Why Didn’t The FBI And DHS Produce A Threat Report Ahead of The Capitol Insurrection?

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When law enforcement failed to anticipate that pro-Trump supporters would devolve into a violent mob they fell victim to what one expert calls «the invisible obvious.» He said it was hard for authorities to see that people who looked like them could want to commit this kind of unconstitutional violence.

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«I was surprised that we didn’t receive any information» about Jan. 6, Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, told NPR. «We received a number of reports but they were all regarding events all around the election cycle, you know, information sharing.»

The federal government created fusion centers after the 9/11 attacks to improve communication and intelligence sharing among local and federal law enforcement officials. There are 80 of them across the country and one of their key responsibilities is to disseminate these kinds of intelligence bulletins.

The bulletins are considered a finished product — a synthesis of validated and analyzed intelligence that helps local law enforcement make informed decisions.

Some FBI officials have said that the bureau and DHS didn’t produce a bulletin for Jan. 6 out of concern that doing so might run afoul of First Amendment free speech protections which allow people to protest and assemble peacefully.

But, three law enforcement officials told NPR that didn’t stop DHS and the FBI from issuing intelligence bulletins ahead of mostly peaceful demonstrations in Portland, Ore., after the killing of George Floyd this past spring or before Black Lives Matter marches in Washington in early June, or in anticipation of an annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America.

Given all the Sturm und Drang ahead of the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress to count the electoral voters and all the threats on social media weeks ahead of a pro-Trump rally that morning, it struck Sena and other local law enforcement officials who spoke to NPR as strange that there wasn’t a DHS/FBI report on what to expect. Threatening and planning violence isn’t protected First Amendment speech.

The FBI revealed this week that its field office in Norfolk, Va., had indeed uncovered intelligence that might have helped the U.S. Capitol Police decide how to deploy its forces.

One law enforcement official confirmed to NPR that Norfolk FBI officials had found specific threats against members of Congress, an exchange of maps of the tunnel system under the Capitol complex, and gathering places in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and South Carolina where extremists were meeting before convoying up to Washington. (The Washington Post first reported the existence of the Norfolk FBI warning.)


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The problem was that the threats they uncovered hadn’t gone through any rigorous analysis process. «They seem to have only had a couple or single sourcing,» said R.P. Eddy, a former American counterterrorism official and diplomat who now runs Ergo, a private intelligence firm. «So, if you were a consumer of that intelligence and that’s all you saw… you’d say, oh, it’s just one source. You know, I’m not so sure I’m going to invest 2 million dollars into extra overtime and get a bunch of new gear for my troops.»

NPR spoke with three FBI Special Agents in Charge around the country and four current and former DHS officials who all agreed that Jan. 6 was a fast-moving event that was hard to anticipate. But they also said a specific threat assessment from the FBI and DHS in the weeks before might well have persuaded Capitol Police and others to beef up security.

Eddy said if there wasn’t an intelligence bulletin ahead of the pro-Trump rally, that was a problem. «If the reality is that… neither FBI nor DHS did a threat assessment for January 6, that was blinking red, if that’s indeed the fact then that’s absolutely a failure of intelligence… and weird,» he said.

The head of the U.S. Capitol Police told reporters last week that he had no intelligence that suggested there would be a storming of the Capitol. DHS and FBI officials told NPR that what he hadn’t seen was a specific Threat Assessment report or Intelligence Bulletin from DHS and the FBI. A raw intelligence report a day before an event just isn’t the same thing.

‘The invisible obvious’

Last week, Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, told reporters that the FBI was working closely with its partners and there was no indication Jan. 6 events would turn so horribly violent. D’Antuono reversed himself this week after it became public that the Norfolk field office had indeed provided intelligence about a possible assault on the Capitol the day before the rally was set to start.

Local law enforcement partners who spoke to NPR said they felt blindsided by events because they only had a general intelligence report about unrest during the election season with which to work. Typically, raw intelligence, which is what the NYPD and Norfolk FBI provided, needs to be vetted and analyzed before it is actionable. NPR reached out to U.S. Capitol Police asking if a federal intelligence brief about Jan. 6 would have changed their planning and has not heard back.

The Intelligence and Analysis office at DHS is responsible for producing these threat assessments and they often work in concert with the FBI. The I&A office, as it is known, has had staffing and operations problems for months, ever since the former FBI agent who ran the division, Brian Murphy, was removed from the job in August after media reports that he was compiling dossiers on journalists and protesters in Portland, Ore. Among other things, the dossiers made note of which journalists were publishing leaked documents.

The acting homeland security secretary at the time, Chad Wolf, ordered the intelligence office to stop collecting the information on journalists and said there would be an investigation into the matter. A short time later, Murphy filed a whistleblower complaint in which he alleged that he had been told to stop reporting on Russian threats to the U.S. election in his threat assessments. He said he was told it would «make President Trump look bad.» His whistleblower case is still pending.

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Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf resigned this week, just days after the storming of the capitol and a little over a week before the inauguration.

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By the time a warning finally came from an FBI field office in Virginia, it was too late. Less than 24 hours later, a mob would descend on the U.S. Capitol.

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By the time a warning finally came from an FBI field office in Virginia, it was too late. Less than 24 hours later, a mob would descend on the U.S. Capitol.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Eddy says in hindsight he believes the problem was something he calls «the invisible obvious» — things that sit right in front of us that we don’t notice. «The reason that they are invisible to us… gets to our biases,» he said. «The situation here, I’m unfortunately quite sure we’re going to find, that it was very hard for these decision makers and these analysts to realize that people who look just like them could want to commit this kind of unconstitutional violence and could literally try to and want to kill them.»

This was supposed to be a pro-Trump rally, until it wasn’t.

«Foe look differently, foe act differently, say different things,» Eddy said. «They don’t have the same bumper stickers; they don’t have the same yellow flag of ‘Don’t Tread on Me.’ It was hard for them to see that the law and order hierarchy in which they were born and bred… where they got their paycheck was inciting the mob that was going to commit the violence that was indeed the foe, not the friend.»

On Sunday, the FBI formally warned local law enforcement that armed protests were being planned in all 50 state houses and the U.S. Capitol. The warning said an unidentified group was calling on others to help them «storm» state, local and federal courthouses should Donald Trump be removed as president before Inauguration Day. In Washington, the Secretary of the Army announced as many as 20,000 National Guard are expected to be deployed with guns.

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