When historians review the U.S. Capitol Police’s embarrassing performance in the days and weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, they will surely retell the story of the locked bus. It’s a tale sadly reminiscent of the Keystone Kops.
Knowing violence was possible, U.S. Capitol Police activated seven special civil-disturbance platoons in advance of the joint session of Congress that would formalize Joe Biden’s victory. But only four platoons were outfitted with protective equipment, and those officers were ordered not to don riot gear as they started their shifts.
Instead, the helmets and shields were staged on buses—to be retrieved if necessary.
As a mob incited by President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, officers scrambled to get the body armor. But the bus was locked, and no one could find the key. They were forced to defend the complex, and themselves, in their regular uniforms. All told, about 140 officers reported suffering injuries during the most significant breach of the Capitol since the War of 1812.
The locked bus is only one detail in a 128-page report released last week by two Senate committees, but the episode epitomizes the failures of the Capitol Police to prepare and respond to the cascade of warnings during the weeks leading up to the deadly siege.
Over the past five months, acting Capitol Police chief Yogananda Pittman—who oversaw the department’s intelligence apparatus in the run-up to Jan. 6—has provided sometimes contradictory testimony about what was known, when it was known and with whom it was shared. Illustrating the continuing need for fresh leadership, the Capitol Police responded to the new bipartisan report with a statement that insisted “there was no specific, credible intelligence” there would be “a large-scale attack on the Capitol.” That claim is at odds with the Senate’s findings, which are based on internal department emails, interviews and statements from more than 50 officers. “The attack was quite frankly planned in plain sight,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
On Jan. 3, a 15-page assessment prepared by the Capitol Police’s own Intelligence and Inter-agency Coordination Division (IICD) warned that Trump supporters saw the looming joint session as their “last opportunity to overturn the results” of the election. “This sense of desperation and disappointment may lead to more of an incentive to become violent,” it warned. “Congress itself is the target on the 6th.” The IICD also knew maps of the Capitol’s tunnel systems were being widely shared online. Rank-and-file officers were never told.
Nor was the riot a last-minute surprise: On Dec. 14, 2020, a deputy chief alerted Pittman of the potential for disruptions on the House floor. That meant the Capitol building would be entered, if not breached. On Dec. 16, a “Special Assessment” went out: “The threat of disruptive actions or violence cannot be ruled out.” On Dec. 19, the intelligence division circulated Trump’s tweet urging people to descend on Washington for the formal count of electoral college votes. The then-president wrote: “Be there, will be wild!” On Dec. 21, a seven-page IICD report highlighted a blog called thedonald.win, which referenced tunnels where lawmakers could be confronted, and included more than 30 screenshots of alarming comments, such as “Bring guns. It’s now or never.” Local authorities in the District of Columbia took the threat more seriously than Capitol Police. An intelligence analyst at the city’s homeland security agency emailed about threats in right-wing chat groups toward lawmakers and to shoot counterprotesters. The D.C. police warned on Dec. 30 of a surge in hotel bookings around Jan. 6, indicating that crowds would be vastly larger than expected.
On Jan. 5, the FBI’s Norfolk field office circulated a Situational Information Report that said individuals were traveling to the District “ready for war” at the Capitol. The memo highlighted an online thread that said: “Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood … being spilled.” Pittman told investigators in February that a Capitol Police analyst forwarded this FBI warning to his supervisor, but it was not circulated further. In fact, the department’s inspector general subsequently discovered that the message was sent to a broader distribution list.
The night before the attack, Capitol Police Deputy Chief Sean Gallagher flagged additional information concerning the Capitol tunnel system, including an “online tip” received by the FBI about a “significant uptick” in new visitors to WashingtonTunnels.com. The email also noted a rise in conversations about groups intending to form a perimeter around the Capitol.
You didn’t need a security clearance to put the pieces together. Anyone who paid attention to what happened in Charlottesville in 2017 or the alleged plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, understood the growing risk for right-wing violence.
These warnings, and there are likely others we don’t know about yet, are a haunting reminder of what the 9/11 Commission unearthed two decades ago. An item in the Presidential Daily Brief on Aug. 6, 2001, cautioned George W. Bush that Osama bin Laden was “Determined to Strike in US.” Then-CIA Director George Tenet later testified that “the system was blinking red” by that summer. Five weeks later, our nation was attacked.
Our system was flashing red in the run-up to Jan. 6. What happened at the Capitol was not the failure of imagination. It was a failure of leadership.