May 21, 2021
IntelBrief: Speaking with One Voice: Investigating the January 6 Insurrection
Bottom Line Up Front
- The U.S. House of Representatives voted to establish an independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
- The bill is unlikely to garner ten Republican votes in the Senate, a remarkable statement on the current precarious state of American democracy.
- Events such as the insurrection, like 9/11, require high-level bi-partisan independent commissions to examine catastrophic security failures.
- It would not only be unprecedented to not establish such as commission; it would be reckless and damaging to U.S. national security and democracy.
On May 19, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3233 by a vote of 252 to 175 on the bill titled the “National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex Act.” Thirty-five Republican members broke with party lines to vote in favor. The bill would establish:
“in the legislative branch the National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex. The commission must (1) conduct an investigation of the relevant facts and circumstances relating to the attack on the Capitol; (2) identify, review, and evaluate the causes of and the lessons learned from this attack; and (3) submit specified reports containing findings, conclusions, and recommendations to improve the detection, prevention, preparedness for, and response to targeted violence and domestic terrorism and improve the security posture of the U.S. Capitol Complex.
The bill gives the commission specified powers, including the authority to hold hearings, receive evidence, and issue subpoenas. The bill also provides for the composition of the commission and the appointment of staff, and it requires the commission to hold public hearings and meetings to the extent that it is appropriate. The commission must also release public versions of its reports.”
The independent commission would be modeled after the 9/11 Commission that investigated the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 and the security and intelligence failures that led to those attacks. Congress typically looks to independent commissions to not just investigate but to document significant national security catastrophes such as the 9-11 attacks and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Lessons learned from these failures can inform new approaches to preventing similar pitfalls in the future. Beyond important tactical adjustments, it is essential for the United States to treat the Capitol Insurrection with the severity it deserves. Ignoring the events of January 6 or attempting to downplay what happened would corrode trust in democratic institutions and likely embolden similar attacks from violent extremists in the future. In short, it would send a message that politically and ideologically motivated violence can be effective.
The storming of the building – a home of democracy in America, and not only a symbol of government, but the very seat of it – saw supporters of now-former President Trump incited by his and many other leaders’ words that the election had been stolen. The insurrectionists barged into the complex, some apparently prepared to commit violence against lawmakers and civilians, with the stated goal of stopping the certification of the Electoral College and therefore the certification of the 2020 Presidential Election. Yet, The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) was established with more bipartisan support than supporters of the January 6 Commission can hope to achieve. There was no shortage of partisanship and political fighting in the time surrounding the 9/11 attacks and its aftermath; indeed, there was intense political tension and dysfunction. But on something the scale of 9/11, both parties could at least agree that the U.S. needed to examine the facts of what happened, to agree on these basic facts, and to seek to prevent it from happening again. In other words, country over party.
Hyper partisanship, deliberate disinformation, and structural conditions that have been put in place – such as “gerrymandering” – by parties to secure their political power have combined to make politics in the U.S. so dysfunctional that people find it difficult to agree on even the most basic facts. Worse, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) called the insurrection a “peaceful protest,” despite the murder of a police officer and the arrest of more than 400 individuals on over 2,000 charges. In the immediate aftermath of January 6th, even Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) himself labeled it a “failed insurrection,” noting that President Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the event of the day.” Yet, on Wednesday, McConnell declared his opposition to a January 6 Commission, reversing a position he had taken earlier.
This is the reason that the prospects of a bi-partisan independent January 6 Commission are so bleak – as well as the reason why it is so necessary. Not even six months from the attempt to overturn a presidential election by storming the U.S. Capitol – something that was literally encouraged by a (former) sitting President and many current elected officials – there is a calculated effort to deny what happened. Worse still, there is a continued effort to reframe it as a peaceful protest which would be legally protected; this despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is a deliberate attempt to lie about what happened and why it happened. It is vital to the future of a sustainable and credible democratic society, including upholding a sense of equal application of the law, that the attempts to “gaslight” the public fail, and are recorded in history as having failed.
It is difficult to overstate how important it is for the U.S. Congress to establish a January 6 Commission to examine the most blatant and violent attempt to overturn a legitimate presidential election in U.S. history. Every legal challenge to the outcome has reaffirmed it; senior officials tasked with monitoring the security and credibility of the election results have also affirmed it, often to their own professional and personal detriment. An unexamined history is like unexploded ordnance, and the U.S. is in an explosive era politically and socially.