Wait, Don't Tell Me: The Capitol Riot Was Yet Another "Intelligence Failure"

Trump's insurrectionists attack police while trying to storm the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. The rioters broke windows and used metal bars, flag poles and bear spray as well against the police. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Wait, Don't Tell Me: The Capitol Riot Was Yet Another "Intelligence Failure"

This is Washington's go-to excuse for basic failures of policy, but we should not tolerate it any longer.

In the Senate's first hearing on the breach of Capitol security by pro-Trump rioters on February 23, it was the consensus of all witnesses that failure to receive appropriate notice of the government's available intelligence was the main reason for the incident.

Former Capitol Police chief Steven A. Sund, who resigned after the attack, testified that the intelligence community "needs to broaden its aperture on what information it collects" and recommended sharpening the "view they have on some of the domestic extremists and the effect that they have."

That authorities should improve their knowledge of domestic extremism is incontestable, but there are three things wrong with this blame-casting.

First, the FBI's Norfolk field office issued an intelligence bulletin on January 5, citing emphatic calls for violence:"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. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal."

The Capitol's ex-security chiefs quibbled that the warning came as an email, so they didn't act. Did they expect a bound copy relayed by courier with a receipt attached? Email has been standard communication in business and government for 30 years. Their alibi is a thin reed on which to seek exoneration.

Second, it is inevitable in today's hyper-partisan atmosphere that the intelligence excuse, as the investigation's headline rationale, will serve to deflect attention from the parties most responsible: former President Trump and his violent supporters. Given that several Republican members of Congress may have played questionable roles in the attack only increases their temptation to distract the public.

Finally, even in the absence of the FBI warning, how about the Capitol Police switching on CNN? The entire country saw Trump harangue an unruly mob and order them to the Capitol to "fight like hell." In the time it took for the rioters to arrive, preparations could have been made, reinforcements brought, and members taken to safety. As any soldier defending a firebase in Vietnam would have known, even an hour's warning of an attack is vastly better than only finding out when the enemy has breached the wire.

As a former Congressional employee handling national security issues for a living, the intelligence-failure mantra strikes me as a drearily familiar Washington dodge. After 9/11, the Bush administration relentlessly trumpeted this refrain in its attempt at blame-shifting. Later, an investigative commission was predicated on it, and the Department of Homeland Security created to address it.

But the attack was not an intelligence failure; it was a policy failure at the top. President Bush refused to take seriously the president's daily brief of August 6, 2001 that plainly stated that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike in our country. Did it include the tail numbers of the airplanes to be used in the attack? No, but the president could have put the entire government on high alert; he did nothing of the kind.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified by Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. We supposedly had solid intelligence indications. Yet after launching a disastrous invasion, we found nothing. The Bush administration attempted to write it off as an intelligence failure, yet before the attack, the United Nations weapons inspectors repeatedly stated there was no WMD. In reality, Mr. Bush and his advisers were hell-bent on the invasion, and no amount of accurate information would have stayed their hand.

Similarly thin excuse-making pervaded this week's hearings on the Capitol assault. We required no secret sources to have noticed the armed takeover of Michigan's capitol last March, and its potential as a template. In the six months before the insurrection, any sentient adult would have heard Trump repeatedly say he would never accept an election defeat, as well as his dog-whistle to extremists to "stand by." The two weeks before January 6 saw saturation media coverage of Trump supporters preparing to descend on Washington, along with nonstop discussion of potential violence.

Yet the three top officials in Capitol security dismissed it as an intelligence failure of the labyrinthine Washington bureaucracy, a rationale that, like the weather, is meant to settle all disputes. In truth, it was a failure of the imagination, a complacent refusal to take violent extremists at their word, and perhaps also a failure of intelligence, but of the cognitive rather than secret kind.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.