The documents the Secret Service provided to the congressional investigators that CNN has obtained exclusively tell us a lot about what law enforcement knew and when they knew it leading up to January 6.
There is a habit in post-9/11 Washington, especially among politicians, to call out any failure to predict the future as an “intelligence failure.” That allows elected officials to put the feet of the people on the front lines of intelligence gathering to the fire.
But the Secret Service documents obtained by CNN tell us there was plenty of intelligence coming in just before January 6 regarding the potential for violence.
The documents tell us that federal law enforcement agencies were meeting regularly in the days leading up to January 6 and that intelligence was moving between agencies. The Secret Service documents indicate a summary of reporting from the FBI based on coordination briefings that occurred every two hours between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on the night before the protest that would become an insurrection.
One summary of FBI intelligence from January 5 reads: “Right wing groups responding from across the nation and establishing ‘quick reaction forces’ in Virginia. Standing by at the ready should POTUS request assistance.”
The summary indicated that the FBI was tracking 52 threat reports coming in from field offices across the country.
There was also information provided to the Secret Service by the US Marshals Service from a post from 9 a.m. on January 6 on Parler, the online social site which is popular with conservatives: “Now you got weapons I came packing got my dc carry permit in November,” writes a Trump supporter. “I’m here for justice bang bang. F—k Pence sellout traitor we better see him coming out that building in handcuffs or were going in.”
Another post two days earlier in the same app predicts, “It’s gonna get violent as we charge the federal buildings and drag out corrupt politicians dead or alive!”
At the time of the January 6 assault on the Capitol, I was the deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism at the New York Police Department. My intelligence analysts also shared information we gathered with the US Capitol Police and the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police. Now the Secret Service finds itself in the crosshairs of congressional critics about whether the Secret Service shared information with other agencies.
The question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how intelligence flows between agencies. The two organizations that are supposed to share information widely with law enforcement partners are the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
The documents the Secret Service shared with the January 6 committee show most of the intelligence was coming from the FBI. Much of that was being passed in briefings at the FBI’s Washington field office to all agencies involved in preparing for the January 6 protests. Critics have also pointed to a December 31, 2020, Secret Service summary of Facebook posts promoting pro-Trump protests on January 6 with each paragraph ending with “there is no indication of civil disobedience.”
Critics claimed that shows the Secret Service was downplaying the potential for violence. As an intelligence professional who read similar summaries for nearly two decades, I can tell you that caveat simply meant this: There is simply no indications in the Facebook posting of planned violence.
To underscore that point, the same document went to great pains on its first page to point out that prior demonstrations by some of the same groups in Washington just weeks earlier had resulted in “physical altercations between pro and anti-Trump demonstration groups as well as numerous arrests” including for assault, assault on a police officer, possession of a weapon and inciting violence.
The most on-point paper from the days before January 6 may the threat assessment produced by the US Capitol Police intelligence arm on January 3 – three days before the storming of the Capitol.
The document was written by a team of Capitol Police intelligence analysts working for Jack Donohue, an expert on politically motivated violent extremism. Prior to joining the Capitol Police, Donohue had been one of my deputies in the NYPD.
This is what his January 3 memo concluded: “Supporters of the current president see January 6, 2021 as the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election. This sense of desperation and disappointment may lead to more of an incentive to become violent.” Another key judgment on that page: “Unlike previous post-election protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counter-protesters…but rather Congress itself.”
The analysis ends with these words: “this, combined with Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members and others who actively promote violence, may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike.” That was Sunday, January 3 at 3 p.m.
So, where is the intelligence failure? If the intel was on target, and the information was being shared, how did the events of January 6 unfold the way they did?
One of the key questions after the assault on the Capitol by thousands of protesters was, where was the National Guard?
A day after Capitol Police Chief Steve Sund read Donohue’s Intelligence analysis, according to his testimony in the Senate, “I approached the two Sergeants at Arms to request the assistance of the National Guard, as I had no authority to do so without an Emergency Declaration by the Capitol Police Board.”
Sund testified that he asked the House of Representatives Sergeant-at-Arms, Paul Irving, to ask for National Guard troops for January 6. According to Sund’s testimony, Irving, who effectively reported to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said “he was concerned about the ‘optics’ of having National Guard present and didn’t feel that the intelligence supported it.” Irving denied Sund’s account in his written testimony,
“Certain media reports have stated that ‘optics’ determined my judgment about using those National Guard troops. That is categorically false. ‘Optics’ as portrayed in the media did not determine our security posture; safety was always paramount when evaluating security for January 6.”
Sund, at Irving’s suggestion, then tried the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger who reported to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
According to Sund, Stenger also would not approve the request but “suggested I ask them how quickly we could get support if needed and to ‘lean forward’ in case we had to request assistance on January 6.” When Sund called National Guard Gen. William Walker on the days leading up to January 6, he asked if Walker would be able to get troops on the ground if needed. Walker told Sund yes, but needed the formal approvals to mobilize.
Both sergeants-at-arms testified in March that they never brought the January 3 request from the chief of the Capitol to either Pelosi or McConnell until the Capitol was fully under siege on January 6. Irving said, “The intelligence was not that there would be a coordinated attack on the Capitol, nor was it contemplated in any of the interagency meetings I attended before the attack.” Stenger died of cancer in June.
Another thing that might have changed analytic judgments and even police deployments would have been advance word from the White House that President Donald Trump was going to give a speech to a large crowd of supporters outside on the Ellipse and tell them they had to “fight like hell” to save the country as they prepared to march to the Capitol. That didn’t enter the threat stream until it actually happened.
In the end, both sergeants-at-arms and the Capitol Police chief had to fall on their swords. In March, Congress called for a review of how critical operational decisions are made by the Capitol Police. Congress passed legislation giving the chief of the Capitol Police the authority to ask for emergency assistance from the DC National Guard and other federal agencies without having to go through the Capitol Police Board.
The swift passage of the new legislation shows us that even elected officials who routinely work by committee, understood that their police chief shouldn’t have to run a crisis through one.