What We Have Yet to Learn About the Capitol Riots

Were the events of January 6 the result of an intelligence failure? Spoiler alert: It’s still too early to know. More hearings are needed. More information must be made available to understand whether our leaders failed to gather sufficient information, whether the information that was available was properly assessed, whether it was adequately disseminated, and finally, whether there was simply a failure to imagine the worst happening that day.

The focus to date has largely been on the nugget of reporting coming from the FBI office in Norfolk, Virginia, on January 5. According to newspaper accounts, the FBI office there noticed online chatter among those heading to Washington for the mass protest that talked about taking violent action to stop the Electoral College vote count in Congress. In particular, one message stated, “Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in. … Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.” The FBI in Norfolk flagged the message, sent it up the chain, and distributed it to the counterterrorism “fusion” center in D.C.—one of the 80 centers created in the wake of 9/11 that facilitate information sharing among local, state and federal law-enforcement and intelligence officials. It was then passed along to the Capitol Police intelligence unit. It appears that, while distributed, the message was not then sent up the chain to the most senior levels of the police, FBI, or DHS.  This has led some to speculate that, if it had been taken more seriously, greater efforts could have been made to protect the Capitol and possibly prevent its sacking.

Certainly, it was known among intelligence and police officials that at least some of those coming to D.C. were coordinating their activities and arming themselves. What we don’t know yet is how widespread those discussions were. It makes a difference whether tens of individuals or hundreds were involved. It also makes a difference whether the scale of the discussions and the individuals involved were on par (or not) with pro-Trump rallies in November and December. In short, was the Norfolk FBI note an outlier in the noise of all the other reporting, or an intelligence nugget that, when combined with more of the same, should have set off alarm bells? 

Note, as well, that coming only the day before the protest, the Norfolk message left little or no time for analysts to fit it into some larger picture that might drive a change in security plans that had already been laid down. Nor did the late-arriving message give police and intelligence time to do more digging to determine whether this was a lead that needed serious follow-up or, as some likely thought, a not atypical example of fringe online BS. Whatever the possible value of the intelligence, the Norfolk office let the air out of that balloon by adding the information was not “finally evaluated intelligence” and other agencies “are requested not to take action based on this raw reporting without prior consultation with the FBI.”

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