The top intelligence officials of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security made a troubling acknowledgement in congressional testimony Wednesday: Neither agency had garnered intelligence indicating that supporters of former President Donald Trump would storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in an effort to overturn the November election results.
The comments by Jill Sanborn, an FBI assistant director for intelligence, and Melissa Smislova, an acting undersecretary of DHS, represented the first public acknowledgement by top intelligence officials that neither agency saw the devastating attack coming.
Testifying during a Senate hearing about the attack, Sanborn said that while the FBI had intelligence indicating that Trump supporters were traveling to Washington on January 6 and could be armed, "none of us had any intelligence suggesting that individuals were going to storm and breach the Capitol.”
“That was the intelligence that we lacked,” Sanborn told members of the Senate Rules and Homeland Security committees.
The testimony came amid a growing controversy over whether the FBI and other agencies missed warning signs in the lead-up to the Capitol attack and then failed to adequately warn officials responsible for securing the government complex.
January 5 FBI report
At the center of the brouhaha is a January 5 FBI intelligence report that cited online chatter by Washington-bound Trump supporters about how “Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in.”
The report was quickly shared with law enforcement agencies but did not reach the top officials at the U.S. Capitol Police or Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department.
While the report turned out eerily prescient, neither the FBI nor the DHS had any advance information pointing to an impending attack on the Capitol, officials said.
As a result, neither agency issued a public bulletin on the eve of January 6.
“We may have been better off if we considered sending out some kind of terrorism bulletin, but we did not do that before January 6th,” Smislova said.
While lawmakers investigate the circumstances of the January 6 attack, Capitol Police said they were aware of intelligence claims of a possible militia group plot to attack the Capitol again on Thursday. That is the date when some right-wing conspiracy groups believed Trump would be sworn in as president.
Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Rules Committee, said he spoke with senior FBI officials on several occasions on January 5 and January 6 and was reassured that “we’ve got this pretty well under control.”
“That was not the case, and we now have the Capitol of the United States desecrated,” Warner said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, defended his agency’s handling of the January 5 intelligence report and its warnings about the growing threat of domestic terrorism.
Last year, the FBI put out a number of intelligence reports warning about the threat of domestic terrorism around the November presidential election and the January inauguration, he said.
For its part, the DHS produced 15 unclassified reports in 2020 that highlighted the potential for “domestic violent extremists to mobilize quickly and attack large gatherings and government buildings,” Smislova said.
In making threat assessments, a major challenge for the FBI and DHS is separating rhetoric that is “aspirational” from “intentional,” the officials said, promising to do better in the future.
Security and intelligence analysts say the Capitol breach was the result not solely of an intelligence breakdown but of a collective failure involving multiple entities in law enforcement and government. Still, some lawmakers are pinning it largely on intelligence agencies.
Saying the January 6 attack was caused by a “massive and historic intelligence failure,” Democratic Senator Gary Peters, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, asked both Sanborn and Smislova if they agreed that the “intelligence community failed” to detect the plot to attack the Capitol.
“I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it that way, sir,” Sanborn said. “But I’ll tell you … there is not an analyst that wouldn’t want more intelligence.”
Responding to the same question, Smislova said she did not have “enough information” to declare the pre-January 6 intelligence a failure.
“I do know, however, that it was not a success, and we’ll do everything we can to make sure that what we know is better distributed and understood by our partners” she said.