WASHINGTON — Former Department of Homeland Security officials spanning the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations say the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol exposed the shortcomings of an agency with an inexperienced staff and a misplaced focus on immigration instead of the rise of domestic threats over the past four years.
"They tend to be younger, with not as much experience. They don't have the incidents under their belts to know the proper protocols. So many protocols were not followed" on Jan. 6, said Elizabeth Neumann, who was deputy chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, until April.
Instead, as armed rioters overtook police and moved into the Capitol, armed agents from DHS, an agency expressly designed to prevent another terrorist incident like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stood inside a nearby building waiting for a command to deploy that never came. There is also no indication that DHS shared any intelligence with its state and local partners or with U.S. Capitol Police before Jan. 6 that would have indicated that the protests could turn into a riot.
DHS also failed to designate the day of President Donald Trump's rally in Washington as a National Special Security Event, as it has now done with the week leading up to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday. If it had done so, on Jan. 6 the Secret Service would have been able to coordinate with the National Guard and DHS' law enforcement agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But it was the four years of inadequately monitoring and communicating the rising threat of right-wing domestic extremists that ultimately led to DHS' failure to prevent the events at the Capitol, the former DHS officials said.
Nearly 20 years after the 2001 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the U.S. is in what former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called "the most tense domestic security environment since 9/11," yet most of the department's focus has been on fighting immigration rather than violent extremists.
"DHS for the last four years has been used to hammer the president's aggressive border security, anti-immigration agenda, and not much else has been a priority for the agency," said Johnson, who served during the Obama administration.
As more experienced and Senate-confirmed homeland security secretaries like John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen left the Trump administration and were replaced by acting secretaries, so, too, were experienced lawyers and law enforcement officials replaced by Trump loyalists with minimal experience. Most have had one important qualification: loyalty to White House adviser Stephen Miller, an anti-immigration hawk, Neumann said.
"For Miller to get his policies through, he put people in positions who had no qualifications whatsoever. While Stephen was solely focused on immigration, the department does other things. And the more critical parts of the department were impeded," said Neumann, who endorsed Biden for president after having left DHS last year.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
The current acting secretary going into the inauguration is Peter Gaynor, formerly head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who was appointed after the abrupt departure this month of acting Secretary Chad Wolf. Wolf's own appointment was ruled illegitimate by a federal judge because an acting secretary who came before him lacked the authority to appoint him.
The current deputy assistant secretary responsible for engaging with the private sector about threats to the homeland graduated from college in 2015.
The acting general counsel, Chad Mizelle, who has the authority to greenlight or block any legal position coming from the agency, graduated from law school in 2013.
Mizelle, a close ally of Miller's, was appointed after yet another shakeup in late 2019. His wife, Kathryn Mizelle, was recently nominated by Trump for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge, even though the American Bar Association told Senate leaders that she was "not qualified" because she had never tried a case after she was admitted to practice law.
"The problem is endemic to the entire administration. There is a lack of experience across the board. You could be the smartest kid in the world, but at some point, experience matters," a former senior Trump administration official said.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said it was "outrageous" to suggest the administration had not been focused on domestic extremism. "The administration has aggressively prioritized the investigation of domestic threats throughout our time in office."
The changing threat
As immigration took over the focus of Trump's DHS, the threat of domestic groups like those that breached the barriers at the Capitol increased, and the foreign threats DHS was established to protect against in the wake of 9/11 have been eclipsed, the former officials said.
"DHS, along with the FBI and state and local partners, are going to have to more seriously investigate groups behind what happened [on Jan. 6] and what else they may be planning. This threat has been bubbling around for years now. ... It is now a bigger threat than jihadism," said former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served during George W. Bush's administration.
The emergence of new threats from domestic extremists was not fully appreciated even before Trump took office. In 2009, DHS analyst Darryl Johnson got backlash from Congress when he published a report about right-wing extremists.
Former Trump administration DHS employees have claimed that intelligence about right-wing groups has been muted to advance Trump's political agenda.
In September, Brian Murphy, former head of DHS' intelligence branch, alleged in a whistleblower complaint that political appointees at the agency directed him to downplay the threat of Russian interference and modify the report's section on white supremacy "in a manner that made the threat appear less severe, as well as include information on the prominence of violent 'left-wing' groups."
In a statement, a DHS spokesman said, “We are working closely with our partners. We are sharing information and we are monitoring the overall security environment for possible threats leading up to and beyond inauguration. While security of the U.S. Capitol has always been the sole jurisdiction of the Capitol Police, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is committed to safeguarding the American people and ensuring the safe conduct of the 59th Presidential Inauguration.”
Biden is likely to restore pieces of the Obama administration's approach to domestic terrorism, including grants that fund research into white supremacy groups, said a person familiar with the new administration's planning.
But the hardest reversal will be to re-establish trust with the public and with state and local law enforcement leaders, a former federal law enforcement official said. Many are wary, the official said, of the agency's aggressive tactics in situations like the protests this summer in Portland, Oregon, in which Customs and Border Patrol clashed with people trying to overtake the federal courthouse.
"Some people see DHS as simply being a law enforcement arm of the political offices of the current administration, or they think it does nothing at all," the former official said.
DHS is an amalgamation of agencies from various departments cobbled together in the wake of 9/11. But Chertoff maintained that its are not due to its overall structure; he said they were caused by leadership failures during the Trump administration.
Now, he said, "the task is to rebuild trust after four years of Trump."