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Capitol Riot Warnings Weren't Acted On as System Failed

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/8/2021 Rachael Levy, Dan Frosch, Sadie Gurman
a person standing in front of a building © J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

The elaborate national security network set up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to identify and thwart threats failed ahead of last month’s Capitol riot, as law enforcement didn’t act on intelligence about potential violence and prevent the assault.

Offices spread across the country that share intelligence among federal, state and local law enforcement pointed out alarming online discussions about weapons in the days before the Jan. 6 rally in Washington. A Federal Bureau of Investigation field office reported a rallying call for war and the sharing of maps of the Capitol. The Department of Homeland Security warned about the heightened potential for violence in the rally’s run-up, though mentioned no specific threat for Jan. 6.

While the information was shared, this multipoint warning system broke down, failing to generate sufficient follow-up, as officials spotted and dismissed these signals while missing others entirely, according to interviews with current and former officials and a review of internal government documents.

The result: The extensive local and federal law-enforcement network that protects Washington was never fully prepared, leaving the usually heavily guarded city center vulnerable to attack. That assault came Jan. 6 when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol as Congress was preparing to certify President Biden’s election victory.

“Nothing significant to report,” read a Jan. 5 national summary from DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis that was sent to law enforcement across the country, according to a copy reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The office is responsible for monitoring threats online and sharing them with federal, state and local law enforcement.

Some of the Jan. 6 violence, in which five people died, was spontaneous and chaotic. But the government’s prosecutions of alleged rioters cite some evidence of coordination and planning to disrupt Congress by members of far-right fringe groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.

“There’s no explanation that I can give for the failure to produce analytical products that would have predicted what was going to happen. You could see it building,” said Frank Taylor, a retired Air Force brigadier general who led DHS’s intelligence branch from 2014 to 2017. “And the fact that we didn’t means that we failed, along with several other agencies. This was a systemic failure.”

Four government watchdogs and several congressional committees are now scrutinizing a response that amounts to one of the biggest lapses since the federal security apparatus was overhauled following the Sept. 11 attacks nearly two decades ago. That restructuring created DHS and its intelligence branch, among other changes, to better pinpoint threats and coordinate responses.

There were many reasons why the mob was able to reach the Capitol and overwhelm a security force chiefly made up of members of the Capitol Police. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on Jan. 5 urged federal agencies not to send additional forces without consulting local police, after racial-justice protests in which heavily armed security forces clashed with protesters outside Lafayette Square near the White House last summer. The Capitol Police declined Pentagon offers of National Guard reinforcements ahead of time, though a small group of D.C. Guard troops was deployed to augment policing in other parts of the city.

But the inability of law enforcement to fully mobilize demonstrates how a system chiefly designed to protect against terrorist attacks emanating from abroad struggles to confront violent domestic extremism, which the FBI and DHS have identified as among the most serious terror threats facing the country.

Combating domestic terror vexed law enforcement long before Jan. 6. U.S. officials are constrained in their ability to monitor communications between those who may be intent on violence, lacking the sweeping surveillance powers against U.S. citizens that they can use overseas. No catchall, federal domestic terrorism statute gives officials greater power. That means authorities can do little to intervene pre-emptively without evidence of a planned violent act or other crime.

The torrent of online and social-media communications also means it can be difficult to distinguish online bravado from a genuine threat. And some current and former officials pointed to a broad reluctance to take any pre-emptive action against President Donald Trump’s supporters who came to Washington for a permitted political rally on the Ellipse near the White House where Mr. Trump spoke.

Both the FBI and DHS said they didn’t issue a joint intelligence bulletin—a widely disseminated alert to law enforcement nationwide—because they had no specific, credible threats about Jan. 6. Both agencies said they shared information they had with other law enforcement agencies. The FBI, aware of the potential for trouble, discouraged some people thought to be violent agitators from traveling to Washington. It set up 24-hour command posts at the Washington field office and headquarters about a mile from the Capitol and put tactical teams on standby, which it hadn’t done for two earlier pro-Trump marches.

A spokeswoman for DHS’s intelligence unit declined to comment on the Jan. 5 summary the unit issued. She said the unit didn’t know in advance what Mr. Trump would say at the rally and that “national figures would be encouraging action against the Capitol and government officials.” Mr. Trump has denied responsibility for the violence, and his lawyers have said he didn’t incite it.

Justice Department and Capitol Police officials have since said that they underestimated the potential for Trump supporters to rampage through the Capitol, thinking the event would be like two other recent pro-Trump rallies in Washington, which saw only isolated violent incidents. Mayor Bowser has acknowledged security failures occurred and called for Congress to appoint a nonpartisan commission to hold officials accountable.

One change implemented almost two decades ago to improve intelligence-sharing between local, state and federal law enforcement and emergency response agencies was the creation of “fusion centers” in every state and territory.

On Jan. 4, the heads of the fusion centers convened a rare national call to discuss alarming information they were gathering about the coming Trump rally.

The offices were seeing an unsettling amount of online posts about people planning to bring weapons to the event, raising the potential for violence, said one participant in the call. As is protocol, the participant said, the information was funneled through the Washington, D.C., fusion center to the federal and local agencies handling security for Jan. 6.

“We all assumed there were going to be problems based on the various issues we were hearing,” the participant said. The fusion centers have no say in how their intelligence is used, and it is unclear what steps were taken in response to sharing the information.

The DHS intelligence agency spokeswoman declined to say whether the department, which participated in the call, took any action based on the information. The FBI said it discussed the likelihood that protesters would come armed during a separate phone call with other law-enforcement agencies the same day that the fusion centers held their call. The FBI said such information was widely known.

“The issue here was not the lack of intelligence or the lack of information,” Christopher Rodriguez, a Washington, D.C., official who oversees the district’s fusion center, said in congressional testimony on Thursday. “The issue here was the inability, or the unwillingness, to act on the intelligence.”

The chief of the Capitol Police, Steven A. Sund, who has since resigned, said the department lacked intelligence, including from DHS and the FBI, that suggested a coordinated attack on the Capitol was being planned, according to a letter he sent to congressional leaders this month.

On the rally’s eve, a report from the FBI’s Norfolk, Va., office warned of the potential for violence. The Jan. 5 report cited online message board traffic attributed to one person urging people to “go there ready for war” and sharing maps of the Capitol complex, according to law-enforcement officials.

Within an hour, officials said, the report was shared with other law enforcement through a joint terrorism task force based in Washington that included other agencies and the Capitol Police and that, the FBI said, was “the most efficient way to communicate threats.” The information was also posted on a law-enforcement portal accessible to agencies across the country, the officials said.

FBI officials said the information in the report was uncorroborated, and investigators were unable to link it to specific people, making follow-up difficult. DHS never received it before the rally, a spokeswoman said.

“There was a series of breakdowns across multiple levels of the enterprise, and that’s what’s so disturbing. Twenty years after 9/11, that’s the most shocking part of it,” said Javed Ali, who left senior counterterrorism posts at the FBI and the National Security Council in 2018. “These are mistakes that shouldn’t be happening in 2021.”

At DHS, then-Acting Secretary Chad Wolf chose not to declare a “national special security event.” The designation, regularly used for gatherings such as political conventions, the State of the Union address and past Super Bowls, puts the U.S. Secret Service in charge of overseeing security and coordinating the responses of different agencies. Current and former DHS officials and national security experts have questioned publicly and in interviews why it wasn’t done. Mr. Wolf never considered it, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis, or I&A, DHS’s nerve center for monitoring online threats, battled politics and shifting demands in the months leading up to Jan. 6, officials said.

Under a rapid turnover of leaders, DHS had struggled to adjust to the priorities of the Trump White House, which wanted the department to focus on border issues and immigration. The department grappled with how to respond to the rise in domestic terrorism without drawing anger from Mr. Trump, whose base included supporters of far-right groups and causes, current and former officials said.

White House officials discouraged use of the term “domestic terrorism” in planning policy strategy, a former official said, and a complaint filed in September by a top I&A official said DHS leaders had pressured him to water down threat assessments of white supremacists and Russian election interference. DHS has denied “there is any truth to the merits” of the complaint. The Trump White House has denied that Mr. Trump played down domestic terrorism.

After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police set off nationwide racial-justice protests that sometimes became violent, I&A increased its staffing to track those involved in nightly demonstrations in Portland, Ore., that saw protesters in pitched standoff with federal forces.

In the aftermath, congressional committees began scrutinizing I&A over reports that it collected information on protesters and journalists. Two House Democrats introduced legislation to tighten oversight of I&A.

In response, the intelligence branch ousted its chief, installed a career DHS attorney and scaled back its combing of social media and its issuing of reports on domestic extremists, according to department officials.

I&A cut the number of night-shift analysts—a prime time for online chatter—from 10 to two, the officials said. Rules for what could be culled from social media were tightened, prohibiting the reporting of veiled or indirect threats, one official said. For example, if an analyst saw a posted image of an M16 machine gun with the caption “join me” for the Jan. 6 rally, reporting it wouldn’t be allowed, the official said.

An I&A spokeswoman said the changes were made “to correct for the inappropriate intelligence activities” last year. She said the branch strengthened its intelligence collection process and didn’t reduce attention on domestic extremism post-Portland. She said that the agency issued a Dec. 30 report about the heightened threat environment related to the election, though it didn’t mention Jan. 6.

Stephanie Dobitsch, an experienced international terrorism official with I&A, shared an assessment similar to the Dec. 30 report at a meeting with senior DHS officials, including from the Secret Service, around that time.

I&A didn’t warn about Jan. 6. because previous election certifications by Congress hadn’t seen trouble, senior I&A officials lacked specific, credible intelligence and DHS hadn’t designated the event a “national special security event,” I&A officials said after Jan. 6.

As the mob attacked the Capitol, DHS officials emailed one another to stay abreast of events. Ms. Dobitsch asked for information on the rioters. She sent the email at 2:26 p.m., as rioters breached the inside of the Capitol.

Three weeks after the riot, on Jan. 27, DHS officials sent out the department’s first national terrorism bulletin about violent domestic extremists. The bulletin said that such extremists, driven by a range of issues, are prone to more violence in the coming months. It warned that some might use the Jan. 6 attack as inspiration.

Write to Rachael Levy at rachael.levy@wsj.com, Dan Frosch at dan.frosch@wsj.com and Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com

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