Hard Lessons Learned: Analysis of Immediate Failures and Inconsistencies with U.S. Capitol Security
Timothy Botros, Ephraim Mulugeta, Federico Bertola, Faye Lax
January 20, 2021
*The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) conducted a lessons learned analysis on the terrorist attack of the Capitol on 1/6/2021. We are now making this report available to the public.
On January 6, 2021, supporters of President Donald Trump held "Stop the Steal" rallies outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC to protest and stop the certification of President-elect Joe Biden. Following gatherings in the morning, an estimated 8,000 rioters had forced their way past barriers into the Capitol building grounds while over 100 suspects had managed to break into the building itself. Despite an abundance of forewarning and repeated requests for assistance at several points leading up to the riots, Capitol Police that day were ultimately ill-prepared to effectively prevent the national tragedy. Although the security forces present did make some concerted efforts to push back the crowds, footage of the scene show flagrant incompetence by several officers, ignoring or even welcoming rioters.
As indicated by the subsequent ousting of the Capitol Police Chief, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, House Sergeant-at-Arms and the suspension of at least two Capitol Police officers, the protracted absence of sound security throughout Capitol Hill indicates a lack of due diligence, sparse communication, and looming double-standards under the leadership of senior security personnel. Along with potential political motivations by key government stakeholders, most principally President Trump, it is also suspected that there remains a pervasive infiltration of extremist sympathizers within these agencies’ rank-and-file. A lack of communication and coordination between law enforcement agencies and government officials are some of the security failures that ultimately led to the breach in the Capitol.
Intelligence not being used or taken serious
Security experts have stated that the failure by agencies to coordinate effectively was due to “an intelligence failure,” while DC’s Police Chief Robert Contee told a reporter the day after the incident that there was "no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the US Capitol." However, intelligence from a wide variety of sources, including the FBI, detailed a high likelihood of the ensuing threat weeks in advance. In fact, in an internal report issued on January 5, the FBI warned of violence at the Capitol and rally organizers and attendees also openly published clear plans dubbed “Operation Occupy the Capitol” online through dozens of websites along with nearly every social media outlet including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. President Trump himself had urged supporters on Twitter to attend the #StopTheSteal protest with the intention of pressuring members of Congress to not certify the results of the Electoral College. At a rally held that day outside the White House, President Trump asked attendees to march on Capitol Hill proclaiming Wednesday morning, “We will never give up, we will never concede...You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.” As seen on the next page, at the rally, Mayor Rudy Guliani demanded a “trial by combat” to determine the validity of unsubstantiated voter fraud claims several hours before Congress began counting votes some two miles away. Thus, rather than a lapse in intelligence, security experts, including former CIA Director Michael Morell, contend that the incident was a “total security failure.”
As the events unfolded at the Capitol and MAGA supporters were able to successfully breach the House and Senate chambers, the lack of preparedness became increasingly evident. Although the bulk of warning signs had been disseminated by news journalists, civil organizations, and other private entities, many government officials had raised concerns as well. According to the Wall Street Journal, neither the FBI nor the intelligence wing of the DHS ever conducted a risk assessment for the rallies. According to the Washington Post, however, a Virginia FBI Field Office reportedly issued an internal report the day before warning of a probable “war” to break out on Wednesday in Washington, DC. Additionally, Senator Mark Warner maintains that he had contacted federal officials, including a senior FBI agent, over possible terrorism concerns but rather, despite a clear lack of a “robust plan” ready for security and contingencies, he was assured the night before that they had “the resources and intelligence to take on this threat.” The lack of planning mentioned by Senator Warner has been considered a central issue. For instance, according to the Washington Post, the Pentagon says a lack of adequate planning led to the Department of Defense (DOD) and Capitol Police not being able to agree on how the DOD’s quick-reaction force of 40 DC National Guard soldiers may be deployed.
Security vulnerabilities exposed
Along with preparedness, threat awareness and a lack of security presence in the days leading up to the event and throughout the four hours of rioting is also of concern. The Capitol Police assured Congress that security measures would be bolstered in light of the Electoral College votes being counted on January 6th. Ashley Phelps, a spokesperson for the House Administration Committee explained, “We have been told there will be increased security on January 6th for any potential demonstrations.” Despite this, however, the breach of the Capitol was met with little resistance as there was no fencing, perimeter, or security zone set up around the building prior to the event despite having intelligence that Trump supporters would gather at the Capitol building. There were clear signs of Trump supporters intending to storm the Capitol posted on social media platforms. For instance, on January 5th, one user on 8kun posted with a clear intent to breach the Capitol and incite violence: “We can go to Washington on January 6 and help storm the Capital. As many patriots can. We will storm the government buildings, kill cops, kill security guards, kill federal employees and agents, and demand a recount.”
Furthermore, Washington, DC Attorney General Karl A. Racine highlighted that “everyone who was a law enforcement officer or a reporter knew exactly what these hate groups were planning...they were planning to descend on Washington, D.C., the ground center was the Capitol, and they were planning to charge and, as Rudy Giuliani indicated, to do combat justice at the Capitol.” The image below, highlights that intelligence was available before January 6. Yet, prior to the event, the Pentagon placed restrictions on the DC National Guard, limiting their ability to respond with force. The DC National Guard were not asked to aid in crowd control and were viewed as a last resort. According to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, some of the security failures seen on January 6 were a result of the Capitol Police not preemptively requesting help from the National Guard or the FBI until the last minute. The Capitol Police union has blamed leadership including Police Chief Steve Sund for poor communication contributing to a larger pattern of mismanagement that put officers at risk. The now former Chief of Capitol Police Steven Sund, however, contends he requested assistance but was denied a total of six times (twice through the House and Senate Sergeants-At-Arms) before and during the Siege. DC Mayor Bowser’s own requests were only supplemented with several hundred plain clothed DC National Guardsmen who struggled to support Capitol Police and DC’s law enforcement. As the situation evolved, Congressional leadership that had to take cover within the building, such as Steny Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi, made repeated mayday calls to governors who had been denied multiple times by the Pentagon.
The ability for protesters to enter the Capitol represents a grave security failure. Despite the intelligence evidence that put the city on high alert, specifically at the Capitol, police had set out low barriers and officers were not in riot gear but in street uniforms. Some police officers appeared to stand back as rioters streamed inside, while others observed the disorder without taking action to stop it. Some videos show officers inviting protesters to enter the Capitol, others taking selfies with rioters, while others merely stood by observing the wave of people entering through a side door. Additionally, the timeline of events shows a delay in communications and requests for intervention of reinforcements and in the activation of the National Guard.
There are major concerns regarding the ease at which rioters were able to get so close to the Capitol and why they were not immediately arrested or why there was no immediate request for additional forces once they did breach the Capitol. The Capitol building has recently been the object of a complex’s security upgrade: there have been added anti-vehicle barricades and a new underground complex to screen visitors far from the Capitol itself. The Capitol Police were missing some officers on January 6th because they had been infected by coronavirus or exposed to someone and consequently required quarantine. Initially, they tried to protect the area, and secure lawmakers. In fact, rioters established an armed standoff with police inside at the door near the House front door. When rioters started forcing into that area, a woman, identified as Ashli Babbit, was shot attempting to enter the Speaker’s Lobby behind the House chamber. As the security procedure timeline highlights, the security response and federal coordination was complicated and embroiled in confusion due to bureaucratic procedures such as agencies needing an official request from the Capitol Police to provide assistance.
One of the major flaws exposed that day was the intentionally complicated layering of security systems in place. Typically, the security and well-being of all personnel within the Capitol Hill area predominantly depends upon the Capitol Police. Certain cooperative methods may be implemented in times of heightened security risks including requests for support from the DC Metropolitan Police and the National Guard of each state along with collaborative assistance from federal law enforcement. While mayors and governors of surrounding regions may elect for their own police forces and rapid-response units to be deployed, deploying their respective National Guard requires the Pentagon’s explicit authorization which was reportedly denied or stalled repeatedly on January 6. Ultimately, the responsibility lays on local law enforcement while requests for substantial support from heavily armed units are largely executive decisions at the federal and state level.
Lack of Security Presence
The lack of security presence before a large demonstration during a major Congressional session is unprecedented. In June of 2020, for instance, the Department of Justice established a joint command center to coordinate what would be a formidable National Guard and federal law enforcement presence throughout the Capitol Hill area due to ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. Over 5,000 National Guard troops as well as a wide variety of local, state, and federal law enforcement forces stood outside national monuments and federal buildings against the relatively peaceful and distant protests, none of whom made attempts to trespass federal grounds. Along with the well-outfitted units seen then, the DEA had been given authorization by the DOJ’s Deputy Attorney General to conduct “covert surveillance” operations on demonstrators in DC that summer. However, as witnessed on January 6, similar measures were never implemented as the Capitol Police presence was ill-informed by superiors and were intended to serve only as traffic control and general monitoring. Ultimately, as most officials familiar with the events have noted, Capitol Police that day were expecting their presence to be for crowd control rather than security for a full-fledged riot.
Insider Threat Identified
An additional security concern is the possibility of infiltration by law enforcement and insider support for the attack. The rioters seemed to have had intelligence provided to them, including where lawmakers offices were located. The Seattle Police Department suspended two of its police officers while investigating their involvement at the January 6th event. The NYPD is cooperating with the Capitol Police in the potential involvement of NYPD officers. While only two Capitol police officers have been suspended for their involvement, at least 10 to 15 more are being investigated for their behavior at the riot. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) believes that this indicates, at least on some level, there was a breakdown in discipline within Capitol police and possible insider support for the attack within the ranks of law enforcement in DC.
Given the overwhelming intelligence available and numerous concerns raised both in the days leading up to the rallies and during the incident itself, there is likely to be culpability within police ranks as well as the federal government. A handful of arrests have already been made in this regard while many officials and political leaders have blamed President Trump for the incident both for his vitriolic rhetoric as well as for causing Pentagon officials’ reluctance to mobilize forces against many of his own supporters in a timely manner.
Along with now former Chief of Capitol Police Sund’s claims that Pentagon and Congressional security officials signaled fear over “optics” of such a display of force, the intimidation factor is also supported by President Trump’s recent firing of a large number of top defense and security officials towards the end of his term. While President Trump has condemned the violence and his cabinet members did eventually authorize support to secure the Capitol building, it is important to note the consequence that political biases may have on executive decision-making involving security of public institutions.
Lack of Coordination
Due to both structural and political barriers, the events of January 6th conveyed a clear divide in coordination and communication between federal and local law enforcement, police, and other security agencies. It is thus necessary to restructure the complicated security partnerships that are currently in place. Local and state officials, especially city and county-level executives, must have more options available when deciding to deploy or rescind security personnel including their National Guard. One such option may be to offer local municipalities their own rapid response law enforcement units that specialize in appropriately managing urban areas most prone to large scale demonstrations. To avoid delays and increase accountability, however, these units should be led by their respective city and county officials rather than the US Army or federal law enforcement. Additionally, a single federal agency, rather than Congress’ Capitol Police or DC’s local law enforcement, should become the principal bearer of responsibility for maintaining safety and security at all federal building sites. Any regions beyond federal property should be at the discretion of respective local and state officials.
Along with state and federal government buildings, greater security presence must now be offered at the residence of political figures. Private companies that have begun to censor products and services connected to President Trump, most notably social media networks, must also begin to ramp up their own security efforts. Congress has already begun probing for intelligence and threat awareness failures. A comprehensive strategic commission should evaluate the security failures on January 6 that allowed the US Capitol building to be breached. Not unlike some of the failures that led to the 9/11 attacks, a lack of communication had a significant impact on what happened on January 6. While the intelligence was present and available, communication and coordination failed and may not have been disseminated up the chain-of-command properly so that local, state, and federal levels can implement successful operational measures. Finally, to maintain better compliance with law enforcement's duty to practice fair and lawful policing, the DOJ Civil Rights Division should revitalize its pattern-or-practice investigations used to scrutinize law enforcement’s “serious patterns and practices of excessive force, biased policing, and other unconstitutional practices” along with its court-monitored consent decrees to further address misconduct at the state and local level.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) believes that these events indicate, at least on some level, that there was a breakdown in discipline within Capitol Police, a lack of training and preparation to deal with this type of situation, and possibility of insider support for the attack within the ranks of law enforcement at the Capitol. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor the situation at the US Capitol building as the threat is on-going and future attacks may occur after President Biden’s inauguration and during his Presidency. CTG has assembled a multi-team task force to monitor and assess the situation at the Capitol, to include writing flash reports and other analytical reports to be distributed at the local and federal level, or as needed.
Timeline of Events
0900: Four “Stop the Steal” rallies commence in Washington, DC
1000: Trump's rally begins in front of the White House
1050: Rudy Guliani exclaims to Trump supporters: “Let’s have trial by combat” at the "Save America" rally
1115: A mile-and-a-half from the rally, another group of 200 to 300 protesters arrives at the Capitol reflecting pool area near the west side of the building
1209: “We do not concede;” President Trump begins his remarks at The Ellipse
1217: Supporters leave the rally in a steady stream before Trump’s speech ends and head toward the Capitol.
1220: “We’re gonna walk down to the Capitol;” Trump prepares the crowd for the next portion of the January 6th demonstrations, rallying outside Congress during the Electoral College vote count
1230: Crowds from the rally gather outside the U.S. Capitol building, joining other Trump protestors.
1245: Trump supporters seen marching along Constitution Avenue en route to the Capitol Building
1249: IED found near the RNC
1253: Crowds first breach the outer perimeter at the Northwest side of the Capitol, clashing with a small contingent of officers, Trump’s speech continues
1258: Capitol Police officers in riot gear arrive to help control the crowd at the West side of Capitol
1300: An initial wave of protesters storms the outer barricade west of the Capitol building as senators and Vice President Pence walk to the House chamber.
1300: DC police send in reinforcements
1300: Congress begins its joint session to certify Electoral College votes
1303: Congress’s session is brought to order
1309: DC Capitol Police Chief Sund tells his superiors–House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger–that he wants an emergency declaration and to call in the National Guard.
1310: Clashes continue between US Capitol Police and pro-Trump rioters
1310: Madison Building is evacuated
1312: Trump ends his speech by urging his followers to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. “We’re going to the Capitol,” he said
1312: Republicans object to certifying Arizona’s electoral college votes. The joint session then separates into House and Senate chambers to debate the objection.
1326: Capitol Police orders the evacuation of the Capitol complex (DOD memo)
1330: After Trump’s speech, supporters begin marching toward the U.S. Capitol. The crowd outside the building grows larger
1315: Law enforcement receives call for potential IED found near DNC
1322: Cannon House is evacuated
1326: Protestors push through police lines
1329: Trump arrives back at the White House
1329: Capitol Police orders evacuation of Capitol complex
1333: First rioters seen storming into the Capitol building
1334: DC Mayor Muriel Browser requests additional forces from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy (DOD memo)
1339: Capitol Police announce an internal relocation at Cannon Building
1345: Senate and House convene separately to debate objections to the Electoral College votes in AZ
1348: Rioters tear through scaffolding in front of the Capitol’s northwest steps and make their way closer to the building.
1349: Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund requests immediate assistance from Commanding General of the DC National Guard William Walker (DOD memo)
1350: Video shows protesters pushing against barricades on the north side of the Capitol
1358: Crowd push out barricades and surround the complex, a video shows some capitol police on the Northeast side of Capitol apparently opening barriers and guiding rioters towards the building
1400: A larger barricade, last physical barrier protecting the East side of the Capitol, was breached by crowds
1405: The entire Capitol building is placed under lockdown (CNN)
1410: Mob reaches doors on West Side, final barrier breached (NYT)
1411: Rioters on the west side break into the building
1413: Senate is called into recess, Capitol building’s Senate wing is breached by mobs (NYT)
1413: VP Michael Pence has been escorted to moved to a nearby office by Secret Service detail (MSNBC)
1414: Officer Eugene Goodman leads mobs in the opposite direction away from Pence and the Senate chambers while being chased
1415: Capitol police send alert to Congressional staff that no entry or exit is allowed at Capitol buildings amid an “external security threat” (Al Jazeera)
1416: Rioters stand off with the police in the hall, feet away from the entrance to the Senate chamber. Senators are still inside.
1420: Both houses of Congress adjourn and start to evacuate as rioters force their way into the Capitol
1420: At the request of Sen. Mitch McConnel, FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich dispatches the first of three tactical teams to the Capitol, including one from the Washington field office and another from Baltimore
1422: McCarthy, Bowser, and Metropolitan Police Department leadership on a phone call discussing additional assistance; Acting Police Chief Robert J. Contee III attempts to make contact with the Pentagon for support (DOD memo)
1424: @realDonaldTrump- “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”
1431: Mayor Bowser orders a citywide curfew from 6pm (Jan. 6) to 6am (Jan. 7)
1435: Protestors march through Statutory Hall; Police use tear gas in the Rotunda
1438: Rioters storm House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's suite of offices, pounding the doors trying to find her.
1438: @realDonaldTrump- “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
1439: Senate is being evacuated as rioters continue breaking into the Capitol Building
1442: House and Senate members moved to secure locations (NPR)
1444: Armed standoff reported inside House Chamber (HuffPost)
1445: Dozens have forced their way to the top with more coming up the steps; Police try to bolster their numbers through the west doors but someone with a fire extinguisher is dousing them from above
1447: Trump supporters take over the House and Senate chambers
1452: The first FBI SWAT team enters the Capitol
1453: The last of a large group of House members has been evacuated and is headed for a secure location
1455: DOD reportedly denies a request made by DC officials to deploy the National Guard
1457: Several people use scaffolding outside the Senate to reach Sen. McConnell’s office on the second floor and start banging on windows
1500: Shots are fired by Capitol Police officer outside Speaker’s Lobby killing Ashli Babbitt (NPR)
1500: Deployment of all DC National Guard troops formally approved by Army Sec. Ryan McCarthy
1503: Protestors are on the Senate floor
1504: Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller gives "verbal approval" for full mobilization of the DC National Guard (DOD memo)
1520: “Q Shaman” (the shirtless man with horns and face paint) is photographed on the Senate floor
1526: Mayor Bowser and Contee receive contact from the Pentagon (DOD memo)
1529: Governor Northam announces mobilization of Virginia's National Guard
1532: DOD reverses course; White House tweets that the National Guard will be deployed
1526: Crowds break through a line of police inside the Crypt attempting to block further access to inner parts of the Capitol; Police are overwhelmed, forced to retreat, and stand down
1533: The entire DC National Guard of 1100 guardsmen to be activated
1538: Montgomery County Police arrive on the front side of the US Capitol Building
1544: All legislators are moved to the basement as police try to lock down the area
1552: DC National Guard troops are mobilized
1605: Biden calls on Trump to “demand an end to this siege.”
1617: Trump tweets a video telling rioters that he loves them and urging them to go home. He continues to falsely claim that the election was stolen and that he understands how demonstrators feel
1618: Maryland and Virginia send National Guard and state troopers to Washington. (WP)
1708: National Guard soldiers and FBI agents arrive to push out rioters
1708: Crowds begin to disperse from around Capitol Hill
1739: Capitol building is secured
1740: DC National Guard troops arrive at the Capitol
1800: Area is declared secure while a perimeter is established around Capitol Hill
2000: Lawmakers return to the Capitol and resume session
0340: President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win confirmed
'We needed to be there' | Man arrested at Capitol riot speaks after arraignment, WUSA, January 2021,
Law enforcement missed key signs ahead of riot on US Capitol, CNN, January 2021,
Fact Check: Did Law Enforcement Have No Information About Capitol Riot Plans?, Newsweek, January 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/fact-check-did-law-enforcement-have-no-information-about-capitol-riot-plans-1560995
FBI report warned of ‘war’ at Capitol, contradicting claims there was no indication of looming violence, Washington Post, January 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/capitol-riot-fbi-intelligence/2021/01/12/30d12748-546b-11eb-a817-e5e7f8a406d6_story.html
Capitol riots: Did Trump's words at rally incite violence?, BBC News, January 2021,
Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat” and then chaos descended on Capitol Hill, Salon, January 2021,
Thinking Security: The Failure of the Capitol Police, Federal Law Enforcement, and DHS Does Appears To Be Intentional, The Ark Valley Voice, January 2021,
FBI report warned of 'war' at Capitol, contradicting claims there was no indication of looming violence, Washington Post, January 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/capitol-riot-fbi-intelligence/2021/01/12/30d12748-546b-11eb-a817-e5e7f8a406d6_story.html
Warner Blames Trump For Capitol Attack, Calls For Removal, Patch, January 2021,
Military quick-reaction force not deployed during storming of Capitol because of a lack of planning, defense officials say, Washington Post, January 2021,
Capitol Police to enhance security at Jan. 6 session to certify election, Roll Call, December 2020,
How the U.S. Capitol Police were overrun in a ‘monumental’ security failure, Washington Post, January 2021,
Extremists made little secret of ambitions to 'occupy' Capitol in weeks before attack, NBC News, January 2021,
Trump Wants to See You in DC, Wild Protest, N.d.,
Pentagon placed limits on D.C. Guard ahead of pro-Trump protests due to narrow mission, Washington Post, January 2021,
Lawmakers want accountability from Capitol Police. But for years, they also rebuffed transparency efforts, LA Times, January 2021, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-01-09/leaders-are-demanding-accountability-from-capitol-police-for-years-they-also-rebuffed-transparency-efforts
Ex-Capitol Police Chief Says Requests For National Guard Denied 6 Times In Riots, NPR, January 2021,
Maryland's governor still baffled by delay in approval for National Guard help, Politico, January 2021,
Capitol breach prompts urgent questions about security failures, Washington Post, January 2021, https://www-washingtonpost-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.washingtonpost.com/politics/capitol-breach-security-failures/2021/01/06/e1e09b80-5061-11eb-b96e-0e54447b23a1_story.html?outputType=amp
Inside a Deadly Siege: How a String of Failures Led to a Dark Day at the Capitol, The New York Times, January 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/10/us/politics/capitol-siege-security.html
What Went Wrong: How Rioters Breached the Capitol Complex, Bloomberg, January 2021
Maga v BLM: how police handled the Capitol mob and George Floyd activists – in pictures, The Guardian, January 2021,
The DEA Has Been Given Permission To Investigate People Protesting George Floyd’s Death, BuzzFeed, June 2020,
NYPD to Help Capitol Police Investigate Whether Any Officers Attended Capitol Riot, NBC New York, January 2021,
Police departments are investigating officers who took part in Capitol incident, Washington Post, January 2021,
House panels open review of Capitol riot, The Hill, January 2021, https://thehill.com/homenews/house/534579-house-panels-open-review-of-capitol-riot
How Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Conducts Pattern-or-Practice Investigations, DOJ, n.d.,