- On January 6, 2021, rioters stormed the Capitol and tarnished American democracy.
- Six months on, formal testimony, news reports, and investigations have made clear what went wrong.
- Missed warnings, botched plans, and poor leadership exacerbated the chaos that day.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
As Trump supporters arrived in Washington, DC, on January 6 to protest the certification of Joe Biden as the next president, 1,200 officers with the US Capitol Police stood ready.
Perhaps in the hope of setting a peaceful tone, some officers weren’t allowed to start their shifts wearing riot gear, which was instead kept in buses staged around the Capitol.
But as things turned violent that day, a major mistake became obvious, one of many to typify the police response. At least one platoon found their gear locked in a bus that couldn’t be opened, and so had to return to the front line without shields.
The Capitol riot was one of the worst days for law enforcement in America since the 9/11 attacks, The New York Times reported in May. Seventy-three Capitol Police officers and 65 with the DC Metropolitan Police Department were injured. One died.
The bus incident was one of many failures that led the Capitol Police, or USCP, to six months ago cede control to a mob, who threw fire extinguishers and cans at them and battered them with flag poles.
The department maintains that it had no way of knowing what was to come. But evidence which emerged since January shows the scale of what was missed.
Drawing on Congressional testimony, official reports, legal documents, and original interviews, Insider can tell the extent of the dysfunction and confusion that led to insurrection on US soil.
What came as a total surprise to those on the front line was in fact anything but: analysts had been tracking the mass movement of Trump supporters to DC and reading their plans for a military-style operation.
Had that information been acted on, perhaps the trashing of US democracy — not to mention the deaths and injuries that day — could have been avoided.
An insurrection planned in the open
The violence on January 6 had been planned online, visible to anyone who knew where to look.
Among those watching was the Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonprofit which tracks disinformation. It said that ahead of the riot it noted a sharp uptick in terms like “1776” and “Occupy” which hinted at what was to come.
One post in a Facebook group with 150,000 followers described the protest to come as “operation occupy the Capitol.”
Bellingcat, the open-source intelligence group, reported on January 5 that far-right factions, including QAnon and the Proud Boys, were joining forces. Members openly discussed violence ahead of the protest, it said.
In the aftermath, prosecutors have alleged a high degree of coordination among those they now seek to convict.
On June 11, six men, four of whom are members of the Three Percenters militia group, were indicted for conspiring to obstruct the proceedings of January 6.
The Three Percenter suspects are alleged to have coordinated travel plans, and discussed how to get around local DC laws and get to the capital with firearms.
“I personally want to be on the front steps and be one of the first ones to breach the doors!” one member, Russell Taylor, allegedly posted in a Telegram chat group ahead of the protest.
Although the warnings never reached the right place, USCP was watching too. In the weeks ahead of January 6, the department received multiple warnings of violence, but the information wasn’t put to good use.
This is according to the bipartisan Senate report on January 6, produced by the Committee on Rules and Administration and the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.
According to the report, USCP had three separate intelligence units, an arrangement which contributed to poor information-sharing.
John Donohue, director of the Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division (IICD), was the first to try to assess the risks.
On December 16, his staff submitted a report noting that two protests were already in the works, one by a pro-Trump group and another by a pro-Biden group. It said there were no specific threats to the joint session, but noted that “the threat of disruptive actions of violence cannot be ruled out.”
More evidence appeared online in the time between the first special assessment and January 6, but IICD’s reports continued to downplay the threat of violence.
In daily intelligence reports in the three days before the riot, IICD said the threat of civil disobedience was “remote” to “improbable.”
The authors of the Senate report pointed out that these reports didn’t reflect the breadth of intelligence the Capitol Police had collected. Here are a few other disturbing comments made online before the riot, as mentioned in the Senate report:
- “Surround every building with a tunnel entrance/exit. They better dig a tunnel all the way to China if they want to escape.”
- “Anyone going armed needs to be mentally prepared to draw down on LEOs [law enforcement officers]. Let them shoot first, but make sure they know what happens if they do.”
- Maps of the Capitol complex’s tunnel system were also shared online, with discussion of how to use them to reach members of Congress.
Meanwhile, DC hotels reported a spike in bookings, up 60 to 100% compared to the weekend of December 12, 2020, when there was a less remarkable pro-Trump rally in the capital.
Intelligence wasn’t shared
Other agencies watched too. One of the most serious warnings came on January 5, in a report from the FBI field office in Norfolk, Virginia.
One message it highlighted urged fellow protesters: “Be Ready to Fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent … stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war.”
This report was transmitted to the FBI’s Washington office not long before 7 p.m. on January 5, then forwarded to other agencies including the Intelligence Operations Section (IOS), another of the three Capitol Police intelligence units.
An IOS member escalated the report to his supervisor, but it wasn’t further shared with USCP leadership or the other two intelligence units, the Senate report said.
USCP bungled the sharing of intel too when briefing officers on the ground.
USCP claimed that its final special assessment, completed on January 3, was “widely distributed” at the rank of sergeant and above.
These senior officers, the department said, were told to pass its contents down their chain of command. However, some line officers said this simply never happened. Instead, they said, it felt like “business as usual.”
In a press release responding to the Senate report, USCP acknowledged failings in its handling of intelligence, and said it was making changes.
But it contested the broader analysis that it could have known better what was to come, arguing “there was no specific, credible intelligence” that violence was imminent.
The Capitol Police weren’t prepared
Come January 6, the USCP deviated from usual protocol and produced no department-wide plan for the day, the Senate report noted.
There was such a lack of organization that leadership couldn’t even tell the Senate where 797 of the its 1,214 on-duty officers were during the riot.
Some preparations were made, including setting up bike racks around the Capitol and the activation of seven civil disturbance units (CDUs), teams trained to respond when demonstrations get out of hand.
Four of these were so-called “hard” CDUs, platoons outfitted with special equipment and trained in advanced civil disturbance tactics.
But, as the USCP inspector general found out, the majority of the 160 officers in these hard platoons had gone years without completing an annual refresher training.
Meanwhile, many other officers were left to defend the Capitol in their regular uniforms, the Senate report said.
“I have officers who were not issued helmets prior to the attack who have sustained brain injuries,” Capitol Police union chairman Gus Papathanasiou said in a January 27 news release.
“One officer has two cracked ribs and two smashed spinal discs. One officer is going to lose his eye, and another was stabbed with a metal fence stake.”
Some USCP officers were given defective riot shields that shattered on impact because they had been stored improperly.
‘We were on our own’
When Trump supporters marched toward the Capitol and started pushing against the barricades, officers looked to their superiors for help, but were soon disappointed.
“I was horrified that NO deputy chief or above was on the radio or helping us. For hours the screams on the radio were horrific, the sights were unimaginable, and there was a complete loss of control … For hours NO chief or above took command and control. Officers were begging and pleading for help for medical triage,” said an unnamed officer in Congressional testimony.
Acting USCP Chief Yolanda Pittman said the lack of communication was because commanders were engaged with rioters, but the sense of abandonment was acute for officers on the ground that day.
“We heard nothing that day,” another officer said. “We were on our own. Totally on our own.”
There was another missed opportunity in terms of staffing levels.
Pittman claimed that on January 6, USCP was operating with all hands on deck. But the USCP inspector general found that staffing levels were normal — 1,214 of the 1,840 officers were on site as of 2 p.m.
A few days after the riot, Insider spoke to a Capitol Police officer who worked the night shift on January 5. He was under the impression that and his colleagues would be kept on for a double shift to help monitor the rallies.
Instead, he was sent home, leaving his fellow officers on the day shift without extra help when things turned violent.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), ranking member of one of the two committees that authored the report, told “CBS This Morning” in June that officers were put “in an impossible position” but worked bravely in spite of so many institutional failures.
“They didn’t have adequate training. They didn’t have adequate equipment. They didn’t have adequate barriers. They didn’t have adequate communication. They didn’t have the intelligence to know what was coming, and yet, they valiantly supported the effort to protect the Capitol, protecting the vice president, protecting all members of Congress, protecting democracy.”
The National Guard took hours to respond
In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riot, reports claimed the USCP had turned down support from the National Guard earlier in the day. This turned out not to be the case.
However, the Senate report sought to explain why the National Guard took so long to come on January 6.
A big factor was bureaucracy: The USCP chief doesn’t have authority to unilaterally request support from the National Guard.
Instead, the chief must go to the Capitol Police Board — made up of the sergeants-at-arms of the House and Senate, and the architect of the Capitol — who decide by voting.
Then-USCP Chief Steven Sund had informal conversations with the sergeants-at-arms in early January, the Senate report said, but no formal vote took place until after the riot broke out.
Department of Defense officials said they received a request at 2:30 p.m., after the riot had been underway for an hour. The DC National Guard arrived a little after 5 p.m.
Preventing another insurrection
Having better plans for a National Guard response is one of the recommendations from the Senate report for preventing a repeat of January 6.
Among the other recommendations are mandatory department-wide plans from USCP for special events, merging the three intelligence units, and giving the chief power to request assistance on his own initiative.
It should be mentioned that the Senate report is limited in its scope. The report mostly focuses on what happened on January 6, and a few of the failures leading up to it.
It does not explore the root causes of the attack, or even call what happened an “insurrection,” a word Republicans have conspicuously stopped using.
That could change with the passage last week of a bill in the House to establish a committee to investigate the Capitol riot and examine what happened that day.
With two exceptions, Republicans opposed the bill, and are said to be planning to use their seats on the committee to seek to blame Democrats for the riot instead of Trump.
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor, told Insider last week that even though the cases were moving slowly, he expected most suspects to eventually plead guilty because of the strength of evidence against them.
“You gotta send a message in a case like this, it’s so outrageous and egregious,” he said.