The seditious attack of January 6, 2021, on the U.S. Capitol that led to the deaths of at least seven people, at least $1.5 million in damage, and further threats to federal lawmakers, police officers, and a peaceful transfer of power, exposed the fragility of the guardrails protecting our democracy. Despite steady warnings by intelligence analysts of the likelihood of mass violence, Capitol Police leadership failed to adequately respond to this intelligence and to defend the Capitol against the attack.
While the bipartisan House Select Committee on January 6th’s investigation rightly focused on the primary instigators and leaders of the attack, we must still understand why Capitol Police leadership left their officers unprotected and unprepared to defend the Capitol, despite intelligence reports clearly showing the metastasizing threat of armed, radicalized demonstrators descending on Washington, DC. Capitol Police whistleblowers have disclosed important information that adds to the picture of what went wrong internally – namely, how intelligence was mishandled leading up to January 6. Several of those insiders who sounded the alarm have since faced retaliation, including losing their jobs.
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Even though the Capitol Police's after-action report is consistent with several analysts’ testimony regarding pre-January 6 intelligence breakdowns, Capitol Police retaliated against analysts who had raised their concerns and assisted with investigations. This retaliation led to a bipartisan oversight letter from Congress regarding possible “prohibited personnel practices and other misconduct … including an unauthorized reorganization of the Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division, improper personnel decisions, internal policy violations, and retaliation.” Although the Capitol Police has denied any wrongdoing, including retaliating against the whistleblowers, there are real questions regarding how thoroughly and robustly the Capitol Police’s watchdog has examined misconduct claims. A January 2022 letter from then-Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) alleges the Capitol Police inspector general, after interviewing several whistleblowers, “concluded summarily – with no real investigation – that their complaints were without merit.” The Capitol Police has fired or proposed firing at least five analysts who say they have raised concerns about the pre-January 6 intelligence problems.
Congress owes a special duty to these officers and analysts who have put their livelihoods and personal security on the line to warn about the security failures of January 6 and ongoing threats. Time and again, federal agencies attack whistleblowers personally and undermine their credibility in a misguided attempt to deflect blame for mismanagement and to protect agency interests instead of addressing the problems they expose. Recommendations from the House Select Committee, if enacted, may successfully repel or at least mitigate a future attack. But federal employees still do not have adequate whistleblower protections, and legislative branch employees, including Capitol Police personnel, have even fewer than most. In addition to reforming how U.S. Capitol Police collects, assesses, and disseminates intelligence, Congress must pass robust whistleblower protections so that officers and analysts on the front lines can come forward to protect our democracy without risking their careers. The U.S. Capitol Police is the only law enforcement agency whose sole mission is to protect Congress and the Capitol. Congress must provide the necessary protections for those who may risk everything to keep Congress safe.
The Capitol Police inspector general report, issued in March 2021, found that on January 6, Capitol Police had inadequate policies and procedures for intelligence operations, which undermined its readiness. This lack of readiness may have partly been caused by decisions made by new leaders of the intelligence division. Only a few months before January 6, in late fall 2020, the Capitol Police’s intelligence division hired Jack Donohue as director, and Julie Farnam as associate director. They immediately began restructuring the intelligence division, according to a Capitol Police after-action report made up of views of individual employees, and “essentially dismantled” the Open Source Section, the unit responsible for analyzing social media and other internet postings. The changes rendered it “nonfunctional,” according to experienced analysts cited by House Republicans in their final January 6 report . This work was instead redelegated: Analysts were reassigned, required to perform duties for which they had not been trained and that were outside their responsibilities, and even prevented from accessing necessary files. This meant that at such a crucial time, inner upheaval and turmoil prevented the division from performing a vital part of its responsibility. One analyst testified, “At the time of January 6, we were not doing proactive searches of social media like we had been before. We were strictly reactive and responding to requests for information.” This realignment meant that the intelligence division did not have proper policies and procedures for collecting and handling open source intelligence, and guidance was “very ambiguous.”
Another factor may have been the seeming lack of trust that new leadership had in these analysts. Farnam testified that they “didn’t have the capability” for much of the analytic work. According to the inspector general, Donohue “stated it was very complicated deciding if you can … trust analysts with sharing intelligence.” Analysts testified that almost immediately upon being hired, Farnam began harassing and creating a hostile workplace culture. After one analyst team lead attempted to clarify part of their work duties, Farnam gave them an administrative write-up, accusing them of being insubordinate, unprofessional, and unwelcoming. Another analyst testified that Farnam admitted she intentionally sought to “create stress” on analysts to evaluate their adaptability, because they were submitting so many complaints to supervisors.
Even with these hindrances, analysts continued to warn of the likely threat of violence, including sharing intelligence that showed January 6 demonstrators would be armed, planning for violence, and attempting to breach and occupy the Capitol, and that there was a steady rise of people researching online maps of the Capitol’s underground tunnel system. Despite these warnings, Capitol Police leadership failed to anticipate the extent of the violence, and to clearly communicate the danger that awaited federal lawmakers.
Although the Capitol Police’s Special Event Assessment on January 3 included a warning that protestors would target Congress itself, potentially violently, the ambiguity from Capitol Police about the threat of violence obscured the serious risks, and likely led to the Capitol Police Board determining the intelligence was insufficient to justify calling up the National Guard to protect Congress.
Additionally, as the media critic Dan Froomkin recently laid out in detail, Capitol Police leadership, particularly then-Chief Steven Sund, made confounding decisions such as removing crowd management barriers (bike racks) the night before and not canceling officers’ time off scheduled for January 6, despite saying that he got “all hands on deck.” Froomkin and others — including Capitol Police officers, then-President-elect Joe Biden, and the then-leader of the DC National Guard — have pointed out the disparities in responses to Black Lives Matter protests and to the largely white, pro-Trump crowd on January 6, raising the question that racism, conscious or unconscious, could have played a role in the failures that day.
Although the Capitol Police later acknowledged problems with restructuring the intelligence division, and the after-action report found that Donohue and Farnam’s dismantling of the division “may have contributed to the tragedy,” the inspector general did not assess the impact of any actions they took prior to the attack. Donohue resigned a few months after January 6, while Farnam served as acting director until a permanent director began the following year in April 2022, after which she returned to her role as assistant director. She remains in that role to this day.
Capitol Police whistleblowers who spoke with investigators and filed official complaints faced retaliation by Capitol Police leadership, including termination. A Capitol Police attorney asked one analyst to participate in the Select Committee’s investigation. After the analyst cited concerns of “retaliation, discrimination [and] harassment” by Farnam, the attorney told Farnam about the meeting with the committee; after assisting with the committee’s investigation, the analyst received an administrative write-up for doing so, which “cited mismanagement of [his] time and prioritization of resource.”
Although Capitol Police retaliated against many of the whistleblowers, the agency has begun making positive changes in response to their important disclosures. In the two years since the attack, they have attempted to improve the intelligence division and internal procedures, which may help prevent a similar violent attack in the future. For example, Capitol Police has worked to increase hiring and training of personnel, reform intelligence processes, and build up interagency partnerships. However, there remains a shortage of officers, and it may be difficult to fill positions if rank-and-file officers cannot be sure that leadership will protect them and their jobs.
Congress has also passed reforms to mitigate any future attempts to overthrow the government. Congress passed the bipartisan Capitol Police Emergency Assistance Act of 2021, which President Joe Biden signed into law in December 2021, authorizing the chief of the Capitol Police to request the assistance of the DC National Guard and federal law enforcement agencies during emergencies without approval of the Capitol Police Board.
The Capitol Police must become more transparent and accountable. The House Select Committee has called for rigorous oversight of the agency, including joint hearings with testimony from the Capitol Police Board. POGO has advocated for the Capitol Police Office of Inspector General to make its reports, findings, and recommendations publicly available; not doing so undermines Congress’s ability to conduct effective oversight. There has been progress on this: In the report accompanying the bill to fund the federal government for fiscal year 2022, appropriators instructed the Capitol Police Office of Inspector General to make its reports publicly available on its website without redaction, except when disclosed reports may compromise law enforcement activities, national security, privacy, or congressional security and processes. While this is an encouraging step forward, the Capitol Police Office of Inspector General still has yet to comply with that directive.
The Capitol Police Board must also increase its accountability. The board, which consists of the Capitol Police chief of police, the head of the Architect of the Capitol, and the House and Senate sergeants at arms, has been reluctant in recent years to implement critical transparency measures. A report issued by House Republicans offers recommendations to make the Capitol Police Board more transparent, and includes proposals to compel the board to transmit timely meeting notes to relevant congressional committees and to regularly brief lawmakers. The report also proposes increasing the Capitol Police Office of Inspector General’s independence by clearly defining and limiting the Police Board’s authority as it relates to that office. Furthermore, it suggests addressing the board’s inherent conflict of interest created by the chief of police’s role on the Board. These are commonsense reforms both parties should be able to agree to.
Lastly, Congress must ensure that federal employees, including congressional officials and Capitol Police officers and analysts, have robust whistleblower protections so they can expose wrongdoing without risking their careers. At a minimum, Congress should pass legislation to ban retaliatory investigations, provide direct access to jury trials, and underscore that no federal employee may interfere with the right of whistleblowers to speak with Congress and petition their government. Capitol Police whistleblowers lost their jobs and risked their careers in order to uphold their oath to keep Congress safe. Congress must act to guarantee that if or when another attack happens, those on the front lines can safely do their duty so Congress can continue to safely do its own.
In the meantime, any intelligence analysts who were retaliated against for making disclosures must be made whole. Congress should direct the Capitol Police to provide financial remedies to those whistleblowers, many of whom provided testimony to congressional staff.