capitol riot

Was the Capitol Security Breach an Intelligence Failure?

Former CIA Analyst Lisa Ruth Says No

The melee at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 was a shocking example of mob violence and mentality, and shows just how bad things can go wrong when security is unprepared and overwhelmed.

It is also, sadly, a textbook illustration of the dangers of politicizing intelligence.

Full disclosure: I was not privy to any classified intelligence briefings for any law enforcement entity ahead of the attack. But as a former intelligence officer, I do know how intelligence works. I also know that there are a number of law enforcement organizations monitoring the Capitol and providing security – including the Capitol Police, the DC Police, the Secret Service, the FBI and the National Guard – and I know they are staffed with professionals who are alert to possible threats against our lawmakers. These officers are really, really good at what they do.

As a result, I find it absolutely unbelievable that there was no intelligence suggesting that protests had the potential for turning violent.

Armchair quarterbacking after the fact is easy, of course, but there is no doubt intelligence officers and analysts within law enforcement understood the threat before it happened.

Even a cursory read of social media shows violent leanings from at least some participants. These individuals made no effort to hide their views, and instead boasted their plans. Loudly.

The press knew.

A Washington Post article on 5 January reported, “Far-right online forums are seething with references to potential violence and urging supporters of President Trump to bring guns to Wednesday’s protests in Washington.” The article further noted that:

“Talk of guns and potential violence is rife on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, the conservative social media site Parler and on thedonald.win, an online forum that previously operated on Reddit before the company banned it in June after years of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and calls for violence.’

And

“References to guns and potential violence also have become routine on Telegram and Parler, according to the Coalition for a Safer Web, a nonprofit group that advocates for technologies and policies to remove extreme content from social media. It cited a Parler post from last week, by an account touting the QAnon conspiracy theory, that said, “To all the Patriots descending on Washington DC on #jan6 ….come armed….”

USA Today published the headline “Nation’s capital braces for violence as extremist groups converge to protest Trump’s election loss” on January 4, and ABC News wrote, “Violent threats ripple through far-right internet forums ahead of protest.”

 

It is simply not possible that law enforcement lacked information about the possibility of extremist plans and intensions.

So if they knew, if they understood there was even some risk of extremist violence, then why didn’t they act? Why did all those law enforcement agencies stand down, fail to prepare, and respond slowly even when rioters breached the Capitol building?

Why didn’t security follow tried and true procedures, working to eliminate or at least mitigate the risk?

The answer: Politics.

Discussions of politicization of intelligence usually center on the skewing of intelligence, deliberately or unintentionally, to meet the objectives or preferences of policy makers. They do this to gain access or praise or who knows what else.

But politics can also play a role in intelligence when decision makers ignore intelligence and choose not to act on that intelligence because it is politically unpalatable.

Based on what we know, it seems this is the type of politicization that happened on 6 January, and that left DC law enforcement woefully unprepared to deal with a criminal mob.

Decision makers were unwilling or unable to act on intelligence regarding the intentions of at least some protestors because it did not fit into someone’s political preferences, and those same decision makers did not want to risk losing the support of higher ups.

Mutilating intelligence to force it to fit into a political paradigm, or ignoring intelligence because it doesn’t match prevailing political winds, is dangerous. Intelligence can be inconvenient and it can contradict assumptions. Most career intelligence officers have experienced the disapproval or disappointment of decision makers who receive intel they didn’t want to hear, and have faced the wrath of decision makers over information discordant with their own views.

But that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – change the facts they present.

The job of intel officers is to provide objective, accurate, actionable intelligence to policy makers who can then act on it.

Or, policy makers can ignore it and hide their heads in the sand.

Ignoring intelligence is never a good idea. It leaves us naked and unarmed in the face of danger, or unable to take advantage of opportunity. It also forces organizations to clean up sometimes catastrophic messes when preparation could have positioned them for success.

The debacle at the Capitol was not an intelligence failure. It was, instead, a failure of intellect.

It was also one that could have been avoided.