WASHINGTON — At 12:53 p.m. on January 6, minutes before the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory would begin, pro-Trump marchers broke through a security perimeter on the west side of the U.S. Capitol. For the next seven hours, those protesters scaled the Capitol walls, attacked police officers, vandalized the seat of American democracy, and tried to stop the certification. It took seven hours for law enforcement to beat back the mob and declare the Capitol secure so that the certification could resume.
The violence of that day left dozens of cops injured, and resulted in as many as seven deaths. Many more could have been killed: Video footage from the night before the insurrection shows an individual — who, per press reports, has not been apprehended or publicly identified — leaving pipe bombs at the headquarters of the Democratic and Republican national committees. It’s obvious that something went horribly wrong with the security that day. But what?
A new report published by two Senate committees offers the fullest picture yet of how the pro-Trump mob overwhelmed the cops and security officers on January 6 and briefly froze the peaceful transfer of power from one American president to the next. “January 6, 2021 marked not only an attack on the Capitol Building — it marked an attack on democracy,” the report says. “The entities responsible for securing and protecting the Capitol Complex and everyone onsite that day were not prepared for a large-scale attack, despite being aware of the potential for violence targeting the Capitol.”
The failures were many, according to the report, and they began in the days before January 6th. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security had tracked online posts that called for violence that day. The FBI’s Norfolk field office produced a report that highlighted violent rhetoric, including one post that read: “Be Ready to Fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa [sic] slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent…stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war.”
The Norfolk office’s report circulated within the FBI, but the bureau never issued a formal threat assessment report for the January 6 certification session. That was due, in part, to FBI and DHS’s determination that online threats such as this weren’t credible, according to the new Senate report. “In testimony before the Committees,” the report says, “representatives from both agencies noted that much of the rhetoric online prior to January 6th was ‘First Amendment protected speech’ of limited credibility…”
The intelligence failures extended to the U.S. Capitol Police, the agency whose mission is to protect the Capitol complex. The Capitol Police’s in-house intelligence division “received information from a variety of sources about threats of violence focused on” the events of the January 6th, according to the Senate report. But the intelligence division didn’t fully act on the information it had. “As a result, critical information regarding threats of violence was not shared with USCP’s own officers and other law enforcement partners,” the report says.
For these reasons and more, the Capitol Police’s security plan for January 6th proved no match for the thousands of marchers-turned-rioters who showed up moments after then-President Trump urged his followers to “fight like hell” and march on the Capitol. Testimony from law enforcement officers gathered by the two Senate committees captures how menacing those crowds were. As one officer said:
“[We] did what we could against impossible odds and a volatile crowd which many times threatened us with phrases like ‘We’re gonna kill you!,’ ‘We’re gonna murder you and then them!,’ ‘You guys are traitors and should be killed!’ … I felt at this time a tangible fear that maybe I or some of my colleagues might not make it home alive.”
Officers told Senate investigators they suffered “burns, breathing and lung complications, and their eyes sealing shut” from being hit with bear spray, insecticide, and other chemical irritants. Officers testified that rioters attacked them with flag poles, frozen water bottles, and pieces of a metal fence that was set up for the upcoming inaugural ceremony. Another unnamed officer described the scene at the Capitol like this:
“I wandered around the building for a little bit, looking at the wreckage and trying to take everything in before people cleaned up. Doors and windows were broken, and had been barricaded with furniture and display cases. There was broken glass, trash, banners and signs. I went down to the [Lower West Terrace] through the tunnel and it was just trashed. Knives, baseball bats, flag poles, banners, CDU shields, body armor, pants, socks, shoes, hats, uniform items, jackets, wallets, cash, phones, flags and signs littered the ground. Everything was covered in white from the tear gas and I could still smell the pepper spray.”
The report contains one damning detail after another about the failure of the Capitol Police’s leaders to prepare for January 6th and to respond in the moment. There was no communication between top Capitol Police officials and on-the-ground officers, and neither of the two most senior Capitol Police officers could explain why. “In the absence of communication, officers lacked clarity about whether to respond to calls for ‘all available units,'” the report says. “An officer reported hearing a Lieutenant repeatedly ask over the radio, ‘[d]oes anybody have a plan?'”
The Senate report offers a somewhat conflicting view on whether other federal agencies such as the Defense Department could have done more, faster, to stop the violence. The Capitol Police twice told DOD before January 6th that it would not seek help from the D.C. National Guard for security on January 6th. Then, when the Capitol Police and D.C. government pleaded for DOD to deploy the National Guard after the rioters had broken through the security perimeter, it took until after 5 p.m. for Guardsmen to deploy — a delay that “no one could explain,” the Senate report says.
One line in the Senate report sticks out that could explain the delay: According to the testimony of then-Capitol Police chief, the acting D.C. police chief, and the commanding general of D.C. National Guard, two officials from the Department of the Army advised not sending the guard to help because they did not “like the optics of the National Guard standing a line at the Capitol.” (One of the officials alleged to have said this told Senate investigators “he did not say anything about optics.”)
Why the Army had no issue with the optics of deploying the guard to secure the Lincoln Monument during last summer’s racial justice protests but did for the events of January 6th is a question that goes unanswered in the Senate report.
The Senate committees include more than 40 recommendations in their report about law enforcement agencies can better track domestic terror threats online (without violating First Amendment protected speech), improve communication amongst law-enforcement organizations, and train individual officers to respond to future acts of violence and unrest. “We must address these failures and make the necessary reforms to ensure this never happens again,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement.