Programming note: A new CNN documentary, “Trumping Democracy: An American Coup,” about former President Donald Trump’s attempts to subvert the 2020 election, premieres at 9 p.m. ET on Friday, November 5.
About two months before the January 6 riot, the US Capitol Police hired two outsiders to overhaul the department’s intelligence operation, giving them control over a unit which had been plagued by inadequate training and a lack of clear standards for years.
The changes were aimed at sharpening the focus of the Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division, the eyes and ears of Capitol Police. The need was particularly urgent since threats against individual lawmakers were rising.
But sources tell CNN the rapid overhaul, while well-intentioned, caused internal confusion during the critical weeks ahead of January 6 and scrambled the priorities of the very division whose work helped determine the Capitol Police security presence that day.
One of those high-ranking intelligence officials hired to overhaul the unit, Julie Farnam, appeared on Thursday before the House Select Committee investigating January 6, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. The source declined to provide details about the nature of what was discussed.
CNN interviews with people familiar with the intelligence unit, as well as a review of previously unpublished internal documents, show that ahead of January 6 as part of the overhaul, analysts were overloaded with casework that other units had been handling. Some in the unit felt unprepared for their tasks. Others worried they were duplicating efforts of others in the 2,300-person Capitol Police department.
One source familiar with the overhaul said changes were made too fast and that employees in the relatively-small intelligence unit — by some accounts roughly two-dozen people — weren’t given enough training to do new tasks.
“They were pulled in so many different directions, it would have been impossible to catch what they should have,” the source told CNN.
In retrospect, the overhaul struck many familiar with the intelligence unit and its previous struggles as ill-timed. As threats against members of Congress became the priority, some thought it came at the cost of preparing for a broadside attack by a mob on the Capitol.
“Initiating significant changes in mission, practices and procedures of the intelligence unit in the midst of a pandemic, social political upheaval while home grown anarchists were metastasizing on social media was a recipe for disaster,” said Terry Gainer, a former chief of the Capitol Police and now a contributor for CNN.
“Changes of this magnitude required near perfect communication, training, testing and coordination with operational commanders before implementation,” said Gainer. “This was no time to be distracted.”
Confusion was “a feature, not a bug’
These newly reported details fit into a broader narrative of a law enforcement apparatus caught flat-footed by what happened on January 6. The Capitol Police was hardly the only government agency surprised by the attack. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security both missed key warning signs, including those that emerged on social media in the days before the attack.
But the breakdowns inside the Capitol Police intelligence unit were particularly severe, sources tell CNN. Inspector general reports had dinged the unit for poor training even before the reorganization, and sources say it was under-performing.
“Internal dysfunction and confusion among USCP intel analysts was a feature, not a bug,” said one source familiar with Congressional investigations into the failings of the Capitol Police ahead of January 6.
One recent inspector general report detailed the Capitol Police’s longstanding shortcomings, reading: “We also identified intelligence related deficiencies with the Department’s organizational structure, training, professional standards, internal controls, and capability to effectively collect, process, and disseminate intelligence information.”
Against that backdrop just one day before the Capitol attack, as rioters were arriving in Washington intent on storming the Capitol, the intelligence unit was still grappling with how to answer the most basic of questions. In one telling email exchange reviewed by CNN, on January 5, an intelligence analyst who hadn’t traditionally worked on threat assessments asked Farnam, the new deputy division director, to clarify what constitutes a threat.
“Is there specific verbiage to determine if it’s a threat other than the obvious ‘I’m going to kill you?’” the employee wrote.
“This is a good question,” Farnam replied. “All of you are analysts and in reading these alerts, I trust you’ll be able to recognize a threat.”
To overhaul its intelligence unit, Capitol Police leadership turned to two outsiders — Farnam, a former DHS official, and Jack Donohue, a 32-year veteran of the New York Police Department specializing in extremist threats.
Capitol Police declined to make Farnam available for an interview. Donohue could not be reached for comment. He left the Capitol Police after less than a year at the department, along with a number other USCP officials.
Originally, the department intended to hire only Donohue to fill the director role, said a source familiar with the hiring process. But Farnam performed so well in her interview, Capitol Police leadership hired her to work as Donohue’s deputy, this person said.
Upon her hire, Farnam was told the intelligence unit needed a complete overhaul. She quickly began meeting with each employee inside the unit individually to explain her goals and vision, according to the Capitol Police. For the first time, the department says analysts were given written performance expectations. Farnam identified training that every analyst needed to have and instituted weekly team meetings to provide updates and answer questions, the department said.
By mid-November, Farnam was laying out new priorities. In one email, she made clear that she wanted employees to spend more time investigating individual cases of threats to lawmakers, especially as those threats were rising precipitously. Capitol Police says it tracked more than 8,600 threats to members in 2020, up more than 20 percent from the year before.
“One of the most important roles we play as a division is identifying threats to members of Congress,” Farnam wrote. “We identify threats, but we often don’t take the next steps to identify the person who posted the derogatory information.”
However, sources say that Farnam’s new demands came without adequate training. Internal communications obtained by CNN indicate that some intelligence employees grew confused about their new priorities and became overwhelmed.
After the riot on January 6, frustration among some intelligence unit employees boiled over, as demonstrated by an email viewed by CNN that one employee sent to some Capitol Police leaders on January 9.
“Too often Analysts and investigators are forced to put out small fires as they arise and not spending time thinking and making quality comprehensive assessments,” the employee wrote. “Being overwhelmed with casework, makes Analysts and investigators parsers of information instead of allowing the time to produce actual analytic assessments.”
The Capitol Police disputes the notion that the overhaul took analysts off their areas of expertise, saying instead that Farnam sought to “expand the skillset and strengthen the capabilities” of the unit.
Asked about allegations that analysts were confused and frustrated by their new mandates, the Capitol Police responded: “It is not unusual for leaders appointed to bring change to be met with resistance. … These changes are essential even if certain individuals on the team do not embrace them.”
To-do list grows
Sources pointed CNN to two projects in particular that Farnam ordered up that struck them as somewhat off-target, given the increasing evidence on social media that Trump supporters were planning armed protests in Washington.
In December, she asked a couple members of the team for an historical overview of assassination attempts both in the US and abroad, including “all levels of the government worldwide.”
“I really don’t know the purpose of an assignment like that,” said one source familiar with the department, who learned about the project months later. “I don’t think that’s a good use of resources.”
Just four days before the insurrection, after news broke that the homes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had been vandalized, Farnam asked for an assessment of incidents of demonstrations and vandalism targeting the homes of members of Congress as well as state and local officials around the country.
In responding to CNN’s questions for this story, the Capitol Police defended Farnman’s requests, saying they were necessary given that threats against members have grown “exponentially” in recent years. The assassination analysis “provides important context when investigating these threats,” the Capitol Police said in an email.
In the days after the January 6 attack, the already low morale inside the intelligence division plummeted according to sources CNN spoke with. The employee who wrote the January 9 email was distraught over what the employee viewed as the avoidable catastrophe.
“I have been purposely quiet for several days in order to calm myself, but know that I am filled with anger and frustration,” the employee wrote.
“We analysts have been reporting for weeks that Patriot groups are commenting on social media their intentions to storm the US Capitol with overwhelming numbers,” the employee wrote. “I don’t know what was occurring behind the scenes, but I hope this information was briefed with the veracity it deserved,” the employee wrote.