ‚ÄĒ born out of legitimate free speech concerns ‚ÄĒ to collect and disseminate intelligence based on the social media postings of domestic political actors.
"This should be a wake-up call for everyone that we have a major problem on our hands, because the intelligence was there," said Frank Figliuzzi, the former head of the FBI's counterintelligence division and a current NBC News analyst. "The whole system is broken in terms of what they can and can't look at.
For weeks leading up to Jan. 6, extremists said openly on social media that they planned to use violence to stop the Congressional certification of the presidential election, as NBC News and other organizations reported.
But the witnesses at Tuesday's hearing said they received no indication through formal intelligence channels ‚ÄĒ from the FBI and their own intelligence operations ‚ÄĒ that a storming of the Capitol was likely. Although a report from the FBI's Norfolk, Va., field office ‚ÄĒ the one sent by email the night before the riot ‚ÄĒ described social media threats of violence against the Capitol, top FBI officials never mentioned it or other threats in planning meetings, Acting Washington D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said.
In a statement Tuesday evening, the FBI told NBC News that the Norfolk intelligence came from a message board thread and was ‚Äúaspirational, with no specific and credible details.‚ÄĚ
The FBI noted that it shared the information widely, posting it on a system known as the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal (LEEP), which is available to law enforcement officers nationwide.
‚ÄúThe information supplied by Norfolk was discussed inside the Washington Office‚Äôs multi-agency Command Post, which was initiated on January 5‚ÄĚ and included the Capitol Police, the statement said. ‚ÄúIn accordance with our normal process, the FBI and our partners collected and shared available intelligence prior to the events of January 6.‚ÄĚ
The statement did not respond to the criticism from lawmakers who said FBI officials should have personally briefed senior police officials on the intelligence.
Figliuzzi and other former FBI officials say FBI lawyers have long looked askance at intelligence reports based on the public utterances of domestic political actors, lest the bureau be accused of violating the Constitution's right to free speech. As NBC News has reported, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security did not issue a joint intelligence bulletin in advance of the Jan. 6 Electoral College certification, though such bulletins are typically issued before major events. A bulletin wasn't issued in part over free speech concerns, officials said.
The Pentagon is launching an unprecedented campaign to root out extremists in the ranks after dozens of military veterans took part in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
But confronting white nationalism and other far-right ideologies is proving to be a political minefield for an institution that prides itself on staying out of the nation‚Äôs partisan wars. There's a growing sense of anxiety within the Pentagon that this push could feed the perception that it is policing political thought, favoring one political party over another or muzzling free speech.
By the first week of April, all members of the military must take part in a highly unusual order from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in which unit leaders will conduct a day-long ‚Äústand down‚ÄĚ to discuss the threat of extremism and gather feedback from troops on the extent that racism and other hateful ideologies or anti-government sentiment have taken root in recent years.
The Pentagon has not yet disclosed all the training materials it is providing commanders, but that hasn't stopped lawmakers and right-wing commentators from accusing the Defense Department of initiating a witch hunt on behalf of the Biden administration to purge political opponents. While there is no evidence to support a politicization of this effort, there are concerns among the top brass and senior retired officers that it could backfire if the Pentagon doesn't clearly define exactly what "extremism" means.
The day-long event is one in a series of steps the Pentagon has initiated in recent weeks to try to get a handle on the problem. The military, which has been accused of a "haphazard" approach to weeding out extremists, is also assessing the extent to which the problem has permeated the ranks, and has begun a series of reviews to determine if new training or regulations are needed to screen out extremist elements.
But the order for all units to set aside a full day to address the threat of extremism and to hear from rank-and-file troops on what they are seeing or hearing is considered a major test case for how effectively the Pentagon can manage such a politically sensitive subject.
‚ÄúIt really matters how it‚Äôs done,‚ÄĚ said Doyle Hodges, a retired Navy commander and former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval War College. ‚ÄúIf it‚Äôs done correctly, it‚Äôs a way to educate the force about what the problem is and what it looks like. If it is done poorly, it is a way to make people feel persecuted on the basis of political views they hold.‚ÄĚ
Some branches of the military have adopted their own initiatives. The Navy this week decided as part of the stand down that it will require all sailors to reaffirm the oath they took to the Constitution when they joined the service. The service also warned sailors in a separate video that ‚Äújust by posting, retweeting, or liking an offensive post on social media ‚ÄĒ you could be participating in extremism."
Austin also issued a new video message warning of the ‚Äúspeed and pervasiveness with which extremist ideology can spread today, thanks to social media and the aggressive and organized and emboldened attitudes many of these hate groups and their sympathizers are now applying to their recruitment and to their operations.‚ÄĚ
But as officials compile additional training materials to help guide these conversations and subsequent actions, senior military leaders acknowledge there is a risk of going too far, especially if the Pentagon is not specific about what constitutes extremism and prohibited behavior.
‚ÄúHow do you balance this? We don‚Äôt have all the answers on this right now,‚ÄĚ Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown told reporters on Friday. ‚ÄúHow do you define it? That‚Äôs been part of the conversation. Where does the line get drawn on the definition? We may all have different opinions about this. And this is part of the work we will do with the stand down and as we go forward.‚ÄĚ
Others have pointed to previous crackdowns that went too far, such as when the Army was a primary target of a communist witch hunt by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s that ultimately became a symbol of the federal government trampling individual rights.
‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt cross the line into political correctness,‚ÄĚ said Roger Rosewall, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and intelligence officer who has written about the risk of damaging the military if the crackdown is not carried out surgically. ‚ÄúThen you are accusing them of thought crime. The risk is that current military leaders will be telling soldiers you may not believe this, that or the other thing."
"If you are in the military and you participated in the events of Jan. 6, then you and anyone who was there committed violent acts that really amounted to an attempted insurrection against the United States government and you violated your oath,‚ÄĚ he added.
‚ÄúA 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,‚ÄĚ
As staff members huddled inside, the inauguration platform they had been diligently assembling was wrecked: sound systems and photo equipment irreparably damaged or stolen, two lanterns designed and built by the eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th century ripped from the ground, and blue paint tracked all over the stone balustrades and into the hallways. Inside, busts of former speakers of the House and a Chippewa statesman, a statue of Thomas Jefferson and paintings of James Madison and John Quincy Adams were coated in fire extinguisher and other chemicals, including yellow dye that could stain.
‚ÄúOur first duty to those is to make sure the objects that already exist in the House collection are cared for, best we can,‚ÄĚ Ms. Elliott said in response to a question from Representative Katherine Clark, Democrat of Massachusetts. After that, she added, her staff would ‚Äútake stock of what are the artifacts that tell the story of the people‚Äôs House right up through today.‚ÄĚ
While some of the prized pieces in the House collection were saved by curatorial workers ‚ÄĒ including a silver inkstand dating to the early 1800s, the oldest object in the House ‚ÄĒ a handful of statues, busts and paintings were damaged. Most of the items are in hallways near the House chamber, and were largely damaged by chemical sprays
D.C. National Guard chief: Pentagon took 3 hours to greenlight troops during Capitol assault
WASHINGTON ‚ÄĒ The commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, told members of Congress Wednesday that he had troops ready to deploy immediately to the Capitol on Jan. 6, but it took more than three hours for the Defense Department to give the green light.
The commander, Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, added that military leaders ‚ÄĒ including the brother of ex-Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn ‚ÄĒ advised at one point during the afternoon that deploying troops would not be "good optics."
In his opening remarks before two Senate committees, Walker said that he received a ‚Äúfrantic call‚ÄĚ from the chief of U.S. Capitol Police, Steven Sund, early that afternoon about the security perimeter of the Capitol being breached.
"Chief Sund, his voice cracking with emotion, indicated there was a dire emergency on Capitol Hill and he requested the immediate assistance of as many available guardsmen,‚ÄĚ Walker said in his testimony at a joint hearing of two Senate committees: Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Rules and Administration.
Walker said he alerted the Army‚Äôs senior leadership about Sund's request immediately after their phone call.
‚ÄúThe approval for Chief Sund‚Äôs request would eventually come from the acting secretary of defense and be relayed to me by Army senior leaders at 5:08 p.m. ‚ÄĒ 3 hours and 19 minutes later,‚ÄĚ he said.
Walker said that by then, they had already ordered Guard members onto buses to move to the Capitol, and at 5:20 p.m. ‚ÄĒ less than 20 minutes after the Guard finally received permission to deploy ‚ÄĒ troops arrived at the building.
Walker said ‚Äúseconds mattered, minutes mattered‚ÄĚ as events were unfolding. If he had been given the authorization to deploy the more than 150 troops sooner, he said: ‚ÄúI believe that number could have made a difference. We could have helped extend the perimeter and helped push back the crowd."
Also, unlike on Jan. 6, Walker testified that there was no delay in receiving authorization to deploy troops when the D.C. National Guard‚Äôs support was requested to handle demonstrations in downtown Washington last summer after the death of George Floyd.
Not 'good optics'
After his initial call with Walker, Sund then ‚Äúpassionately pleaded‚ÄĚ with Pentagon officials to approve his request for the Guardsmen to come to the Capitol in a call at around 2:30 p.m. with senior Army leaders and the D.C. government and police, Walker said.
‚ÄúThe Army senior leaders said that it did not look good‚ÄĚ and would not be "good optics,‚ÄĚ Walker said, adding, ‚ÄúThey further stated that it could incite the crowd.‚ÄĚ
Walker said he was told then-Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy was meeting with then-acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller and they could not be on the call, but the senior military leaders who were on the call said it was their best advice not to have uniformed Guardsmen on the Capitol grounds.
Walker identified those senior leaders as Gen. Walter Piatt and Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn ‚ÄĒ the brother of Trump‚Äôs first national security adviser, who was pardoned by Trump after twice pleading guilty to lying to the FBI during the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign.
Michael Flynn also reportedly advocated declaring martial law as part of an effort to overturn the election and promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, which was supported by some of the rioters on Jan. 6.
Walker said he ‚Äúwas frustrated‚ÄĚ by the military leaders' response. ‚ÄúI was just as stunned as everybody else on the call," he said.
Ultimately, once D.C. National Guard troops arrived that evening, they helped re-establish the security perimeter on the east side of the Capitol to allow for the joint session of Congress resume in counting the Electoral College votes, he said.
The other witnesses at the hearing were Melissa Smislova, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security; Jill Sanborn, assistant director of the FBI‚Äôs counterterrorism division; and Robert Salesses, who is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense focused on homeland defense and global security.
Salesses said in his opening remarks that Miller ‚Äúordered the full mobilization" of the D.C. National Guard at 3:04 p.m. ET to provide support and McCarthy then directed the Guard personnel to initiate full mobilization.
"Like former President Trump, any elected Member of Congress who aided and abetted the insurrection or incited the attack seriously threatened our democratic government. They would have betrayed their oath of office and would be implicated in the same constitutional provision cited in the Article of Impeachment," Lofgren wrote in her foreword to the report. "That provision prohibits any person who has previously taken an oath as a member of Congress to support the Constitution but subsequently engaged in insurrection or rebellion from serving in Congress."
The report features a collection of social media posts and tweets that span dozens of pages from Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar where he urges supporters to "hold the line," days before what would become the Capitol insurrection. In another social media post included in the report, Gosar wrote that "sedition and treason for stealing votes is appropriate."
The report also captures numerous tweets where Gosar invoked @ali on Twitter, which was formerly the account used by Ali Alexander, a leader of the "Stop the Steal" group, who said in several Periscope livestream videos that he planned the rally that preceded the riot in conjunction with Gosar and two other congressional Republicans, Mo Brooks of Alabama and Andy Biggs of Arizona.