A Marine charged with taking part in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was transferred into a highly sensitive intelligence assignment at the headquarters of the National Security Agency after the violent attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, Marine Corps officials have acknowledged. The Marine confessed to his role in the Capitol riot last summer during a security clearance interview, but was not charged until last month.
Following his alleged participation in the 2021 insurrection, Sgt. Joshua Abate, a special communication signals analyst, was assigned to the Marine Cryptologic Support Battalion, which acts as a liaison between the Marines and the NSA at Fort Meade. The transfer into the liaison unit after the Capitol riot placed Abate inside one of the most sensitive facilities in the entire U.S. government.
The three Marines’ assignment to highly sensitive intelligence jobs after they allegedly joined in the January 6 riot has not been previously reported. All three were charged last month in connection with their roles as part of the violent mob that forced members of Congress to flee for their lives and delay certification of the 2020 election results. Abate, Hellonen, and Coomer are accused of offenses including trespassing, disorderly conduct, and illegal parading or picketing in a restricted building.
The Marine Corps initially released little information about the three men; the service provided only brief descriptions of their current assignments and did not publicly acknowledge that all were given new assignments after January 6. “We are aware of an investigation and the allegations,” the Corps wrote in its initial terse statement after the charges against the three Marines were made public. “The Marine Corps is fully cooperating with the appropriate authorities in support of the investigation.”
But after The Intercept independently discovered that all three Marines had been given new intelligence assignments following the insurrection, the Corps confirmed that they were all transferred to new roles after January 6, 2021, and provided information about their assignments at the time of the insurrection. Abate and Hellonen also received promotions in rank following the Capitol riot, according to the Corps.
The reassignments raise serious new questions about the ability of both the military and the U.S. intelligence community to identify right-wing extremists in their midst. Since the Capitol riot, the Pentagon has claimed that it has been trying to root out extremists, but there have been few signs that the problem has yet been reduced or even that the scale of the threat has been adequately measured. What’s more, the Pentagon’s efforts are now being impeded by congressional Republicans, who are seeking to block initiatives to oust right-wing radicals from the military. An early warning of Republican opposition came last summer, when the Senate Armed Services Committee voted in favor of legislative language designed to halt Pentagon attempts to counter extremist influence in the military’s ranks. Every Republican senator on the panel voted to block the anti-extremist training, and they succeeded when Maine independent Sen. Angus King joined them.
Now that Republicans control the House, they are vowing to go after what they call “woke” policies at the Pentagon; efforts to root out right-wing extremists are certain to be among their prime targets.
While Pentagon officials have talked extensively about the problem of right-wing extremism in the military, the U.S. intelligence community has so far been much more secretive about the issue. Intelligence officials have reported on the rising threat posed by white nationalism and right-wing domestic terrorism, but there is no public data on the extent of the problem within its ranks and little evidence that they are taking significant action to prevent the spread of extremism inside their own agencies.
Intelligence officials declined to discuss whether any investigation is being conducted to determine how Abate, Hellonen, and Coomer could be given such sensitive intelligence positions after allegedly participating in the January 6 mob. An NSA spokesperson declined to comment on Abate’s role at the Marines NSA liaison office and refused to say whether the NSA is conducting a counterintelligence investigation to examine whether Abate compromised any operations. A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also declined to comment.
The three Marines are not the first with intelligence community links to be charged in connection with the January 6 insurrection. Last September, Hatchet Speed, a Navy reservist who had previously worked with the NAVWAR Space Field Activity at the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the nation’s spy satellites, was charged after telling an undercover FBI agent that he had gone into the U.S. Capitol with members of the Proud Boys, an extremist group that was at the center of the insurrection.
It seems clear from interviews and court documents that investigators were slow to identify Abate, Hellonen, and Coomer. At the time of the insurrection, the three men were friends and were all assigned to the Marine Corps Information Operations Center at Quantico, Virginia, about 30 miles south of Washington. The center is involved in psychological warfare training and development for the Marines, among other functions.
On January 6, 2021, the three went to the U.S. Capitol together, entering the building at 2:20 p.m. through the Senate wing door, according to video footage and photographs taken during the attack. They were inside the Capitol for about an hour in the midst of the insurrection, according to the criminal complaint filed by the government in their case. Hellonen was carrying a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.
The three began roaming the halls with the mob that had flooded into the Capitol. At 2:32 p.m., they entered the Capitol rotunda, placed a red MAGA hat on a statue, and took photos with it, according to the complaint.
They continued to walk through the building, using their cellphones to take photos and videos.
The three got away without being immediately identified. Abate later said that “he heard how the event was being portrayed negatively and decided that he should not tell anybody about going into the U.S. Capitol Building,” according to the complaint.
Coomer was apparently the first to be identified by the FBI. On August 13, 2021, a federal search warrant was served on Facebook authorizing the search of the Instagram account of “mrcoomer08.” Coomer had posted photos from inside the Capitol on January 6 to his personal account, with the caption: “Glad to be apart [sic] of history.” In a separate Instagram conversation on January 31, 2021, Coomer said that “everything in this country is corrupt. We honestly need a fresh restart. I’m waiting for the boogaloo.”
“What’s a boogaloo,” the user he was talking to asked, according to the government’s complaint.
“Civil war 2,” Coomer replied.
In addition to acknowledging his involvement in the insurrection through his social media posts, Coomer was also identified by a witness in the Marines who picked him out of footage taken inside the Capitol, the complaint says.
It took investigators nearly another year to confront Abate about his presence in the Capitol that day. In June 2022, Abate was interviewed as part of his security clearance process, and admitted going into the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection with “two buddies.”
Abate said that as they walked through the rotunda, one of his friends smoked a cigarette and they “tried not to get hit with tear gas,” according to the complaint. Abate also admitted that he had decided to keep his involvement secret. When contacted by phone, relatives of Coomer and Hellonen declined to comment on the case. David Dischley, an attorney for Abate, said the next hearing in the case is scheduled for March 21 in federal court in Washington.