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Jan. 6 committee examines FBI, DHS documents for answers on intel failure

The “Blue Team” is quietly examining thousands of internal documents that shed new light on what officials did and didn’t know before the Capitol riot.
Image: Demonstrators attempt to breach the Capitol after they had stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021.
Demonstrators try to breach the Capitol after they stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021.Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Two things were clear to Donell Harvin, the homeland security and intelligence chief for Washington, D.C., in the weeks before Jan. 6, 2021

One was that a large number of people, including extremists with histories of violence, had vowed on social media to take weapons to his city to protest the ceremonial congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

And the other was that federal agencies — the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security — didn’t seem very concerned about it.

The federal security planning during that time focused on the coming inauguration, Harvin said. “And if they mentioned Jan. 6 in one of these meetings,” he added, “that would be a footnote.”

The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has twice interviewed Harvin as part of its effort to get to the bottom of the biggest domestic security failure since 9/11. On the anniversary of the riot, committee aides say they are moving closer to unlocking a mystery: How did the agencies tasked with stopping terrorist violence let the heart of the U.S. government be overrun by a mob?

“You didn’t need to be an intelligence analyst to understand what was coming,” said Harvin, who has left government to join the Rand Corp. think tank. “My daughter, who doesn’t work in intelligence, texted me several days before Jan. 6 ... ‘Is it going to be safe to you go there? Do you see what there’s, what they’re saying online?’”

While the headlines have been filled in recent months with news of committee subpoenas to recalcitrant witnesses from President Donald Trump’s orbit, investigators have quietly obtained thousands of pages of documents from the Justice Department, the FBI and DHS, committee aides say — many of which weren’t available to the Senate Homeland Security Committee when it published a report in June about security and response failures.

The documents, committee aides and other officials familiar with them say, shed new light on questions that have been only partly answered so far, including what intelligence came into the FBI, DHS and other agencies in the weeks before Jan. 6, why no formal bulletin was issued and why more wasn’t done to make sure the Capitol Police understood and were prepared for the gravity of the threat.

Inside the Jan. 6 committee, color-coded teams are examining various elements of the attack. A green team is “following the money” and investigating the people who funded the rallies that preceded the riot, while a gold team is examining Trump’s efforts to try to overturn the election, committee aides said. 

The people investigating the intelligence and security shortcomings are dubbed the blue team.

Much of the public conversation about the committee’s work has focused on its investigation into whether Trump bears culpability for the attack, including whether there are substantial links between the violence and the efforts by Trump and his associates to overturn the election.

The blue team, working behind the scenes, has a different focus: to provide what may be the only detailed appraisal of why the government failed to anticipate and stop the coordinated violence that sent federal lawmakers scrambling to safety in their own building. 

That includes the unanswered question of why the FBI — the domestic intelligence agency whose primary mission since 9/11 has been to prevent a terrorist attack in the U.S. — didn’t do more to act on threats made publicly or passed along to the bureau by social media companies. 

“We’re looking precisely at that very question,” a senior January 6 committee aide said.

The committee is working “to understand why there was not” a joint FBI-DHS intelligence bulletin about the many threats, the aide said, “even though, obviously, there’s been tremendous coverage about the warnings in plain sight.” Such bulletins are routinely published before large public events.

A public accounting of such issues is essential because the threat from domestic extremism has only gotten more acute in the last year, U.S. officials say. The committee is aiming to release a comprehensive report this spring.

The broad contours of the intelligence failure leading up to Jan. 6 have been evident for some time. But many of the details have remained secret.

The June Senate report criticized the Capitol Police for failing to act on threat information and circulate relevant intelligence. But the report had less to say about the FBI and DHS, in part because they hadn’t yet fully responded to requests for documents, officials said.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, an appointee of Biden who wasn’t in charge of the department on Jan. 6, 2021, has acknowledged that the department “could have done more to shore up information in the lead-up to Jan. 6,” as he put it in a roundtable discussion with reporters this week.

The FBI, led by the same people who were in charge during the riot, has taken a different approach. Although FBI Director Christopher Wray has told Congress that the bureau “needs to do better and we’re determined to do better,” he and other FBI officials haven’t acknowledged any specific shortcoming. They have characterized most of the social media threats of violence before Jan. 6 as “aspirational” statements that didn’t merit law enforcement action, and they have said they passed on everything relevant to local law enforcement agencies. 

“This was a massive intelligence failure by the FBI, plain and simple,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the chair of the Oversight Committee, said after a hearing in June.

Whether it was an intelligence failure, a failure to act on intelligence or some combination of the two is an important avenue of inquiry for the Jan. 6 committee, committee aides say.

The FBI defended its record in a statement to NBC News.

“Throughout 2020, the FBI alerted its partners of the threat of domestic violent extremism, including warning that the threat posed by violent extremists with partisan political grievances was likely to increase through the 2020 presidential election and beyond,” spokeswoman Cathy Milhoun said in the statement. “In the lead-up to Jan. 6, the FBI was actively engaged in gathering intelligence, disrupting travel, and sharing information with our partners. The FBI specifically warned state, local, and federal partners about the potential for violence at the Jan. 6 events.”

She added: “While we are constantly evaluating our response to critical incidents — especially after an attack of historic proportion — the FBI took the threat of violence during the events of Jan. 6 seriously and prepared accordingly. The FBI will continue to pursue threats or acts of violence without fear or favor, regardless of the underlying motivation or sociopolitical goal.”

By now it has been well documented that the FBI was made aware of many threats of violence aimed at Jan. 6, some of them against the Capitol.

The FBI itself has acknowledged its awareness of the dire threat picture in court records filed as part of the hundreds of cases against Capitol rioters.

“A review of open source and social media posts leading up to and during the event indicates that individuals participating on the ‘Stop the Steal,’ rally were angered about the results of the 2020 presidential election and felt that Joseph Biden had unlawfully been declared ‘President-Elect,’” said a report by FBI Special Agent Patricia Norden that was filed in court in June. “Users in multiple online groups and platforms discussed traveling to the Capitol armed or making plans to start a ‘revolution’ on that day.”

More than that, social media companies told the FBI about specific threats against the Capitol.

Parler, a platform that hosts far-right extremists, said in a letter to Congress in March that “in the days and weeks leading up to Jan. 6, Parler referred violent content from its platform to the F.B.I. for investigation over 50 times,” adding, “Parler even alerted law enforcement to specific threats of violence being planned at the Capitol.”

Mike Sena, who directs the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, coordinates policy for the network of so-called fusion centers that was set up after 9/11 to facilitate intelligence sharing. He worked closely with Harvin, who ran Washington, D.C.’s fusion center until he left in August.

Sena and Harvin say they and their colleagues grew increasingly alarmed by the volume of threats of violence they were picking up on social media about Jan. 6. Some of them had been passed along by Google and other social media companies, which had set up a system a few years ago to pass along threats to Sena’s agency, he said. Most of them were forwarded to the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center, Sena said.

“The common theme was coded discussions about bringing weapons to the Capitol,” he said.

But local agencies got very little useful intelligence back from the FBI, Sena said — even though the FBI says that it cultivates informants in far-right and other extremist groups across the country and that it has open investigations that allow it to monitor communications. There is no national clearinghouse to share tips and leads about violent extremism among police agencies.

“It is a huge gap that we have that we don’t have that sharing of information,” he said.

Harvin and his D.C. team gamed out possible scenarios, which included Capitol and D.C. police facing off against armed violent protesters. In one simulation, “improvised explosive devices were planted near the Capitol to draw off law enforcement agents,” he said, presaging what actually happened Jan. 6, when two bombs were discovered outside the Republican and Democratic national committee offices.

Sena, Harvin and other current and former law enforcement officials interviewed for this article don’t fault the FBI for failing to arrest everyone who made a threat against the Capitol. They acknowledge that much of what was said didn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct.

But the volume of threat information should have been a blinking red warning light, they say — one that prompted federal authorities to ensure that every potential target in Washington was well-protected. If Capitol Police officials weren’t fully appreciating the threat — and according to the Senate report, they weren’t — the federal government should have stepped in, they and other experts say.

“People saying things online doesn’t necessarily equate ... to law enforcement knocking on your door to take you away,” said Harvin, who coordinated intelligence for Washington, D.C., but wasn’t in the chain of command for security decisions. “And so when you hear federal law enforcement or Capitol Police leadership make open statements about not seeing any credible or specific information, they’re absolutely right. There wasn’t a lot of credible, specific information. What there was was a lot of not credible, not specific information that should have prompted a response — not necessarily knocking on someone’s door or getting a subpoena, but it should have prompted a response at the federal level.”

While the Jan. 6 committee is ranging far and wide in its inquiry, it has never lost sight of its mission to hold government agencies accountable, people familiar with its work say.

The committee’s chief investigative counsel, former federal prosecutor Tim Heaphy, led a previous inquiry into the violence that killed a woman and injured many other people at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

The resulting 207-page report explores in minute detail the failures and shortcomings of every police agency involved in planning for and responding to the event.

The Charlottesville police chief, who came in for particular criticism, resigned after it was published.

“Intelligence drives the security preparation,” a committee aide said, adding that investigators were looking closely at “what was missed or not assessed from the intelligence that was apparent before Jan. 6.”

“This is of equal importance to everything else that we are doing.”