I was there Jan. 6: We need to counter foreign influence as well as address domestic division
“The Capitol has been breached. Lock down the SCIF and prepare to evacuate.” The call to my direct line came from just off the Senate floor shortly after 2:15pm. I heard what he said, but had trouble comprehending what had happened.
A year later, we are still seeking answers.
One thing is clear: Where Americans are torn by internal conflict and mistrust, adversaries see opportunity. And they are seizing it. Unless we stop them.
The Senate “SCIF” — the large secure facility supporting the classified work of the Senate — is in the U.S. Capitol, two floors underground and behind vaulted doors. As Director of Senate Security at the time, I had only a skeleton crew on site that day due to COVID constraints. We had been monitoring intelligence updates on potential foreign threats to the Joint Session of Congress all morning, but none seemed to warrant additional precautions beyond the readiness posture already in place.
Then we got word that two bombs had been discovered just blocks away, near the Democratic and Republican parties’ national headquarters, drawing police away from the Capitol to evacuate nearby buildings and cordon off the areas. That investigation was ongoing when my phone rang.
“The Capitol has been breached.” How could that be? Video feeds from both chambers went dark as the Senate and then the House abruptly went into recess, and we switched our TV monitors to news coverage of what was happening directly above us…
Were these people armed? Had they brought more pipe bombs — or worse — into the building? The U.S. Capitol is a known target for foreign terrorists; were any of them among the mob that had attacked the police and were now roaming freely through the halls?
Texts and phone calls were flying as we tried to keep track of the hurried movement of Senators and staff off the Senate floor and away from the intruders. I thought the heavily vaulted SCIF was likely the safest place in the Capitol: We weren’t leaving.
The officer stationed at the entrance secured the approaches to the SCIF and moved inside with us, where he would monitor the nonstop calls over his police radio. The staff locked up sensitive documents and alarmed internal spaces, while I fielded situation reports from emergency preparedness teams and across the Capitol complex.
“They’re coming this way,” read the silent e-mail from a staffer on the fourth floor. “I hear them in the hallway,” added another. “They’re trying to break down the door,” another staffer wrote. “I don’t know what to do. I’m alone here.”
We relayed their calls for help to the Capitol Police, but they were overwhelmed and would be unable to respond for well over an hour.
All we could do was urge people trapped in their offices to stay put, barricade the door, and don’t make any noise, until help arrived.
Later, a conservative freshman Senator confided to me, “It was my first time on the Senate floor. I didn’t know if we were going to be killed or what.” No one could believe this was happening. How could Americans storm their own Capitol and assault the U.S. Congress?
America’s great experiment in democracy has always rested on the premise that there are more things that unite than divide us. Whatever our disagreements, we can find our way back to a shared sense of purpose.
Yet something has changed.
As President George W. Bush warned on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, “A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures.”
The ominous lessons of Jan. 6 were not lost on Moscow or Beijing or others who see advantage in deepening discord within our borders.
Last summer, the intelligence community reported (again) that Russia is continuing to interfere with our domestic politics. Already robust Russian, Chinese, and Iranian influence operations have grown even bolder as America’s internal polarization has grown more pronounced. With social media turning truth into a popularity contest, it has become so easy for them: Just insert lies, conspiracy theories, some stolen bits of personal information, and watch what happens.
The American people will either overcome the divisions that are tearing us apart, or future generations will bear the cost — but that reckoning should be on our own terms, not the product of foreign manipulation. In June, the Biden administration issued the first National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. It is a rallying cry for unity at home — but it neglects this darker reality altogether.
Congress directed the director of national intelligence to stand up a “Foreign Malign Influence Response Center” to assess and warn of these growing threats, but its launch date remains unclear. Warning is vital — but it is only a beginning. We also need the national will and capabilities to act.
“It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty,” President Biden said of these malign acts. So how is it possible that we still do not have a strategy to stop them?
The U.S. government has substantial resources to counter foreign intelligence threats — but successive administrations have failed to produce a coherent blueprint for orchestrating them to a common end. A 2018 law calling for the appointment of a White House-level coordinator for combatting influence operations was never implemented. The default for our counterintelligence enterprise has been business-as-usual, while the threats — and our vulnerabilities — continue to grow.
For example, according to press reports, counterintelligence officials sent an all-posts cable in September warning of unexplained losses of CIA sources across the globe. If true, these compromises, putting uncounted lives at risk, have clouded the integrity of CIA’s reporting and bring deep poignancy to the question, now what?
Having served as head of U.S. counterintelligence when the job was first created in 2002, my answer is straightforward: It’s time to go on the offense. Yes, strengthen security, educate the public, pursue legal remedies, engage social media platforms to block dangerous content — but playing defense alone will never be enough.
The United States needs a national-level, strategic program to identify and disrupt hostile intelligence and influence operations directed against us. The Senate version of the 2022 Intelligence Authorization Act would lay the groundwork to begin.
President Biden’s new head of counterintelligence (yet to be named) will need to step up to the urgency of this task. Neither the FBI, nor CIA, nor the military services, can take on these threats acting alone. Unity of effort may be in short supply in America today, but it is vital here. And long overdue.
Amidst the shattered windows and jarring debris one year ago, the joint session reconvened well after dark — to proceed with the tally of the votes, as the Constitution required. It was almost four in the morning when Senate counsel brought the 51 Certificates of Ascertainment to the SCIF for safekeeping. As the last duty of the night, we locked them in the vault and turned out the lights.
The long hallway was deserted as I made my way to the elevator.
The sign reading “Senate Security” had been smashed and tossed down a flight of stairs.
No, we did not see this coming. But we have ample warning of the dangers before us now.
Our sovereignty has been breached. We can never come together as one nation again if we leave ourselves vulnerable to adversaries who are intent on pulling us apart. The only question is: Will our political leadership find the shared sense of purpose needed to stop them?
Michelle Van Cleave was director of Senate security from 2020-2021; she previously served as head of U.S. counterintelligence under President George W. Bush. She is a lawyer and a national security consultant and currently serves as senior advisor to the Jack Kemp Foundation.
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