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Former Capitol security officials blame intelligence lapses for deadly Jan. 6 riot

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1 day ago Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian

Top officials responsible for security at the Capitol on Jan. 6 as it was overrun by a mob backing former president Donald Trump blamed wide-ranging intelligence failures for the deadly attack at a Senate hearing Tuesday, pointing to lapses that included a missed email warning of violence and a larger inability to recognize the threat posed by domestic right-wing extremism.

Testimony from three now-resigned officials — Capitol Police chief Steven A. Sund, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael C. Stenger — each sought to minimize their responsibility for the events on that violent and chaotic day, which resulted in five deaths from injuries at the riot and temporarily delayed the congressional certification of President Biden’s victory.

But they each, to varying degrees, detailed how they were caught off-guard by the scale and ferocity of the pro-Trump crowd, which escalated from a relatively peaceful protest to a violent mob in a span of hours while security officials scrambled — and ultimately failed — to respond.

“None of the intelligence we received predicted what actually occurred,” Sund said at the hearing. “We properly planned for a mass demonstration with possible violence. What we got was a military-style, coordinated assault on my officers and a violent takeover of the Capitol Building.”

The Senate probe is one of several efforts to determine what went wrong on the day the rioters stormed the Capitol, the most serious breach of the building since British troops burned it in 1814. Federal prosecutors have filed cases against rioters, the Government Accountability Office is probing security preparations, and top congressional leaders continue to discuss creating an outside commission to investigate the attack, one modeled on the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

On Tuesday, there were notable disputes between the witnesses — particularly between Sund and Irving over the timing and the nature of requests that Sund made for National Guard assistance both in the days leading up to the attack and as it played out.

[Inside the Capitol siege: How barricaded lawmakers and aides sounded urgent pleas for help as police lost control]

Notably, Irving denied a claim made by Sund that he had cited “optics” in denying a request for military assistance two days before rioters breached the Capitol. Rather, he said that he, Sund and Stenger had agreed at the time that the intelligence assessment they received — indicating a pro-Trump rally similar to two others that had taken place in the weeks before — did not justify a military deployment.

“I was not concerned about appearance whatsoever — it was all about safety and security,” Irving said. “Any reference [to ‘optics’] would have been related to appropriate use of force, display of force. And, ultimately, the question on the table when we look to any security asset is, does the intelligence warrant it?”

A fourth witness, D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III, whose officers engaged in some of the most violent clashes of the days, described how he was frustrated at the slow deployment of National Guard troops as the scope of the violence become clear. He recounted a phone call that included Capitol security officials, as well as D.C. leaders and Defense Department brass.

“There was not an immediate yes of, ‘The National Guard is responding,’ ‘The National Guard is on the way,’” he said. “The response was more asking about the plan: What was the plan for the National Guard? . . . How this looks with boots on the ground on the Capitol?”

“My response to that was simply, I was just stunned,” Contee added. ““I have officers that were out there literally fighting for their lives, and, you know, we’re kind of going through what seemed like an exercise to really check the boxes, and it was not an immediate response.”

Contee and Sund both warned that the Capitol attack reflected a larger failure of domestic intelligence — one that takes threats from homegrown extremists as seriously as those coming from foreign threats. Both did so in the context of explaining their failure to act on an intelligence bulletin issued by the FBI’s Norfolk field office the day before the attack.

The report, first publicly disclosed days after the attack by The Washington Post, relayed credible calls for violence: “Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest,” said one of the messages. “Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”

Sund disclosed for the first time that the bulletin was forwarded to Capitol Police through the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but it only reached as far as the department’s intelligence division. It was not forwarded to Sund or to the two sergeants-at-arms.

Contee said the D.C. police department received the report but said it came as an undistinguished email, not as a priority alert demanding immediate attention.

“I would think that something of that nature would rise to the level of more than just an email,” he said. “I assure you that my phone is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I’m available for any phone call from any agency that has information with respect to something of this magnitude happening in our city.”

[How the rioters who stormed the Capitol came dangerously close to Pence]

Sund told senators that the federal intelligence community “needs to broaden its aperture on what information it collects” and called for an examination of “view they have on some of the domestic extremists and the effect that they have.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, largely agreed in comments he made closing the hearing Tuesday, saying the failure to recognize the scope of the extremist threat contributed to a “once-in-a-lifetime failure.”

“There’s no question our federal counterterrorism resources are not focused on effectively addressing the growing and deadly domestic terror threat,” he said, noting that federal agencies are eight months late in delivering a comprehensive assessment on that subject. “There’s no question in my mind that there was a failure to take this threat more seriously.”

The two Senate committees that held Tuesday’s hearing are expected to hold a second hearing next week featuring witnesses from the FBI, Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security who had a more direct role in intelligence gathering.

Elsewhere in the hearing, senators struggled to resolve discrepancies in the timeline of the official response to the breaching of the Capitol. One stark dispute between Sund and Irving involved their conversations on Jan. 6 as rioters entered the building. While Sund testified that the two spoke at 1:09 p.m., shortly after rioters had broken through the Capitol security perimeter, Irving said he did not speak to Sund till later.

Sund stood by his testimony, repeating several times that was when he asked the sergeants-at-arms for assistance from the National Guard, that he did so in the presence of his two assistant chiefs and general counsel, and that he called to check on the status of his request at 1:22 p.m.

But Irving said he did not recall those conversations taking place, and that he was on the House floor when Sund said the call came through, monitoring the congressional joint session reviewing the electoral college results.

Video from the House chamber shows that at 1:09 p.m. Irving was on the House floor. But the camera angles shift frequently, and it was not immediately clear how long he stayed on the floor.

Irving insisted that his phone records show no contact from Sund before 1:28 p.m., when he says the then-Capitol police chief called to inform him that “conditions were deteriorating” outside and that he “might be making a request at a later time” to bring in the National Guard.

Had Sund made the 1:09 p.m. request as he claimed, Irving said, “We would have approved it immediately.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who helped lead the protest of the electoral college results on Jan. 6, both asked the officials to provide phone records to resolve the dispute.

Irving’s testimony also served to refute speculation from Republicans loyal to Trump that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was to blame for the security planning failures at the Capitol.

When asked by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), another leader of the effort to discount the electoral college results, if he had waited for permission from congressional leaders before deploying the National Guard, Irving said, “Absolutely not.”

He said that he “notified” and “advised” Pelosi’s office about what was transpiring and the response law enforcement officials were already mounting.

a group of people standing in front of a building: In this photo from Wednesday, Jan. 6, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. © Julio Cortez/AP In this photo from Wednesday, Jan. 6, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington.
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