First off, let’s be clear, the recent invasion and vandalizing of the United States Capital needs to be recognized for what it became – a violent attack intended to terrorize the U.S. Congress, and subvert the American system of government. If hostages had been taken and public executions performed, as was being called for some of those inciting the attack, it would have had an impact similar to the attacks of 9/11. Those calls to violence were posted (and archived) as well as taped in real time during the demonstrations in Washington. If you doubt either of those statements, simply read the following links:
This threat of this domestic terrorism was known within the intelligence and law enforcement community, just as were the foreign threat of 2000 (the Millennium attacks which were countered and aborted) and the attack of 2001 (which were not). I discuss and analyze those earlier attack in my book Surprise Attack – including an assessment of why the first was successfully interdicted and the second was not. Unfortunately, the failure to block the attack on the Capital and Congress in 2021 appears to be due to the same fundamental causes as the failure of 2001.
Such terror attacks are intended to be sensational, psychological impact beyond any physical casualties. Those of 2000 and 2001 were fueled by foreign agendas, enabled by the emerging potential of radical organization using the newly emerged global internet. In 2021, new social media platforms (with capabilities for sophisticated targeting of potential recruits which were first used during the election of 2016) became tools for inciting and organizing direct violent action against the American Congress.
Supporting that assessment is far beyond this topic or the space available here; I can only refer you to the work in my book Creating Chaos which examines the history of political warfare as well as the following links which discuss the history of internet “targeting”, its impact in the 2016 election involving entities such as Cambridge Analytica. and the emergence and evolution of the social media forum Parlour:
What I’m most concerned with here is the national security failure to deal with what was clearly visible as an imminent threat to Congress and the nation’s capital. While it is easy to point fingers at the law enforcement agencies, it has to be recognized that they are limited by their legal charters, which focus them on investigating and dealing with crime in progress or after they have been committed.
Preempting and interdicting national security threats such as those of 2000, 2001, and 2021 (which are a Federal issue) requires direction and intervention from the highest levels of government – the Commander in Chief, the National Security Advisor, the National Security Council and the heads of agencies such as the FBI, the Justice Department and Homeland Security. Without high level direction, indications of active threats literally go nowhere.
The failure to recognize or acknowledge that fact can be seen in the current dialog – and confusion – about the lack security for the Capital (or Congress).
“Federal and local law enforcement were openly talking about security concerns they harbored in the days leading up to Wednesday’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington. One federal official briefed on the situation told ABC News that concerns about violence were not a secret. The official said it’s not clear why more action was not taken with so much advance notice.”
Fundamentally the problem is that agencies such as the FBI investigate crimes that have been committed or respond to specific warnings reported to them and within their jurisdiction. Beyond that, they always operate with limited personnel and given the variety and number of contemporary threats they routinely prioritize their resources based on directions coming down to them from those at headquarters (the FBI Director or the leadership at Justice).
As I documented in Surprise Attack, each elected administration generates its own law enforcement and national security priorities, and those become the drivers for the federal agencies. Because of those changing priorities, a threat which is outside those priorities may be detected – but may not actually receive a significant response.
The threats of 2000, 2001 and 2021 were all discussed and even communicated at various levels within government agencies. In 2000 the terror threat was taken to the National Security Advisor who, with Presidential endorsement, worked with the FBI and other key players to conduct special investigations and apply special pressures – as a result planned attacks were interdicted or otherwise averted. In 2001 some of the same players, even at the FBI field office level, reported potential threats. Yet at that time the priorities of the President and National Security Advisor were elsewhere and the threats were not even circulated to key agencies such as the FAA.
In 2021, Presidential security and law enforcement priorities were again elsewhere, key federal agencies had been focused on totally different types of threats, several key players within the top leadership circles of key agencies were new in their jobs, there was no trusted national security advisor running point, and the National Security Council can only be said to have been dysfunctional.
A review of contemporary national security threats makes it obvious that the failure to deal with them comes not from the ability to identify them, but very real legal and systems problems involved in responding to them. The fact is that responding to any major national security threat requires actions above and beyond normal law enforcement activity (and legal limitations).
Unfortunately even acknowledging that fact can have political consequences. Perhaps that is why even the individuals leading federal agencies hesitate to highlight the basic issues or comment too openly on them. Such comments could easily have obvious ramifications for their own careers.
I’ve commented before that “institutional memory” is poor in Washington, but given these recurring national security failures – over such a relatively short time span – the question is whether we can ever overcome the level of denial which appears to have become embedded in our national security system. Denial which prevents the conversion of intelligence into action, before it becomes too late to deal with emerging threats.