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The Bridge: Whistleblowers Left by the Wayside

The January 6 truthtellers are being treated as collateral damage.

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Capitol crime and punishment

Two years after the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, we’re still piecing together what happened that day and why, and how to hold those who participated responsible. The spotlight of the January 6 Committee’s investigations was on the primary, big-name instigators of the insurrection — and rightfully so. But there’s another side to the equation. Why were the Capitol Police so unprepared to meet the violence that descended on them that day? Because of whistleblowers inside the force, we’re coming to understand what happened — but those truthtellers are being punished for coming forward.

In this edition:

  • Mal-intentioned middle management
  • The cost of knowing the bigger picture
  • What Congress needs to do to help truthtellers

The Capitol Police’s singular mission is to protect Congress. But they were virtually defenseless against the violence that descended on the Capitol on January 6 — despite knowing about the threat of an attack for many weeks prior.

Congress’s Duty: Protect Capitol Police Whistleblowers

Not without due warning 

That Capitol Police leadership knew about a brewing, looming threat and failed to prepare for an attack is surprising — but the breadth of intelligence they had makes the failure even more alarming. In an investigation last year, we listed all the information we knew to be in the Capitol Police’s possession, including online posts calling for snipers to gun down the police and “storm the capital [sic],” and even an uptick in online searches for maps of the Capitol’s underground tunnels.

But it seems like Capitol Police leadership didn’t take those warnings seriously. The intelligence wasn’t distributed widely and didn’t reach the field supervisors and officers. An officer died immediately after the insurrection, and several other officers who responded that day later died by suicide.

Inside the Capitol Cops’ January 6 Blame Game

How’s this for disaster prepping? 

There’s more context for this intelligence breakdown. Just a couple months before the attack on the Capitol, the Capitol Police’s intelligence division underwent an untimely, drastic restructuring: The unit that was responsible for proactively monitoring social media was “essentially dismantled.” The intelligence analysts who used to search the web for signs of threats were reassigned to other tasks. Additionally, staff in the intelligence division were faced with hostility from the new director and associate director, the latter of whom harassed, intimidated, and undermined the capabilities of the analysts, according to the January 6 Committee’s final report.

An underwhelming reaction 

Despite the workplace turmoil and the squashing of the key mechanism to monitor social media, intelligence analysts still managed to repeatedly warn Capitol Police leadership about the brewing threats of violence online, but to no avail. In fact, the Capitol Police leadership went on to make confounding decisions that further jeopardized officers’ preparedness, such as removing the bike racks that normally act as crowd control barriers on January 5.

A report from the Capitol Police even found that leadership decisions “may have contributed to the tragedy” of their agency’s response to the insurrection. But many of those leaders remain in their positions, despite the accusations of wrongdoing and misconduct — possibly because the Capitol Police inspector general failed to investigate the accusations thoroughly.

Truthtellers treated as tattletales 

Capitol Police leadership got off easy, despite the evidence of improper decisions and mismanagement of intelligence. But the intelligence analysts who tried warning about the insurrection haven’t had the same luck. The Capitol Police has fired or attempted to fire at least five of the analysts who raised red flags about pre-January 6 intelligence breakdowns. One analyst reported receiving an administrative write-up for “mismanaging his time” by participating in the January 6 Committee's investigations.

The retaliation against them is especially unjust and unfair because Capitol Police employees have far more limited whistleblower protections compared to other federal employees. But it’s also a danger to accountability in the long run.

A dangerous precedent

We only know the full extent of the January 6 intelligence breakdown because of the truthtellers who came forward. They’ve been invaluable to the larger effort to prevent another January 6 from happening in the future. Capitol Police actually implemented positive changes in the aftermath of the insurrection, because of the shortcomings the whistleblowers’ disclosures brought to light.

But the attack on January 6 is not yet in our rearview mirror. As we assemble the guardrails to prevent such an attack from happening in the future, we can’t discourage those with pivotal information from coming forward for fear of being left by the wayside.

It’s important that Congress does what it can to protect federal employees from retaliation, so they don’t pay the price of their careers for telling the truth. Bans on retaliatory investigations and access to jury trials can make it so that truth tellers can come forward safely.

Read how Congress can protect Capitol Police whistleblowers on our website.