Reflecting on failures that led to Jan. 6 — and getting it right for the future

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No matter how many times we see them, the images from Jan. 6, 2021, stun — even one year later. A violent mob, bent on disrupting official election proceedings in Congress, overwhelmed and outnumbered the police force to storm the U.S. Capitol. Inside, masked men with zip ties hanging from tactical vests leapt from balconies onto the floor of the U.S. Senate. Outside, rioters battled police with fists, pepper spray, and hand-held weapons. The Congressional testimony by the officers working that painful day painted a dire and grim picture. I was reminded of violent facility seizures abroad while watching the chaos unfold — in places like Tehran and Islamabad.

Anniversaries mark symbolic importance. Which raises the question of whether we can, or should, expect violence from actors sympathetic to the Jan. 6 rioters. In consideration of getting it right for the future, it’s worth reflecting on the failures that allowed the attack to happen, and the state of Capitol security one year later.

Securing the U.S. Capitol is an exceedingly difficult task. On the one hand, it is a public building, with the expectation, inherent in any democracy, that citizens will have access to the facility. At the same time, the primary users of the building, elected officials, are powerful people whose visions of security can conflict with one another.

Having served as a special agent and police officer, it pains me to ask these three important questions, the answers to which are now obvious: Why didn’t anyone connect the dots and realize the risk? There was a clear protective intelligence failure. Why was the Capitol so vulnerable to the mob, and why were police so short-handed? There was a clear physical security failure. Why wasn’t there a quick reaction force on standby to respond? There was also a clear contingency planning failure. Yes, the U.S. Capitol Police and allied federal agencies failed across three domains.

Tragedy always forces change. Security in the U.S. Capitol, and across the District of Columbia, will be robust and thorough leading up to Jan. 6, 2022, with an increased cadence of task force meetings and law enforcement agencies hosting stair-step meetings. Physical security will be tight. I’d be willing to bet that a large contingent of law enforcement will be on standby should they be needed. And analysts’ attention will be trained on the right sources. I fully expect that all of the failures from the previous Jan. 6th have been addressed.

And yet — from a law enforcement perspective — one major loose end remains: The threat actor who planted bombs outside the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic national committees remains at large.

While changes have been made over the past 12 months, that doesn’t mean Washington D.C. has learned all of its lessons when it comes to the aftermath of Jan. 6. 

The most difficult failure to correct is the intelligence failure, because it requires leaders not only to train their collection on the right sources, but to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Jan. 6 wasn’t an intelligence collection failure. It was a failure to act upon the intelligence collected. Lots of federal agencies, as well as the U.S. Capitol Police, received adverse intelligence indicating something big was about to occur; however, the signals were lost within the noise.

At its core, the failure of Jan. 6 was a failure of imagination, and it shares that feature with nearly every other major attack. Attacks like 9/11, Benghazi, and Jan. 6 each featured missed tripwires and clues, leading up to the event. In each case, law enforcement and security personnel underwent a significant reorientation to make sure these events never happen again.

And so, while we can be assured that analysts are trained on the right targets to prevent another riot, we can only hope that law enforcement agencies across the country are looking for the next threat. Will we be surprised again?

Fred Burton is executive director of Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence. He previously served as a counterterrorism special agent for the U.S. State Department, serving as deputy chief of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service counterterrorism division. He is a New York Times best-selling author; his books include: “Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Beirut Rules,” and “Under Fire.”

Tags counterterrorism intelligence failure Jan 6 insurrection Jan. 6 capitol riot January 6 Capitol attack Law enforcement National security Public safety Security
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