How a mob stormed the Capitol – and how to stop another assault

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Members of the National Guard arrive at the U.S. Capitol as Democratic members of the House prepare an article of impeachment against President Donald Trump in Washington, on Jan. 12, 2021. Securing the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration is a top concern after rioters stormed the building last week.

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The ability of a mob to easily overrun defenses and riot in the halls of the U.S. Capitol last week has caused elected officials and private experts to worry about the security of the nation’s seats of government in advance of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

The assault was far from stealthy, after all.

Why We Wrote This

Investigation into the defense weaknesses that allowed a mob into the U.S. Capitol can aid accountability and prevention. That’s crucial as Inauguration Day looms.

“The violence was planned in public. ... It’s unbelievable to me that [law enforcement defenses] weren’t better prepared and better sourced,” says Michael German, a former FBI special agent.

One problem was that intelligence agencies did not seem to take the threat seriously, despite fast-growing “Stop the Steal” Facebook groups in which members discussed storming the Capitol. Once the assault began tactics may have been faulty. Police didn’t have fallback positions, or a mobile reserve to step into the breach.

De-platforming is one defense. Twitter and Facebook have banned President Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook on grounds his communications are inflammatory. The right-oriented social media app Parler has been booted out by app stores and its web hosting services.

But that may just drive people to “darker places of the internet” and make them harder to see, says Renée DiResta, a researcher who studies the spread of malign narratives across social networks at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Just as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 raised new questions about the ability of the United States to identify and prevent foreign attacks, the riot that overran the Capitol building on Jan. 6 has exposed blind spots in the nation’s defense against malign domestic threats, raising widespread concerns about the security of America’s seats of government ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

As new details about the attack continue to emerge, officials and civilian experts alike have expressed growing levels of outrage – and incredulity – that such an insurgency was even possible in the U.S. It was a mob incited, organized, and pushed to act in plain sight. Its most dangerous members, such as the Proud Boys and other groups with white extremist ties, are well known and prior to last Wednesday openly boasted about their intentions.

“The violence was planned in public. ... It’s unbelievable to me that they weren’t better prepared and better sourced,” says Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI special agent.

Why We Wrote This

Investigation into the defense weaknesses that allowed a mob into the U.S. Capitol can aid accountability and prevention. That’s crucial as Inauguration Day looms.

When asked to clarify who he means by “they” – the FBI? the Capitol Police? – Mr. German pauses.

“All of the above,” he says.

How it happened

When some 8,000 Trump supporters marched on the Capitol in the early afternoon of Jan. 6, the 1,200 police officers on duty were outnumbered and unprepared. Within 15 minutes the Capitol’s west side was breached. In the ensuing chaos, five people died, including a Capitol police officer.

By Thursday, the U.S. House sergeant-at-arms, the U.S. Senate sergeant-at-arms, and the Capitol Police chief had all announced their resignations. By Monday, the U.S. House introduced an article of impeachment, “incitement of insurrection,” against President Donald Trump. And over the past week, lawmakers from both parties have called for investigations into how the attack was allowed to occur.

Initial analyses by security experts and journalists suggest several missteps leading up to Jan. 6. The biggest may have been intelligence officials’ failure to take online threats seriously.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The mace of the House of Representatives is carried into the chamber by Joyce Hamlett, the assistant sergeant-at-arms, as the House returns following last week's deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 11, 2021.

A “Stop the Steal” Facebook group was formed the day after the presidential election and soon became one of the fastest-growing groups in Facebook’s history, gaining 320,000 members in less than 24 hours. Although the social media site soon shut down the page for trying to incite violence, the effort spread to new Facebook groups, as well as other social platforms such as Twitter, Gab, Parler, and TheDonald.win, a website that was created last year after Reddit banned one of its subcommittees, or “subreddits,” popular among Trump supporters in late June.

SITE Intelligence Group, a private group that tracks online activity of white supremacists and terrorist groups, published a report Saturday with screenshots of posts from TheDonald.win that anticipated last week’s events, such as calls to “storm the Capitol” and “start marching into the chambers.” Saturday’s report includes a link to a published report from late December that included similar warnings.

Nevertheless, on Friday, a top official in the FBI’s Washington office had said there was no indication that anything other than First Amendment-protected protests were planned for Jan. 6. This claim was further undercut Monday when NBC News learned that the FBI had visited more than a dozen known extremists and warned the Capitol Police about the possibility of violence. And on Tuesday, evidence came forward that an FBI office in Virginia had distributed an explicit internal alert one day before the attack warning of extremists encouraging one another to “get violent” and be “ready for war.”

But Mr. German says the seeds of Wednesday’s insurrection were sown long before the “Stop the Steal” Facebook groups were formed, as many of the participants had already been “conditioned” to think that such behavior is acceptable.

“For the last four years, they have been able to travel, commit violence, and walk away, all with the encouragement of the president of the United States – so of course they would think the government has authorized them to act violently against their common enemies,” says Mr. German. “Just look at all the people who were livestreaming themselves breaking windows. There wasn’t any sense that this was something that was improper.”

The footage has brought in tens of thousands of tips to the FBI, leading to the arrests of more than 60 people thus far. This includes Richard Barnett, the man who photographed himself with his feet on House Speaker Nancy’s Pelosi’s desk, as well as Adam Johnson, who smiled for cameras while carrying Speaker Pelosi’s lectern.

Tactics under scrutiny

Video footage from the scene has also left experts questioning the Capitol Police’s tactical response. Doug Parisi, a police captain for 20 years in Kansas City, Kansas, who ran the local police academy, which included teaching officers about how to handle similar crowds, was surprised by both what he saw – and didn’t see.

Once parts of the lines were breached, the officers outside the Capitol didn’t seem to have “fallback positions” to help them regain control of a small breach before it became bigger, says Mr. Parisi. On top of that, he adds, it didn’t appear as if the Capitol Police had a “quick deployment group” ready and waiting to assist if the officers on duty needed backup.

“You will put those officers a bit back, but visible, so the crowd can see ‘Well if you get past them, then you have to deal with us,’” says Mr. Parisi. “I was surprised that they didn’t have a quick reactionary group.”

So why was law enforcement so outnumbered and underprepared?

Some law enforcement experts suspect the meager response last Wednesday was an overcorrection to the response to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. After vowing to “dominate” those protesting police brutality in early June, Mr. Trump mobilized an array of federal agencies, including the FBI, the Defense Department, and the Department of Homeland Security – a decision that was met with widespread criticism.

Sarah Silbiger/Reuters
Steven D'Antuono, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Washington field office, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington on Jan. 12, 2021. The acting attorney for Washington and FBI provided an update on criminal charges related to the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol.

Racial and political bias?

Others point to the discrepancy in protesters’ race, with Black Lives Matter activists arguing that law enforcement would have handled the violence differently if the people pushing past the barricades were Black instead of white.

Some research has backed up these claims. An analysis of 2020’s protests by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project found that authorities were more likely to break up a left-wing protest, and when they chose to intervene, were more likely to use force against left-wing protesters. Despite a big disparity in the two groups’ actions on June 1 and Jan. 6, more than five times as many protesters were arrested by Washington, D.C., police in June.

There has long been debate – and conspiracies – surrounding law enforcement’s support for white supremacy. The conspiracy theories extended to last week’s events, as video clips circulated online seemingly showing Capitol Police stepping aside to let the rioters through.

No large-scale plot has been uncovered, but two Capitol Police officers have been suspended due to their response to the riot, one who was captured on camera posing for a selfie with a rioter, and the other captured touring the rioters around the building.

Others point to Washington’s non-state status as a reason why Wednesday’s events were able to reach such a state of chaos. Governors are able to request the National Guard at will, but District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser’s capabilities are limited. The district’s National Guard can only be deployed with approval of the Pentagon, and therefore, the president.

But quite simply, some of the inadequate responses may come down to disbelief, says Juliette Kayyem, a national security expert and former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. Despite Mr. Trump repeatedly tweeting and retweeting incendiary messages on Twitter about Jan. 6, many Americans have a difficult time wrapping their minds around the idea of such an event actually happening.

“We learn in third grade civics that there are good presidents and there are bad presidents, but we have a hard time thinking about terror-inspiring presidents,” says Ms. Kayyem. “While the Capitol Police may have been prepared for something … I don’t know if the taking of the Capitol was anticipated.”

Pushing back

Experts say it’s too soon to offer a full breakdown of what happened on Jan. 6, and that more answers will come to light as law enforcement continues to investigate. But there is pressure on authorities to identify and rectify last Wednesday’s mistakes quickly, given that Mr. Biden’s inauguration is set to occur on Jan. 20 on the same risers protesters climbed over just two weeks earlier.

Mr. Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook indefinitely over the weekend. The social media giants charged that the president’s inflammatory tweets and posts violated their terms of service and could incite his followers.

After this move, Parler, a social media platform similar to Twitter that has gained traction among conservatives in recent months as Twitter began to monitor tweets for election misinformation, became the most popular application in Apple’s app store. But by the end of the weekend, Parler had been removed from the app store and Amazon announced it would remove Parler from its web-hosting services, making the entire app go offline until it is able to find a new hosting service.

But Mr. Trump’s supporters, specifically those who intend to continue fighting the results of the 2020 election, still have means to communicate online. And while de-platforming does hinder groups’ ability to grow online by making fellow sympathizers more difficult to find, it also makes extremists – and their plans – more difficult for law enforcement officials to find as well, says Renée DiResta, a researcher who studies the spread of malign narratives across social networks at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

“When removing a platform, you drive people to darker places of the internet and it gets harder to see,” says Ms. DiResta, comparing the current conundrum to a similar debate that officials had several years ago regarding Islamic State and Twitter. “It becomes a different kind of monitoring challenge.”

Recent comments on TheDonald.win site encourage fellow Trump supporters to join Rumble, a video-sharing platform similar to YouTube, and Telegram, a messaging app that allows users to connect based on their location. MeWe, another messaging app recommended by Trump supporters, offers scrolls and scrolls worth of pro-Trump groups, most of them private, some with tens of thousands of members. Members in these groups share images of Jesus Christ hugging President Trump, as well as violent GIFs and death threats against Democratic leaders, particularly Speaker Pelosi.

Although a search on Facebook finds no more groups with “Stop the Steal” in their name, searches of other key phrases such as “MAGA,” “Trump 2020,” and even “inauguration” bring up hundreds of Facebook groups, many of them private. “Is there nothing else that can be done to save President Trump? Is this the end?” asks a member in one of the public groups that surfaces with the search word “patriots.” Many members reply “it’s over” with sad face emojis, but others encourage fellow patriots to “hold the line.” “It’s not over yet!” replies one member. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” replies another.

“PSA: This is just the beginning,” reads a comment posted on TheDonald.win Monday. “MAGA will resonate for decades. Trump will not back down and other patriots will not back down.”

Preparations for inauguration

According to an internal FBI bulletin obtained by ABC News, armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols and at the U.S. Capitol over the next week. The Department of Homeland Security has expanded the window for enhanced surveillance in downtown Washington ahead of the inauguration, which is classified as a National Special Security Event, to begin on Jan. 13 rather than Jan. 19. On Monday, the Pentagon authorized up to 15,000 National Guardsmen to deploy to Washington ahead of Inauguration Day.

At a press conference on Tuesday, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin said federal law enforcement has established a task force on the Capitol riot looking at “seditious and conspiracy” charges that carry sentences of up to 20 years.

“You will be charged and you will be found,” he said.

The Department of Justice has already opened more than 170 subject files, naming individuals suspected of committing crimes on federal property, Mr. Sherwin said. Seventy people have already been charged and the numbers will grow into the hundreds.  

“Between now and Inauguration Day, I think people will take more seriously any rhetoric about a call to arms,” says Ms. DiResta. “But the challenge is that there is a big group of people who have been conditioned to believe over months that the election was stolen from them ... and that belief is not going to go away once the inauguration happens.”

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