January 11, 2021

IntelBrief: A Perfect Storm: Complete Breakdown of Law and Order at the U.S. Capitol

Police stand guard, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • On January 6th, a violent mob assaulted police officers and forced its way into the U.S. Capitol as part of an insurrection encouraged by President Trump.
  • At any time, guarding the U.S. Capitol and surrounding Capitol Complex area is a difficult task with unique challenges related to symbolism and logistics.
  • The Capitol police were unprepared to deal with the violent mob, even though insurrectionists openly discussed their plans for weeks.
  • In the coming weeks, the United States needs an in-depth and nonpartisan investigation into the myriad security failures of the January 6th insurrection.

Five people died during the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Trump. Among the dead a U.S. Capitol police officer who was murdered. The Capitol itself was left in shambles, with multiple instances of theft, destruction and the loss of potentially sensitive materials. The mayhem of that day could have been far worse, indicated by the discovery of bombs, Molotov cocktails, and other incendiary devices, and images of intruders with flexi-cuffs or “zip ties.” Others were arrested with firearms. It is difficult to overstate how damaging the events of January 6, 2020 were to the core of American democracy and to the fabric of our nation. Conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, far-right extremists and other anti-government groups were incited by the President of the United States of America, who repeatedly called for his supporters to ‘fight,’ ‘show strength,’ and ‘take back our country.’ The violent mob descendedupon Washington D.C. in an attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election, despite the fact that all legal challenges were dismissed. Images of the mob perpetrating acts of violence against Capitol Police, or in other instances, facing seemingly little resistance, represent a massive security failure, and especially so given the widespread predictions by experts. That this could occur two decades following the 9/11 attacks requires an urgent and honest assessment of what how the United States identifies security threats and prepares to counter them. Moreover, while the threat was finally contained in this case, there are serious implications for security planning in the future, including counterterrorism scenario planning and how to ensure continuity of government in the face of a critical threat.

At the best of times, guarding the U.S. Capitol and the surrounding Complex is a difficult task with unique challenges related to both symbolism and logistics. By design and purpose, the U.S. Capitol grounds are relatively open, while entry into the Capitol itself is highly restricted. The U.S. Capitol Police, with a budget of $430 million and 2,300 sworn officers and non-sworn employees, is responsible for maintaining the security of the buildings and the safety of all those inside the area. The Capitol Police are familiar with managing protests, both large and small, though most of these are nonviolent. There is always at least a small group or lone individual protesting on the sidewalks on the eastern side of the complex. Protests of any kind inside the Capitol itself are strictly prohibited and strictly enforced, though sometimes appear in the form of shouting during hearings or passive-resistance ‘sit-ins’ or even clothing with political messages.

The Capitol Police are well-trained and equipped to counter an armed attack on the complex, but apparently only if it falls within the traditional kinds of protests more usually encountered, and an immediate threat that might require lethal force. The mob that surged into the Capitol on January 6th was not the type of attack that Capitol Police leadership anticipated, and they were woefully unprepared. The failure of planning for January 6th was not an intelligence failure; the ‘Stop the Steal’ event has been planned for months and widely discussed and hyped on social and traditional media, and predicted by a wide range of experts and security agencies. President Trump and other elected officials repeatedly urged supporters to go to the Capitol and ‘fight.’ This was the most openly planned insurrection in recent history. The failure to plan a robust response to the event was also a failure of imagination. Chatter on social media clearly laid out the plans and tactics of the most vocal and followed accounts and conspiracy-promoting personalities. Talk about deploying the DC National Guard as the protest turned into a riot is misguided—these units are not quick-reaction forces. The entire point of these units is that they should be deployed before the event. There are legitimate concerns over an overly militarized presence for peaceful protests, and some have posited reluctance on the part of police to be heavy-handed, as was seen in last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. However, in this instance, there was widespread chatter by individuals and groups descending on the Capitol with the deliberate intent to subvert the democratic process and engage in violence.

There should have been substantial physical barriers in place to keep the thousands of people at a distance from the building where Congressional leadership was tending to the Electoral College certification. There is no single point of failure for complex security challenges, but the basic failure to place barriers more substantial than snow-fence netting and movable metal markers is close. Once thousands of people pressed up against the building, each police officer was faced with a wrenching decision to either use lethal force against an obvious but not immediately lethal threat, or fall back. These officers should never have been placed in these situations. Experts have noted that in many cases following critical incidents such as these, there are round-the-clock press briefings from law enforcement officials, which have not been taking place this week. This may hinder law enforcement's ability to bring perpetrators to justice. In the coming weeks, the United States needs an in-depth and nonpartisan investigation into the myriad security failures at the Capitol, and ensure that those who broke the law are held to account. These responses need to be swift and decisive to ensure that the rule of law is upheld and those planning future violence are aware there will be no impunity. Without a transparent audit of all of the missteps, the country and the Capitol will remain vulnerable to future incidents of this kind, already being widely discussed in relation to the forthcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.