Why Didn't The FBI And DHS Produce A Threat Report Ahead of The Capitol Insurrection?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Before you can prevent a threat, you got to know it's out there. And that apparently was not the case for U.S. security forces ahead of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Before most major protests or rallies, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI usually produce a formal intelligence report explaining the possible threats, and then they send that report to local law enforcement to help them plan. DHS and the FBI did one of these threat assessments ahead of the demonstrations in Portland, Ore., after the killing of George Floyd last spring. They also did one before Black Lives Matter marches in Washington in June. But there was no threat assessment done ahead of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston of our investigations team has been looking into this. Good morning, Dina.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: I mean, all you had to do, Dina, was look at social media for the weeks leading up to the January 6 rally to know things could potentially get really bad at the Capitol. You didn't even need a formal threat assessment to tell you that. Did law enforcement just not pick up on that?
TEMPLE-RASTON: No, that was part of the raw intelligence that they were putting together. Like, the New York Police Department scraped social media, and they sent what they found to Washington. There was sort of unverified threats, that sort of thing. And there was more raw intelligence that came before that - just a day - or after that. Just a day before the pro-Trump rally, the Norfolk field office in the FBI confirmed that they had found specific threats against members of Congress, an exchange of maps of the tunnel system under the Capitol complex. And there were people online talking about gathering in Kentucky and Pennsylvania and South Carolina to meet up before convoying up to Washington. And this Norfolk report was first reported in The Washington Post a couple of days ago. So they were gathering this together.
MARTIN: Then what happened to it? Where did that raw intelligence go?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's the problem. It never made it much past that raw intelligence stage. So basically, they might have picked up a thread or had a human source tell them something or that - or say that they saw something. But it didn't go to the next step where it's validated and analyzed and put into a larger picture, put into context. So when the FBI does that, they put it in a report called an intelligence bulletin. When DHS does something like that, they call it a threat assessment report. And then sometimes the two of them put out a report together. And typically, then they would send that, that finished product, out to local law enforcement.
MARTIN: So we're going to talk about why that didn't happen. But first, can you just explain, why is that assessment so much more valuable than straight raw intel? What's the difference?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, local law enforcement sees threat assessments as actionable intelligence. I mean, the bulletins are considered finished. Right? They're a synthesis of validated and analyzed intelligence, and that helps local law enforcement make informed decisions. So we talked to the former head of DHS, Michael Chertoff. And getting to your point, he said that in this case, that the threat was so out in the open, the threat assessment was almost beside the point.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: It was perfectly obvious if you read the newspaper that there was going to be a big rally, that the president was talking about it being - you know, being wild and that the focus was going to be the Capitol, where they were having a certification vote. So they - it didn't take rocket science to see that there was a realistic, foreseeable risk to the Capitol and you would enhance the security.
MARTIN: I mean, but maybe they need the threat assessment to put the process in place to get troops on the ground or security forces on the ground. I mean, DHS and the FBI have issued intelligence bulletins for, as we mentioned, Black Lives Matter protests. What was different this time around? Why didn't they treat this the same way?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Our reporting found that one of the reasons that they didn't treat it the same way may have been bias. We talked to someone named R.P. Eddy, and he used to be in the National Security Council. He's done a lot of counterterrorism work. He worked with the NYPD and the LAPD, and now he has his own intelligence consultancy. And he thinks that something called the invisible obvious was at work. And basically, that's things that sit right in front of us that we don't notice.
R P EDDY: It was very hard for these decision-makers and these analysts to realize that people who look just like them could want to commit this kind of unconstitutional violence and could literally try to and want to kill them.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So in other words, this was supposed to be a pro-Trump rally, and then it wasn't. And it was hard for these law-and-order people to see that this mob, these people who were so pro-Trump, who had bumper stickers just like theirs on the back of their cars, were going to commit violence. And by the time they figured that out, it was too late.
MARTIN: And then it really begs the question, did they not see it because they didn't want to see it, I mean - or they couldn't see it? Were their blind spots?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. And that - in fact, a lot of these people that they were seeing - right? - I mean, they were wearing pro-Trump T-shirts. They were there to support the president. When you think of those kinds of people, you don't think about those being the people that you might have to worry will resort to violence. And that was what went wrong. It wasn't a - you know, something nefarious. It was just when you looked at it without the analysis, it seemed like this was just going to be another rally. And then it wasn't.
MARTIN: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston of our investigations team.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
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