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Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on  6 January 2021. Demonstrators breached security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. Agencies’ ‘Failure of Imagination’ Partly Responsible for Capitol Attack Intelligence Missteps

U.S. government agencies disregarded or downplayed large amounts of intelligence information before the 6 January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, due in part to a failure of imagination to see threats to breach the building as credible, according to U.S. Senate report published Tuesday.

Planned in Plain Sight: A Review of the Intelligence Failures in Advance of January 6, 2021, was published by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee following a lengthy investigation of government documents, transcripts, and testimonies from officials. While there have been several reports analyzing the physical security breach and the roles of key players in the response, this is the first report to assess the actions of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) before the assault.

“Despite the high volume of tips and online traffic about the potential for violence—some of which the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Intelligence and Analysis were aware of as early as December 2020—these agencies failed to sound the alarm and share critical intelligence information that could have helped law enforcement better prepare for the events of January 6, 2021,” said Committee Chairman U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) in a press release.

“My report shows there was a shocking failure of imagination from these intelligence agencies to take these threats seriously, and there is no question that their failures to effectively analyze and share the threat information contributed to the failures to prevent and respond to the horrific attack that unfolded at the Capitol,” Peters continued.

Thousands of people stormed the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021 during a Joint Session of Congress to certify the 2020 U.S. presidential election results. The incident contributed to the deaths of nine people; caused the evacuation of the vice president, members of congress, and staff from the building; injured at least 140 police officers; and caused more than $2.7 billion in damage.

In the years after the attack, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged more than 1,000 people in nearly all 50 U.S. states for crimes related to the assault, including seditious conspiracy to oppose the lawful transition of presidential power.

What the Committee Found

Ahead of the 6 January attack, hundreds of people shared their plans online to travel to Washington, D.C., for a rally on the National Mall protesting the 2020 presidential election results. Some of those publicly available posts included calls for violence.

For instance, the FBI received a tip in December 2020 that the Proud Boys planned to be in Washington, D.C., and “literally kill people;” the Bureau received a tip on 3 January 2021 that posts on social media app Parler called for people to bring “food and guns” to create an armed encampment on the National Mall; and DOJ leadership saw many social media posts on 4 January of calls to “occupy federal buildings” and discussion of invading the Capitol, according to the report.

Despite this information, the FBI only issued two documents on 6 January the night before the attack with limited raw intelligence—and limited distribution. The Bureau also did not issue urgent warnings that it was anticipating violence on 6 January in its calls with intelligence-sharing partners.

“This investigation found that part of the reason the FBI failed to take more action to warn its federal partners and the public was because it failed to seriously consider the possibility that threatened actions would actually be carried out, and it dismissed each individual threat as not credible in isolation but failed to fully consider the totality of threats and violent rhetoric associated with such a contentious event,” the report explained. “The FBI also focused on potential clashes between protestors (e.g., the Proud Boys) and counter-protestors (e.g., Antifa) based on its experiences with previous demonstrations, at the expense of focusing more attention and reporting on the growing threat to elected officials and the Capitol itself.”

The committee’s investigation assessed that the FBI was also hindered in its ability to conduct open-source monitoring in the days before the attack because the Bureau changed contracts for its third-party social monitoring tool.

“FBI officials raised concerns internally that its contract to identify potential threats on social media expired six days before January 6, leaving the FBI without certain capabilities,” according to the report. “Internal communications reveal that FBI officials did not adequately plan for the transition to a new contract, which did not occur until January 1, days before the attack.”

Additionally, the I&A only released high-level intelligence products in 2020 that described general threats across the nation; it did not release any intelligence bulletins about 6 January ahead of the attack. On the day of the assault itself, the I&A analysts “struggled to assess the credibility of online posts calling for violence at the Capitol” despite the facts that the attack was already unfolding and the U.S. Capitol Police were asking the analysts for intelligence information, according to the report.

The report also identified failures by agencies to effectively coordinate prior to the 6 January attack—including an inability to identify which agency was to take a lead role and a failure by DHS to designate 6 January as a National Special Security Event. The report’s authors also found that in the aftermath of the attack, officials largely blamed other agency failures for what happened.

What the Committee Recommends

“Repeating the ‘failure of imagination’ that the 9/11 Commission described nearly 20 years earlier, the intelligence processes in advance of January 6 suffered from a bias toward discounting intelligence that indicated an unprecedented event,” according to the report. “FBI and I&A intelligence collectors, analysts, and leaders failed to sound the alarm about January 6 in part because they could not conceive that the U.S. Capitol Building would be overrun by rioters. This reflects the intelligence community’s struggle to adapt to the new reality that the primary threat to homeland security (as identified by these same agencies) is now domestic terrorism driven largely by anti-government and white supremacist ideologies.”

To prevent a similar set of failures in the future, the committee made seven recommendations:

  • The FBI and DHS should conduct full internal reviews of their actions in the lead-up to 6 January.

  • FBI and I&A should improve policies, guidelines, and procedures for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence to partner agencies.

  • FBI and I&A should clarify policies and procedures for using open-source information, including social media.

  • DHS should designate Joint Sessions of Congress to certify the presidential election as a National Special Security Event.

  • FBI and I&A should improve inter-agency coordination for other significant events and consider designating a lead federal agency.

  • Congress should review and reform I&A’s mission in domestic intelligence.

  • Congress should reassert its oversight authorities over the Executive Branch.


“The result of these failures was plain to see on January 6, 2021: the U.S. Capitol Building was stormed and overrun, law enforcement officers and rioters lost their lives, and the peaceful transition of power was threatened,” the report concluded. “Our nation is still reckoning with the fallout from January 6, but what is clear is the need for a reevaluation of the federal government’s domestic intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination processes.”