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Illustration by Security Management

Senate Hearings Dig into Intelligence Breakdowns in Capitol Riot

Rioters “came prepared for war,” but on 6 January, U.S. Capitol Police were only prepared for a protest, said ex-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund in a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

In the hearing, three former Capitol security officials, including Sund, cast blame for security failures during the riots on other agencies, each other, and subordinates. They testified that the FBI and the intelligence community failed to provide adequate warnings that rioters planned to invade the Capitol and that the Pentagon was too slow to authorize a deployment of National Guard troops, The New York Times reports.

“We properly planned for a mass demonstration with possible violence,” Sund said. “What we got was a military-style coordinated assault on my officers and a violent takeover of the Capitol Building.”

He added: “These criminals came prepared for war. They came with weapons, chemical munitions, and explosives. They came with shields, ballistic protection, and tactical gear. They came with their own radio system to coordinate the attack, as well as climbing gear and other equipment to defeat the Capitol’s security features.”

One key warning that went unheeded, however, was an FBI report from a Norfolk, Virginia, field office that had flagged an anonymous social media threat warning of a looming war at the Capitol building. The message board thread described an array of preparations, including a map of Capitol-area tunnels and staging areas in surrounding states, USA Today reports. Within 40 minutes, the information had been shared with law enforcement partners, said Assistant FBI Director Steven D’Antuono.

Sund testified that the report had reached Capitol Police late on 5 January, but it had not been delivered to him directly. An officer assigned to a law enforcement joint terrorism task force (JTTF) got the document and assigned it to an intelligence division official, where the report stalled.

Robert Contee, the chief of Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, said in his testimony that the FBI should have more urgently flagged the information via telephone rather than an after-hours email. FBI and Pentagon officials are expected to appear at hearings next week, where some of these additional points may be explored.

In emailed analysis to Security Management, Anthony McGinty, CPP—a former member of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department’s Civil Disturbance Unit and Intelligence Division and a current intelligence advisor based in Los Angeles, California—says that the intelligence breakdown points to a failure to rev up reporting—even overreporting—especially given the context of planned demonstrations amid a highly charged political event like the certification of the 2020 presidential election.

“First, I think it's important to understand the difference between actionable ‘intelligence’ and ‘threat reporting,’” McGinty says. “The FBI Norfolk report appears to have been threat reporting of an anonymous online poster—whose reliability and access as a source is not known.  Consequently, the report was apparently shared with operational squads of the JTTFs, but it didn’t get pushed to the executive levels of the U.S. Capitol Police and other agencies.  That was a critical mistake.”

The warning was but one piece of a larger picture—one that pointed to a high potential of violence during the planned demonstration on 6 January. The nearly five-hour siege of the Capitol building left five people dead and nearly 150 officers injured.

“There’s no question in my mind that there was a failure to take this threat more seriously, despite widespread social media content and public reporting that indicated violence was extremely likely,” said Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The attack on the Capitol will likely fuel debate and accelerate change around preparedness, site hardening, and information sharing for years to come—both for the public and private sectors.

“Private industry should see January 6 as a failure in information sharing and contingency planning,” adds McGinty, who is also co-vice chair of the ASIS International Extremism and Political Instability Community. In the wake of the riots, security professionals need to consider some essential questions: “Structurally and culturally, are they in position to protect their assets, employees, clients? Are they aware of political, economic, and social developments that can be drivers for violent groups? How does your organization manage threat information to support security strategy?” 

“The world is changing in ways that expose vulnerabilities—pay attention,” he says.