In the days leading up to the January 6, 2021, siege of the U.S. Capitol, officials inside the Department of Homeland Security were feeling anxious. Within the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, the sole component of the federal government authorized to disseminate threat information to state and local law enforcement agencies, analysts had watched as maps of the Capitol were circulated online amid talk of hanging Democrats, murdering protesters, and dying in a blaze of glory.
The Homeland Security officials warned each other to be vigilant going to and from work as the “Stop the Steal” rally to protest the results of the 2020 election approached. Expecting violence, some planned to stay home when the day finally came. Despite the measures they planned to take for their own safety, however, and the abundant evidence that January 6 was a powder keg waiting to blow, the federal office responsible for warning the rest of the government about dangerous events decided to keep its concerns to itself.
These are the findings of a DHS Office of Inspector General report released Tuesday that calls for “essential changes” to I&A, the department’s troubled intelligence office. The 50-page report documents how the various divisions of I&A — from open-source intelligence “collectors,” to its counterterrorism wing, to officials posted at “fusion centers” around the country — repeatedly encountered evidence of preparations for violence at the Capitol and chose not to report that information to a wider audience.
As early as December 21, 2020, according to the report, I&A officials internally circulated information about an individual describing plans to kill protesters by the dozens; calls to bring weapons to Washington, D.C.; an increase in weapons brandished by individuals already in the capital; and threats of violence against “ideological adversaries,” law enforcement agents, and government officials. None of that information made it outside the office prior to January 6, however. While one I&A official did submit information about the various threats to be approved for a report on January 5, the inspector general noted, that release was not approved and disseminated until two days after the siege, at which point four people who were at the event were dead, including one who was shot by a Capitol police officer.
“In the weeks before the events at the U.S. Capitol, I&A identified specific open source threat information related to January 6 but did not issue any intelligence products about these threats until January 8,” the report said. “On several occasions leading up to January 6, collectors messaged each other about the threats they discovered online.”
The inspector general pointed to two core explanations for I&A’s inaction: a rushed hiring push in 2019 that put inexperienced and untrained officials on the job and public backlash following the office’s targeting of journalists covering the George Floyd protests in 2020.
The report is the latest blow for I&A, which has long been the subject of criticism for its troubled relationship to constitutionally protected protest activities and among those who see the post-9/11 office as unnecessarily duplicative in a world where the FBI already exists. In the summer of 2020, I&A was embroiled in controversy when documents leaked showing that analysts had created files on journalists covering the George Floyd protests. Soon after that, Brian Murphy, the head of I&A at the time, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that the two top officials at DHS pressured his analysts to downplay intelligence involving threats from the far right and to amplify intelligence supporting the president’s reelection messaging on the dangerousness of left-wing agitators. The DHS political appointees in question, Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, denied the allegation.
“As Secretary Mayorkas has said, the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 was a violent assault on our democracy,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement to The Intercept. “Over the past fourteen months, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has strengthened intelligence analysis, information sharing, and operational preparedness to help prevent acts of violence and keep our communities safe.”
In addition to implementing a first of its kind National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the official noted that since the Capitol siege, I&A has conducted “more than 70 engagements with partners across every level of government, in the private sector, and local communities regarding emerging threat,” while the department as whole has issued “more than 95 intelligence products related to domestic violent extremism.”
In December, President Joe Biden nominated Kenneth Wainstein, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and chief of staff to longtime FBI Director Robert Mueller, to take over the intelligence office.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, welcomed the inspector general’s report. “I’m glad that the IG made it clear that our intelligence agencies under the previous administration should have done much more before the January 6th attack on the capitol,” Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, said in a statement to The Intercept. “Thankfully, Office of Intelligence and Analysis has agreed with IG’s recommendations and I look forward to working with it on implementing them.”
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a sharp critic of surveillance excesses at DHS — from Customs and Border Protection’s targeting of journalists, lawyers, and immigration advocates at the border to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that vacuumed up millions of Americans’ financial records — said the report was indicative of a pattern of problems at the nation’s largest law enforcement agency that had impacted his own hometown.
“The new Inspector General Report is another reminder that multiple federal agencies failed to appropriately respond to the very real, public threats to the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021,” Wyden said in a statement to The Intercept. “That failure came only a few months after DHS officials inappropriately collected and shared intelligence about reporters and other people who posed no threat to homeland security in Portland.”
“Clearly DHS Intelligence activities need an overhaul to ensure that the department is focused on real threats, not harassing reporters and non-violent protesters,” the senator added. “The public also deserves more information about DHS’s intelligence activities, and I am pleased that Ken Wainstein, the nominee to head the Department’s intelligence office, has committed to me to conduct an immediate review on how to increase transparency.”
The inspector general’s findings indicate that the dysfunction that plagued I&A in the summer of 2020 continued into the winter of 2021.
In one passage, the report presents a series of messages that two “collectors,” officials responsible for trawling through open-source information to identify domestic security threats, exchanged late on the night of January 2, after one of the officials noticed that people were sharing a map of the Capitol online.
“I feel like people are actually going to try and hurt politicians,” the official who came across the map wrote. “Jan 6th is gonna be crazy, not to mention the inauguration.”
The official suspected that their supervisors would order extra shifts for the event, writing, “Watch us get surged for that lol.”
The second official had a similar feeling, adding that the Proud Boys — a right-wing street-fighting gang — were in town the night before. A few hours later, the first official wrote again.
“Like there’s these people talking about hanging Democrats from ropes like wtf,” they said.
“They’d need alot of rope,” the second official replied. “I think DC is pretty much all democrat haha.”
“I feel like people are actually going to try and hurt politicians.”
By 2:53 a.m., the first official had arrived at a succinct description of the threats they were seeing: “I mean people are talking about storming Congress, bringing guns, willing to die for the cause, hanging politicians with ropes,” they wrote.
According to the inspector general, neither official considered filing a report describing what they were seeing. “When reviewing threats pertaining to January 6 events, the collectors generally concluded that the statements online were hyperbole, and not true threats or incitement, because they thought storming the U.S. Capitol and other threats were unlikely or not possible,” the report said.
One collector who spoke to the oversight investigators recalled describing to a colleague how “nervous” they were after seeing a group of people who looked “like they are going to battle” post about their arrival in Washington. “Yet, these collectors did not draft any intelligence products reflecting possible safety concerns in the area,” the report said.
The inspector general traced some of the inaction to shift changes in the summer of 2019 that resulted in an exodus of collectors from I&A. The office responded with a hiring blitz, bringing in replacements “mostly at entry level positions, with many not having Federal government or intelligence experience.”
“As of January 6, 2021, 16 out of 21 collectors had less than 1 year of experience, and some of these new collectors said they did not receive adequate training to help determine when threat information should be reported,” the report said.
“One collector said people were afraid to do their jobs because of the fear of being reprimanded by I&A leadership and concerns about congressional scrutiny.”
Fallout from the summer of 2020 disclosures — which included hearings on Capitol Hill and a separate inspector general report published, ironically, on January 6, 2021 — may have also played a role in the inaction. Out of the 24 collectors the inspector general interviewed, 22 said that their reporting approach “was affected by the scrutiny they received” the previous summer, when DHS deployed Border Patrol tactical teams in response to protests in Portland, Oregon, and compiled “intelligence reports” on members of the media. When considering the potential for violent actors mixed in with racial justice protests, it was an anything goes approach, the collectors said; in the runup to January 6 there was a “pendulum swing” in the other direction.
“They explained that they thought almost anything was reportable during the Portland protests, but they were hesitant or fearful to report information related to January 6 events,” the report said. “One collector said people were afraid to do their jobs because of the fear of being reprimanded by I&A leadership and concerns about congressional scrutiny. Another explained there was a ‘chilling effect’ on their approach to reporting following the summer of 2020.”
Despite I&A’s failure to do its core job in one of the most important moments in the nearly two-decade existence of DHS, the inspector general’s recommendations for correcting course were mild, focusing mostly on improved training and guidance. The inspector general did, however, gesture at the historical significance of the January 6 siege and the need for change, particularly in the event of another attempted government overthrow.
“I&A staff disagree about whether an intelligence product from I&A would have affected the outcome on January 6,” the report said. “Nonetheless, the issues we found during our review demonstrate the need for essential changes at I&A to ensure it is better equipped to respond to similar events in the future.”
Update: March 10, 2022, 1:47 p.m. ET
This article has been updated to include a statement from the Department of Homeland Security that was received after publication.