Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Inside the Capitol Cops’ Jan. 6 Blame Game

Exclusive documents and whistleblower claims describe critical intelligence failures ahead of the insurrection
(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images; Tyler Merbler / Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

This story is co-published with Rolling Stone

New documents describe critical errors in the Capitol Police’s handling of intelligence prior to the Jan. 6 attack on Congress, revealing missed warning signs that — despite the undeniable heroism of many of its officers — contributed to the agency’s failed defense of the Capitol.

The documents, which were obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, add to a body of reporting by the government and the press surrounding failures by the Capitol Police intelligence division and its key leaders to clearly, consistently, and widely communicate the severity of raw intelligence threats to the Capitol and lawmakers — a failure that on Jan. 6 left Congress under-defended and rank-and-file officers unprepared.

One of the new documents is a Capitol Police “after-action” report, based on the observations and professional opinions of employees. It contains a section on intelligence that says intelligence leaders who were hired in late 2020 took actions that “may have contributed to the tragedy” on January 6.

It also says intelligence leaders kept seasoned analysts from assessing Jan. 6-related threat reports and that leaders “essentially dismantled” a unit that analyzes online posts.

In the run-up to Jan. 6, online message boards and social media platforms brimmed with violent messages directed towards lawmakers on Jan. 6 as users stated their intentions to halt the certification of the 2020 presidential election. The number of online threats exploded when then-President Donald Trump tweeted on Dec. 19, 2020 about protesting on Jan. 6: “Be there, will be wild!” Post after post by extremists called for murdering legislators by name, as well as blanket killings. TikTok users in late December 2020 called for snipers to gun down police on Jan. 6, and to “storm the capital building,” and “hang” politicians. All of this and more was in the possession of the Capitol Police’s intelligence division, according to emails reviewed by POGO and sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they fear retaliation.

Warning: These materials contain explicit language.

But the after-action report adds that intelligence in possession of the Capitol Police’s intelligence division “did not extend down to the level of field supervisor or officer,” noting that “this information is necessary for officers to mentally prepare for the threats that are faced and for supervisors to brief and prepare deployment strategies.”

In the aftermath of Jan. 6, the Capitol Police has claimed progress in reforming itself, saying it has taken steps such as hiring more intelligence analysts, improving their training, and revising policies to ensure intelligence is distributed more widely. But key leaders in charge of intelligence that day remain in their positions, even though agency whistleblowers have said they contributed to the failings and lied to Congress about it. At least five employees say they have faced retaliation for calling out those breakdowns.

Their allegations have gotten the attention of Congress. A previously unpublished December 2021 bipartisan letter from members of the House and Senate to the Capitol Police inspector general cites whistleblower allegations “of mismanagement by [Capitol Police] intelligence operations leadership in the weeks leading up to January 6.” The letter, obtained by POGO, cites claims of “an unauthorized reorganization of the [Capitol Police’s] Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division, improper personnel decisions, internal policy violations, and retaliation against certain intelligence analysts who have raised complaints regarding these actions.”

Amid all the finger-pointing, it’s clear that the Capitol Police failed in the run-up to Jan. 6. But the public still does not have a full answer why.

The Capitol Police has pushed back against the claims, with a senior official saying the inspector general investigated the reprisal allegations and deemed them unfounded.

The Capitol Police said the after-action report is just a collection of individual views and not that of the organization. Yet the Capitol Police has acknowledged that there were problems with the distribution of intelligence and that its intelligence could have been clearer and more consistent. And the Capitol Police has also acknowledged that new leaders began a reorganization of the intelligence division in the weeks before Congress was attacked.

Nonetheless, the organization has defended its intelligence leaders, blaming other insiders for failing to circulate a key warning and denying that a top intelligence official misled Congress.

The Capitol Police has also noted that their organization was not alone in failing to contemplate a large-scale attack on Congress, although it is the only US law enforcement agency with a singular mission to protect the Capitol and federal lawmakers.

The Capitol Police “expected and planned for violence from some protesters with ties to domestic terrorist organizations,” according to a previous statement, “but nobody in the law enforcement or intelligence communities imagined, on top of that threat, Americans who were not affiliated with those groups would cause the mayhem to metastasize to a volume uncontrollable for any single law enforcement agency.”

But given the vast number of public online posts focused on violently attacking Congress that were in possession of the Capitol Police, critics say more imagination was needed. “There should be people in the Capitol Police who think the unthinkable,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) last December.

Amid all the finger-pointing, it’s clear that the Capitol Police failed in the run-up to Jan. 6. But the public still does not have a full answer why.

Intelligence Breakdowns Ahead of the Insurrection

The centerpiece of the Capitol Police’s defense of its intelligence performance in the run-up to Jan 6. is a “Special Event Assessment” it produced on Jan. 3, 2021. It contains a stark warning that “Congress itself is the target.” The intelligence division’s assistant director Julie Farnam wrote this language, according to sources familiar with the matter.

“Supporters of the current president see January 6, 2021, as the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election,” the assessment states. “This sense of desperation and disappointment may lead to more of an incentive to become violent.”

It pointed out that Trump had promoted protests that day and that some Republican lawmakers were expected to speak at them. “This combined with Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence, may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike,” the assessment said.

But all of that was on page 13 of the 15-page assessment produced by the intelligence division. And the assessment’s four-bullet point “bottom line” on page one did not contain this stark language, although it does state that “some protestors have indicated they plan to be armed” and “there is also an indication that white supremacist groups may be attending the protests.”

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Contributed to DocumentCloud by Nick Schwellenbach (Project On Government Oversight) • View document or read text

As the Capitol Police inspector general found, the bottom line was “not consistent with the rest of the document.” (POGO is publicly publishing that inspector general report in full for the first time.)

Burying the lede was only one shortcoming of the assessment. It also didn’t incorporate earlier intelligence by the division on Dec. 21, the inspector general found. That intelligence flagged a thread created on the website TheDonald.Win where people called for bringing weapons and confronting lawmakers on Jan. 6, including in Capitol complex tunnels.

Then, the intelligence division also put out a stew of mixed messages after Jan. 3. It issued daily intelligence reports on Jan. 4, Jan. 5, and Jan. 6. Not one of those reports “reflected the likelihood of violence described in the January 3 Special Assessment or more broadly known within” the intelligence division, as a Senate review later found.

“Inconsistencies between intelligence products, and within the January 3 Special Assessment, led to a lack of consensus about the gravity of the threat posed on January 6, 2021,” the Senate review states.

There are also other problems which intelligence leaders say aren’t their fault, but which internal critics dispute. The Jan. 3 assessment didn’t reach the broader Capitol Police workforce, and it didn’t inform plans for handling protests on Jan. 6, the Senate review found.

Importantly, the then-sergeant-at-arms for the House has said that he, his counterpart in the Senate, and then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund “collectively agreed” the available intelligence was insufficient to request the National Guard in advance of Jan. 6, according to the Senate review.

Those sergeants-at-arms made up two of three members of the Capitol Police Board, an oversight body. The board’s approval was needed to call in the National Guard to defend the Capitol complex. It is unclear what intelligence they based this decision on, the Senate review said.

Without National Guard or other help, however, the vastly outnumbered Capitol Police on its own was no match for the large-scale assault.

When the day arrived, thousands of people riled up by Trump and other speakers desecrated Congress, causing at least $1.5 million in property damage, injuring roughly 140 members of law enforcement, contributing to the deaths of at least seven people, and disrupting a constitutional proceeding.

An Intelligence Reorganization on the Eve of Jan. 6

In the fall of 2020, the Capitol Police hired two new leaders to run its intelligence division. Jack Donohue, a former New York Police Department official, and Julie Farnam, formerly of the Department of Homeland Security, took over respectively as director and associate director.

They quickly began making changes to address several shortcomings in the intelligence division, according to the Capitol Police, which said the reforms were pursued at the direction of Yogananda Pittman, the assistant chief for protective and intelligence operations.

Many of the division’s analysts were not happy with how Farnam and Donohue managed the division, allegations that CNN first reported.

Inside the division, several veteran intelligence analysts felt Donohue and Farnam were tasking them with duties that were the responsibility of other parts of the Capitol Police, sources said. They said Donohue and Farnam assigned analysts to less urgent matters in the days before the upcoming Jan. 6 protests. Sources also said that Farnam became a choke point for distributing and updating intelligence.

At least indirectly, Farnam and Donohue defended their efforts in comments made to the Capitol Police inspector general as an effort in ensuring quality control. An inspector general report summarized Donohue saying that “it was very complicated deciding if you can you [sic] trust analysts with sharing intelligence and how to do it without a single point of failure.” Donohue and Farnam also said the division wasn’t serving the agency well and that it needed to be reorganized.

Capitol Police analysts continued to raise red flags about the potential for violence that was coming.

But the inspector general report did not assess the impact of Donohue and Farnam’s actions leading up to Jan. 6.

Even though sources say the Capitol Police’s open-source collection was mismanaged before the Capitol attack, its analysts continued to raise red flags about the potential for violence that was coming, sources told POGO.

“We analysts have been reporting for weeks that Patriot groups are commenting on social media their intentions to storm the US Capitol with overwhelming numbers,” wrote one Capitol Police intelligence analyst in an email to his colleagues on Jan. 9, 2021 that was obtained by POGO and first reported by CNN.

That email refers to the Jan. 3 assessment, which contains the stark, yet buried assessment written by Farnam. The analyst’s email states that intelligence leaders should have been very vocal about what they knew before Jan. 6 to ensure the whole Capitol Police organization was prepared.

“I don’t know what was occurring behind the scenes, but I hope that information was briefed with the veracity it deserved, and not just a one-time Event Assessment,” the analyst wrote.

Pittman, the top Capitol Police official overseeing intelligence who rose to acting chief after Steven Sund resigned days after Jan. 6, has faced congressional questioning about what intelligence was known and what was done about it.

In an anonymous letter first published by Politico, a former Capitol Police insider accused Pittman of lying to Congress about sharing intelligence with “command staff” prior to Jan. 6. A Senate review also said there were “variations” in Pittman’s testimony regarding whether there was specific intelligence warning of a large-scale attack on Congress.

The Capitol Police has defended Pittman against these accusations, saying that allegations she misled Congress are “false.” Specifically, the agency says she told Congress that there were warnings of violence but that the intelligence wasn’t specific and solid enough to predict a large-scale attack. The Capitol Police also say she has described the intelligence sharing she believed should have happened by others, but did not.

The Capitol Police says the reforms that Donohue and Farnam began prior to Jan. 6 continue to this day – and are needed despite the opposition of some employees.

“It is not unusual for leaders appointed to bring change to be met with resistance,” according to a Capitol Police statement, “These improvements have been essential, even if certain individuals on the team did not embrace them.”

But these changes clearly didn’t improve the division enough before Jan. 6. And a key question is whether – even if well-intended – they might have hindered the intelligence unit’s performance at the worst possible time, as the Capitol Police after-action report and whistleblowers say.

Reprisal Claims

A few months after Jan. 6, Donohue resigned for “personal reasons.” Until the Capitol Police announced a replacement this March, Farnam served as acting director. During that time, tensions between her and a number of analysts boiled over, despite the fact that all say they have made disclosures related to the attack on Congress.

Since Jan. 6, at least five intelligence analysts say they have been terminated or face termination after blowing the whistle on intelligence breakdowns. They accuse Farnam of retaliating against them.

Since Jan. 6, at least five intelligence analysts say they have been terminated or face termination after blowing the whistle on intelligence breakdowns.

One of those analysts wrote current Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger last December in a previously unreported letter. The analyst wrote that “it is worth noting that EVERYONE” in the intelligence division who made Jan. 6-related disclosures “critical of Farnam is being retaliated against.” Compared to most federal workers in the executive branch, Capitol Police employees have limited whistleblower protections — meaning they are particularly dependent on the good will of their leaders.

The analyst wrote that they had earlier sought assistance from Pittman but were rebuffed and that “the inaction of my chain of command emboldened Farnam.”

Like the Capitol Police, Farnam’s attorney Mark Zaid disputed the allegations that she retaliated against intelligence analysts. He also said the individuals making reprisal claims “are disgruntled and vindictive employees.” Zaid said that Farnam herself has brought forward information to Congress and to the inspector general regarding Jan. 6 and that it would be “absurd” for her to retaliate against others for doing the same.

Indeed, the Senate review cites an email by Farnam in late December 2020 about her concern that several groups seeking Capitol protest permits “are being used as proxies for Stop the Steal.” She also wrote they “may also be involved with organizations that may be planning trouble on [January 6].” (Asked by two Senate committees about this, Pittman said she believed that the intelligence division found that the groups were not proxies for Stop the Steal.)

The Next Insurrection

This week, the House select committee on the Jan. 6 attack will begin holding a series of public hearings on its findings, promising new revelations. The select committee has dripped out documents and information over the last year focused on Trump and his close allies and their apparent effort to overturn the election. Sources say the select committee will, however, also have findings regarding Capitol security and intelligence breakdowns.

Sources also report that some Republican lawmakers are planning to seize on Capitol Police intelligence breakdowns to advance a counter-narrative to the select committee’s — in order to distract from the role of Trump and his close allies.

According to these persistent reports, they will emphasize that the then-House sergeant-at-arms, who reported to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, rejected an informal request by then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund for a National Guard presence on Jan. 6. The implication is that Pelosi was responsible for rendering the Capitol defenseless — a claim she has aggressively denied.

These claims have circulated widely in parts of the conservative media that gave oxygen to lies about the 2020 presidential election. This counter-narrative amounts to these conservative elements posing the question, “Why weren’t the Capitol Police better at protecting us from the insurrection we encouraged?”

Yet real questions remain about what went wrong on Jan. 6, whether the problems have been fixed, and whether the right people are being held accountable, if at all.

These aren’t idle queries. The forces that encouraged the insurrection have only swelled in the past two years, and if the Capitol Police hasn’t learned from its previous mistakes, it’s likely to fail just as badly if, or when, it faces a similar confrontation.