Terrifying scope of Capitol attack becoming clearer as Washington locks down for Biden's inauguration
Posted January 16, 2021 12:03 a.m. EST
CNN — Federal authorities are piecing together a chilling picture of the January 6 insurrection that reveals major security and intelligence failures, underscores profound fissures in American society and hints at the political challenges ahead for President-elect Joe Biden, even as they race to ensure the safety of US leaders and next week's inauguration.
Emerging details paint an even grimmer picture than the shocking images of violence broadcast live around the world last week. Evidence suggests planning by the insurrectionists, and there are questions and concerns that they may have received support from some Capitol Police, current and former members of the military, and even some members of Congress.
As rioters broke into the Capitol building and some chanted "hang Mike Pence," the seditious mob ripped through the "thin blue line" many claim to revere, kicking and beating police with their own batons, spraying them with chemical irritants, threatening to kill them. One policeman and four others died that day.
Once inside the building, the Washington Post reports the insurrectionists came within minutes of reaching the vice president, who was whisked to safety with his wife and daughter. Some had driven to the Capitol days earlier, one had filled their vehicles with guns, ammunition, crossbows, machetes and, in one case, a note listing a congressman by name.
Fearing for their safety
Days after the attack, even as security reinforcements arrive, some lawmakers tell CNN they now fear for their safety.
While some Republicans argued President Donald Trump's unprecedented second impeachment will only inflame divisions, federal officials warned that extremists, after seeing the results of last week's attack on the US Capitol, are now likely more emboldened to carry out attacks on the January 20 inauguration and throughout 2021.
An internal FBI bulletin disseminated to law enforcement this week warned that "armed protests" are being planned at all 50 state capitols and in Washington in the days leading up to Biden's swearing in. Federal law enforcement agencies issued urgent bulletins calling for assistance securing the nation's capital, which now bristles with road blocks and steel barriers to wall off the "People's House" and will host as many as 25,000 National Guard -- a stronger military footprint than the US has in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined.
By Friday, the FBI had received 140,000 digital tips regarding the attack, including photos and video, federal officials had opened 275 criminal investigations, charged roughly 98 individuals, and taken 100 individuals into custody.
As senior administration leaders who would normally take the lead remained silent for days -- including the heads of the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the President himself -- federal officials launched the most extensive counterterrorism probe since September 11, 2001, and continued planning to fortify Washington.
"Our posture is aggressive. It's going to stay that way through the inauguration," FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a Thursday briefing on inauguration security. He added that the agency was monitoring "extensive" online chatter about further potential armed protests and issued a warning to the men and woman who wreaked havoc on the Capitol.
"We know who you are, if you're out there," Wray said, "and FBI agents are coming to find you."
The domestic terrorists struck at a time when the US government is confronting the worst known cyberattack by a foreign adversary in its history, with Russia suspected of penetrating hundreds of businesses and numerous federal agencies. Their bloodshed and destruction come as Covid-19 claims record daily death tolls and a jobs crisis is brewing, with nearly 1 million people filing for unemployment benefits for the first time last week.
The insurrection, fueled by Trump's lies about his definitive election loss, exposed the reach of baseless conspiracy theories that have radicalized Americans to the point that they laid siege to their own Capitol.
The events of that day raise questions about intelligence failures, the military's lethargic response as panicked lawmakers pleaded by telephone for help, and law enforcement's potential blind spots or willful ignorance about the dangers posed by white supremacists and right-wing nativists.
Those groups formed a combustible mix with the anti-Semites and QAnon conspiracists rampaging on January 6 to create an existential crisis for the Republican Party, which faces the choice of remaining in thrall to Trump and his more toxic supporters or breaking away.
It creates a challenge for the larger country as well, according to CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, who said the trajectory of Trump's "white nationalist extremism has been very clear" for the last four years, as are the potential costs to US security if it is left unchecked.
"President Trump has provided an enormous amount of oxygen to this very dangerous ideology," Brownstein told Jake Tapper on Thursday. "And unless everyone involved, the Justice Department, law enforcement, Congress, is very serious about imposing consequences and taking the threat seriously, this could become a steady drumbeat through the Biden presidency."
"The question is, can we more broadly send a signal that says we are not going to tolerate and look the other way as this metastasizes," Brownstein said.
Ideologically motivated violence
Already, thousands of armed pro-Trump extremists are plotting to surround the US Capitol ahead of Biden's inauguration, according to a lawmaker briefed by security officials Monday.
A joint US government intelligence bulletin said the January 6 attack, meant to disrupt the certification of Biden's victory, may have given extremists of differing ideological stripes a way to connect. The bulletin warned that the insurrection "is very likely part of an ongoing trend in which (extremists) exploit lawful protests, rallies, and demonstrations, and other gatherings to carry out ideologically motivated violence and criminal activity."
Multiple defense officials have told CNN that the National Guard and law enforcement expect explosives like pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails to be used in any coming unrest. They are assuming perpetrators will come with high "aggression," said one senior defense official, who added, "their intentions are very serious."
Pipe bombs that could have done serious damage were planted outside the Republican and Democratic party headquarters in Washington last week but didn't go off.
The expertise behind the bombs and the ease with which the raucous crowd seemed to mill about the Capitol complex with little resistance raised concerns participants had insider help and military expertise.
At least two US Capitol Police officers were suspended and at least 10 more are under investigation for allegedly playing some sort of role, CNN reported. Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney in Washington, DC, confirmed Friday that "we're seeing indications that law enforcement officers, both former and current, maybe who have been off duty, participating in this riot activity."
"We don't care what your profession is, who you are, who you are affiliated with, if you are conducting or engaged in criminal activity, we will charge you and you will be arrested," Sherwin said.
Part of that hunt is for "several" people possibly involved in the killing of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, according to two law enforcement officials. On Friday, Steven D'Antuono of the FBI's Washington Field Office said his investigators are "making progress" on the investigation and are looking at "anyone and everyone" who may be involved. He did not give specifics on the scope of the investigation.
In the days after the attack, court records and news reports also confirmed that current and former US military members participated in the insurrection. The news triggered unprecedented statements from the leaders of major security agencies who felt the need to remind their men and women their loyalty is to the Constitution.
On Tuesday, the America's most senior military leaders condemned the violent invasion and reminded service members of their obligation to support and defend the Constitution and reject extremism. The Defense Department has observed an increase in white supremacist ideology amongst active-duty service members and veterans, a senior defense official told CNN.
The next day, US Secret Service Director James Murray sent agency employees a message urging them to remember their mission and remain professional during the upcoming inauguration. "We are expected to behave in a non-partisan manner," his memo said.
Video images of a Capitol Police officer wearing a MAGA hat during the invasion and of another taking selfies with rioters left lawmakers deeply shaken. According to the Wall Street Journal, the officer seen wearing the trademark red cap put it on as part of a ruse to rescue more than a dozen trapped police officers during the riot. The officer has been suspended and an investigation is underway.
"There were those acts of heroism, but next to that, there were also attacks of betrayal," Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York said Tuesday on Instagram Live. "And to run in the nation's Capitol and not know if an officer is there to help you or to harm you is also quite traumatizing."
"I did not know if I was going to make it to the end of that day alive," Ocasio-Cortez said. "It is not an exaggeration to say that many, many members of the House were nearly assassinated."
Some members are asking for bulletproof vests, considering getting their own security and taking other steps, such as changing their routes to work, lawmakers told CNN. Meanwhile, some Republicans expressed outrage at metal detectors installed at the entrance to the House chamber.
Many House lawmakers are considering another appalling possibility: that the mob got assistance from some of their colleagues.
Thirty-one members of Congress sent a letter to the acting House Sergeant at Arms, acting Senate Sergeant at Arms, and the acting chief of the US Capitol Police asking them to investigate "unusual" and "concerning" tours they saw and reported to the Sergeant at Arms on January 5.
"Many of the Members who signed this letter, including those of us who have served in the military and are trained to recognize suspicious activity, as well as various members of our staff, witnessed an extremely high number of outside groups in the complex on Tuesday, January 5," the letter states.
The groups of six to eight, who wore MAGA apparel, according to Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania, "could only have gained access to the Capitol Complex from a Member of Congress or a member of their staff," the letter said.
"I kind of assumed it must be a new member who didn't know the rules or something," Scanlon of Pennsylvania, one of the co-signers, told CNN. "There were people who were roaming around in the halls, apparently under the guidance of congressional staff" at a time when tours have been canceled due to Covid.
At least one right-wing conspiracist said he coordinated the rally where Trump spoke before the riot with three House Republicans: Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs of Arizona, and Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who spoke before the President took the stage and urged the crowd to "start taking down names and kicking ass." Brooks, Gosar and several other House GOP lawmakers are facing criticism for their incendiary language in the hours, days and weeks before the siege.
Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who is affiliated with the QAnon movement and regularly spreads right-wing conspiracy theories, has also come under scrutiny for tweeting about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's whereabouts as the attack was unfolding.
On Friday, Pelosi announced retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, a former vice director with the Joint Chiefs of staff, would lead a review of the Capitol's security. She added that, "if, in fact, it is found that members of Congress were accomplices to this insurrection, if they aided and abetted the crime, there may have to be actions taken beyond the Congress in terms of prosecution for that."
Later that day, when asked if they are investigating allegations that Capitol Police and lawmakers were involved in the riot, D'Antuono of the FBI's Washington Field Office said they will "leave no stone unturned" and are "looking at every piece of the puzzle."
Sherwin, the acting US attorney for Washington, DC, told reporters earlier in the week that "we're looking at significant felony cases tied to sedition and conspiracy."
Evidence of planning
Evidence uncovered so far, including weapons and tactics seen on surveillance video, suggests a level of planning, a federal law enforcement official said. And court filings are offering shocking new details.
One memo in a filing Friday seeks to extend the detention of Jacob Anthony Chansley, the face-painted QAnon believer who rallied people inside the Capitol wearing a horned headdress and carrying a six-foot spear and a bullhorn.
Prosecutors describe those who took over the Capitol as "insurrectionists" and offer new details about Chansley's role in the violent siege last week, including that Chansley left a note on the dais where Vice President Pence had stood that morning saying, "It's only a matter of time, justice is coming."
Chansley later told the FBI he did not mean the note as a threat but said the vice president was a "child-trafficking traitor."
Before he was arrested, Chansley also told the FBI he wanted to return to Washington for the inauguration to protest.
In a separate case, prosecutors in Texas alleged that a retired Air Force reservist who carried plastic zip tie-like restraints on the Senate floor may have intended to restrain lawmakers. It was one of the many chilling details to emerge as investigators tracked down some of the most recognizable faces from the riot.
Authorities apprehended the man in widely circulated photos carrying a Confederate flag inside Capitol Hill, another who had worn a "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirt and the Olympic gold medalist swimmer Klete Keller.
Federal officials also charged Peter Stager, a burly bearded man, with beating a DC police officer with a flagpole that had an American flag on it. "Everybody in there is a treasonous traitor," Stager said in a video obtained by the FBI. "Death is the only remedy for what's in that building."
A few arrests suggest the apparent murderous intent of some in the crowd.
One man from Alabama faces 17 criminal counts, largely for possession of multiple weapons, including a shotgun, a rifle, three pistols and 11 Molotov cocktails, as well as ammunition and shotgun shells without registration, according to an indictment.
After living in his truck in DC for about a week, the man parked it about a block from the Capitol on January 6, according to court documents. Police started searching the truck after spotting a firearm handle and found the weapons, as well as a stun gun, several machetes, a crossbow; several large-capacity ammunition-feeding devices; and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, according to a memorandum that prosecutors filed January 12 in support of his detention.
Also in the truck: the handwritten note with Indiana Rep. Andre Carson's name and an added observation that he is "one of two Muslims in House of Reps."
The second man is alleged to have driven from Colorado to Washington, DC, a day before Trump's rally with more than 2,500 rounds of ammunition and an assault rifle. He is said to have texted acquaintances that he wanted to shoot or run over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and shoot DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, according to court records.
"If I had a more concerning threats case come before me, I don't remember it," Magistrate Judge Michael Harvey of the DC District Court said Thursday.
Some lawmakers' experiences made them worry that the rioters had a level of careful preparation that belies the narrative of a protest that wheeled out of control.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, told CNN that someone removed panic buttons installed throughout her office that had been regularly tested and maintained. An investigation is underway, said Pressley, who said the discovery was "certainly unnerving."
Carson, whose name was on the note found in the car filled with weaponry and ammunition, is among a growing list of lawmakers critical of law enforcement's handling of the insurgency.
"It is extremely disturbing to learn from press reports that I was one of several individuals identified in a list of 'good guys' and 'bad guys' targeted for attacks," Carson said in a statement provided to CNN. "As a former law enforcement officer, it is especially disappointing to see the failure of law enforcement officials, including the U.S. Capitol Police, to notify individuals like myself that we were targeted and at risk from the indicted terrorist and his co-conspirators."
Investigators will be asking how federal authorities missed so many red flags, why they were so underprepared and slow to react.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security failed to issue threat assessments about the potential of violence at the US Capitol ahead of last week's deadly attack, according to a source familiar with the matter and a senior DHS official. Typically, the FBI and DHS will produce a joint threat assessment for high-profile events and send it to law enforcement officials and relevant stakeholders. But no such report was compiled by either agency for the January 6 certification of Biden's victory, a controversial event for the President's followers.
The Washington Post reported Friday that three days before the attack, an internal Capitol Police intelligence report warned that angry Trump supporters could attack "Congress itself." The 12-page report describes a scenario eerily like the one that unfolded, with the President's enraged backers trying to stop Biden's certification and overturn the election results.
A day before the chaos erupted, an FBI outpost in Virginia issued an internal warning that extremists were coming to Washington prepared to commit violence.
The Post also reported that dozens of people on a terrorist watch list came to Washington for the January 6 events. The majority of them were suspected white supremacists with track records so disturbing they were put on the national Terrorist Screening Database as potential security risks.
Four federal agencies announced Friday they are opening investigations into their own roles on January 6. The Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and the Interior Department will all examine their preparations for the events in Washington that day that may have played a part in allowing rioters to breach the Capitol.
These agencies and others are now preparing for rioters to descend on the Capitol again.
The Secret Service is taking the lead on Biden's inauguration security planning. The National Mall will be closed to the general public on Inauguration Day, according to an official familiar with discussions.
There will be no big screens, no toilets and the public will not be able to get down to the Mall where traditionally thousands gather to watch the new president be sworn in, the official said.
The President-elect and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are still expected to take their oaths of office on the West Front of the US Capitol during a significantly scaled-down event. Biden said this week that his team had been receiving briefings in the wake of the violence and that he was "not afraid of taking the oath outside."