Intelligence lapses and military tactics drove Capitol attack

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Jim Spencer, Star Tribune
·5 min read
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WASHINGTON – A Jan. 5 FBI memo that warned of armed extremists' plans to violently attack the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 never made it to the Capitol police chief, a hearing Tuesday revealed.

The memo from the Norfolk, Va. office of the FBI stopped after it reached a sergeant in the Capitol Police office, former Chief Steven Sund told a joint hearing co-chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

The hearing was the first in a series of hearings examining what went wrong as thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump breached the Capitol. The rioters threatened members of the Senate and House, including threats to hang Vice President Mike Pence and kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The attack on the building resulted in five deaths, 140 injuries to police and property damage.

"These criminals came prepared for war," said Sund, who resigned following the Capitol breach. "I am sickened by what I witnessed that day."

Sund said he only learned of the report Monday. It detailed social media discussions calling for people attending a pro-Trump rally Jan. 6 to come armed and ready to fight as they tried to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Some members of the Senate Rules and Homeland Security committees, as well as witnesses, questioned why the FBI sent the volatile report only as an email instead of using more urgent channels of communications. But several committee members remained incredulous that a suggestion of armed insurrection would not be forwarded by the Capitol Police intelligence unit to senior officials.

On the other hand, even without the FBI memo, Sund, as well as former sergeants at arms for the House and Senate, said they knew members of white supremacist groups and other extremists groups might be coming to the Capitol and some would be armed. That still did not signal to them the need for a greater law enforcement presence.

The level of tactical awareness displayed by the rioters took police off-guard. It resembled a well-organized military mission, witnesses said, including planting of pipe bombs at the Republican and Democratic national headquarters to draw police away from the Capitol.

Klobuchar said the testimony clearly indicated a "planned insurrection" replete with details that made it "highly dangerous." The toll, said the Minnesota Democrat, "could have been worse."

Klobuchar also noted various "intelligence breakdowns" that might have changed the outcome on Jan.

The fact that the Jan. 5 FBI report "did not get to key leaders is very disturbing on both ends," Klobuchar said. "You can't just push send on an email" and think it will end up in the right hands.

The nearly four-hour hearing circled around tactics to protect the Capitol against any future attack. Some suggested more use of force training and better riot equipment for the Capitol Police, many of whom fought without helmets or armor and were beaten with clubs and sticks.

Among the most debated questions was how to deploy the National Guard. Currently, the Capitol Police chief must ask for permission from a police review board to seek help from the National Guard.

That process led to conflicting testimony between Sund and former House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, a police board member. Sund said he called Irving asking for permission to summon the National Guard at 1:09 p.m. on Jan. 6 as the mob moved across the Capitol lawn. Irving testified he had no recollection of or record of the call. Irving said that when Sund reached him at 1:28, the police chief said only that he was thinking about calling the National Guard.

When police officials finally reached out to the Guard at 2:22 p.m., around the time police evacuated members of the Senate and House chambers to protect them from the invading mob, Army officials balked, said Robert Contee, acting police chief of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police.

"I was stunned at the response from the Department of the Army, which was reluctant to send the D.C. National Guard to the Capitol," Contee said in his testimony. "While I certainly understand the importance of both planning and public perception — the factors cited by the staff on the call — these issues become secondary when you are watching your employees, vastly outnumbered by a mob, being physically assaulted."

By the time the Guard arrived, the riot had been brought under control. But injuries, deaths and property damaged had occurred. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said the situation called for giving the mayor of D.C. power to call out the National Guard, something the mayor currently lacks.

The federal response will be discussed in more detail in another hearing next week with witnesses from the National Guard, Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security.

Warner, now chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also said the government must pay more attention than Trump did to extremist groups like those that appeared to lead the Capitol riot. Trump's critics accuse him of empowering racist and anti-government groups.

"This is an ongoing threat to national security," Warner said. "I fear it did not get the attention it deserved in the former administration."

The final question that provoked discussion was how to secure the Capitol going forward. Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida questioned the continued need for fencing around the Capitol, as well as the continued deployment of National Guard troops.

Contee said he was "not sure we need razor wire around the Capitol."

Klobuchar and others urged solutions that make the Capitol safe, but publicly accessible.

One thing that seemed inevitable based on the testimony, Klobuchar said, is that affixing blame was less important than owning the truth and fixing the problems.

"You can point fingers," she said, "but we were not prepared."

Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432