No Leadership, Myopia, Fears Of Overreach: Why The Gov’t Failed To Stop The Capitol Breach

WASHINGTON D.C., USA - JANUARY 6: Police intervenes in US President Donald Trumps supporters who breached security and entered the Capitol building in Washington D.C., United States on January 06, 2021. Pro-Trump rio... WASHINGTON D.C., USA - JANUARY 6: Police intervenes in US President Donald Trumps supporters who breached security and entered the Capitol building in Washington D.C., United States on January 06, 2021. Pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol as lawmakers were set to sign off Wednesday on President-elect Joe Biden's electoral victory in what was supposed to be a routine process headed to Inauguration Day. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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January 8, 2021 6:33 p.m.

Ryan Greer kept his schedule for the afternoon of Jan. 6 open.

A former Department of Homeland Security official who now works for the Anti-Defamation League, Greer and others saw from publicly available information that something was coming. He recalled having a meeting that morning with an open-source intelligence group in London that was also watching closely to see what would happen.

“Wednesday is gonna be a day that we’re all watching,” Greer said.

So how did federal law enforcement, charged with protecting the Capitol, fail? The assembled Trump supporters and far-right agitators were transparent about their violent plot to storm the Capitol and interrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. So why did they succeed?

It will take years of painstaking investigation to produce a full answer, one which will likely encompass multiple factors that may range from simple incompetence to malevolence by the Commander-in-Chief.

But experts and former national security officials that TPM has spoken with over the past several days pointed to three factors:

  • A multi-year atrophying in law enforcement intelligence and communication capacity
  • A refusal to consider the President’s supporters as a threat
  • Fears of repeating the summer overreach that saw the military deployed against peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors

The result was that the vast array of tools available to the federal government to prevent what happened on Wednesday from taking place — from reserve law enforcement units to portable walls used to establish a perimeter — was left unused.

“These tools were available, and we are not clear on why those tools were not used,” Greer said.

Aftermath of Lafayette Square

It wasn’t only federal law enforcement that failed to respond on Wednesday. Congressional leaders besieged by a mob seeking to overturn the election results also called for the D.C. National Guard — a military unit with the mission of supporting law enforcement in the nation’s capital.

The Guard, however, did not immediately respond, despite a request from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Similarly, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) said that Pentagon officials repeatedly denied requests from him and from House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) to activate their state’s guard to help put down the insurrection.

But that’s a separate issue from the guard’s apparent lack of preparedness for what took place on Jan. 6.

In advance of the insurrection attempt, the Pentagon reportedly issued memos limiting the guard’s authority to act.

That move reportedly came in response to a request from Bowser, and in the aftermath of two key and disturbing events in civil-military relations over the past year: the use of the military to suppress a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest at Lafayette Square in June, and reports in recent weeks that President Trump planned to use the military to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

“There seems to have been a reluctance within the Pentagon to have the National Guard be a visible part of the response,” Lindsey Cohn, an associate professor at the Naval War College and an expert on civil-military relations, told TPM.

The memos required sign-off from the Secretary of Defense for the use of a helicopter, and banned the guard from sharing equipment with local law enforcement.

The moves came after a former general, Michael Flynn, had demanded that Trump declare martial law and use the military to re-run elections.

“I don’t think this has made the Pentagon so worried that they will just keep the national guard out of everything, though Lafayette Square certainly did make them wary of the possibility that they might be asked to suppress demonstrations again, or that they might be asked to do something with connection to the election,” Cohn added.

An atrophied federal law enforcement

Former federal law enforcement officials told TPM that the move comes after years of poor coordination between bodies aimed at watching for domestic criminal threats.

Chief among these is the Department of Homeland Security and its Office of Intelligence and Analysis. A former chief of that unit, Brian Murphy, was demoted after being ordered by DHS political appointees “to modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups,” he told Congress in a whistleblower complaint.

That office has seen multiple shake-ups this year, including an episode where Murphy, the same official, recalled more than 20 open-source intelligence reports that focused on the activities of journalists in Portland.

Hayden, the SPLC official, said that focus on Antifa and an “unwillingness to take this subject as seriously as it needs to be taken” were at fault.

“You don’t need to be an expert in far-right extremism to know that something bad was going to happen,” he added.

The former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told TPM that the Trump administration had stopped scheduling weekly threat assessment meetings with other agencies, depriving personnel of the ability to share information and build relationships with one another that would be useful in a crisis.

Among other things, neither DHS or the FBI reportedly issued what’s known as a Joint Intelligence Bulletin for Jan. 6, a standard undertaking that provides a threat assessment.

“I cannot fathom why they would not have done that,” Greer, the former DHS official, told TPM. “I’m hoping that reporting becomes mooted because it would absolutely be a mission failure for the intelligence community if they had absolutely missed this opportunity to inform stakeholders of the gravity of the threat.”

Michael Hayden, an investigator at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that his organization had seen ample evidence of impending violence.

“Our policy when we gather intel when it appears like an imminent danger is to not handle it publicly,” he said when asked if SPLC shared the information with law enforcement.

No leadership

The most important factor that came up in discussion with security experts was a complete leadership vacuum.

Without anyone bringing different law enforcement agencies together or imposing any sense of urgency, government departments appeared to be left to steer themselves.

“It’s a gross failure of leadership,” Rachel VanLandingham, a professor of military law at Southwestern Law School, told TPM on Thursday. “You could see this coming — there were people calling for the insurrection.”

Some officials said on Wednesday that the attack had not been on the government’s radar.

But Greer said that his organization and others had provided federal law enforcement entities with open-source information about people planning to commit criminal actions at the protest.

“I think that for whatever reason the intelligence wasn’t acted on,” he said.

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