Violent online messages before Capitol riot went unshared by DHS, emails show

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On Jan. 6, 2021, as a mob of Donald Trump supporters began besieging the Capitol, Department of Homeland Security officials reviewed a plea for help.

Rioters had started climbing up scaffolding when, at 2:12 p.m., the Capitol Police requested information from DHS’ intelligence agency. That office monitors public social media chatter for clues on where violence might break out nationwide.

A DHS official, whose name was redacted, outlined the request: “Are groups talking about taking over the Capital [sic] on social media. Are tactics being discussed about taking over the Capital. Tactics can include radio frequencies, weapons etc.”

The batch of emails — sent from 2:12 p.m. through 3:12 p.m on Jan. 6, 2021 — show that in the 48 hours leading up to the attack, officials weighed what to share with law enforcement and ultimately proceeded with caution. In some cases, DHS officials worried that reporting violent messages found online could infringe on Americans’ civil liberties.

In the two days before the insurrection, intelligence analysts had found “significant chatter” on an online forum, the emails show, but chose not to report them because they found the comments to be “hyperbole” and therefore protected speech.

The excerpts from previously unreported internal DHS emails, obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington through a public records request and shared with POLITICO, illuminate the department’s response to the attack on the Capitol.

DHS spokesperson Sarah Peck said the department has made meaningful changes in the last year, and did not comment on the email thread. “Over the past year, DHS has significantly strengthened its intelligence analysis, improved information sharing and operational coordination, and identified new resources to combat domestic violent extremism, as part of the Biden Administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,” she said in a statement to POLITICO.

A Capitol Police spokesperson declined to comment.

“The challenge for intelligence officials is a constant evaluation of what is hyperbole and what is an actual threat,” said Frank X. Taylor, who helmed the office from April 2014 to January 2017. “And it’s not easy.”

And Javed Ali, a former top counterterrorism official, said the emails highlight “tensions in the intelligence system” over how to share information about Americans.

These new details about DHS’ handling of advance intelligence come as its inspector general finalizes a report scrutinizing its Office of Intelligence and Analysis in relation to Jan. 6, according to three people familiar with the project. That report has found that the agency’s training of analysts is deficient, said one of those people.

The department’s internal watchdog reached a similar conclusion a year ago following scrutiny of how the agency monitored 2020 civil unrest in Portland, Ore.

In late 2020, after clashes between law enforcement and rioters in Portland, leaders in DHS’ intelligence office decided to tighten the rules for how its analysts would collect online information about potential violence, The Wall Street Journal previously reported. The day before the Capitol attack, the intelligence agency told law enforcement around the country that it had “nothing significant to report,” the Journal reported.

A year on from the insurrection, there are signs that DHS is changing its strategy regarding intelligence. In May, the department set up a unit in its intelligence office focused specifically on domestic terror threats. And Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters last week that the department has sent out more than 80 intelligence products focused on domestic violent extremism in the last year.

In the newly revealed emails obtained by CREW, a progressive-leaning nonprofit, DHS officials’ names are redacted. Twenty-eight minutes after the email detailing Capitol Police’s request for intelligence was sent, a DHS official followed up with a group of officials at department headquarters.

“Update to request,” the email read. “Groups have breached the Capitol and are inside the rotunda. Capitol Police are awaiting assistance from [National Guard] and other [law enforcement] to assist. However, they still would like to know if anyone is talking about tactics that can be used ion [sic] the future. Thank you.”

Then, at 2:58 p.m., an official wrote that DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis had seen troubling comments in the days before the attack.

Five minutes later, a senior official in the intelligence office signaled that officials should withhold that information from Capitol Police.

“Please ensure we are labeling these as DHS I&A [Intelligence and Analysis] Internal Only and that we are only passing information that meets reporting thresholds outside of I&A channels,” replied the director of the office’s Current and Emerging Threats Center, whose name was redacted.

“Keep the info flowing within I&A,” the director added, “but ensure we are taking a step back before we share that information outside of I&A and keeping our authorities and thresholds in mind.”

Then officials went back and forth over what, if anything, they could share with Capitol Police.

At 3:12 p.m., the last email in the thread reads, “Just please let me know what I can and cannot share with [law enforcement] who need it.”

The thread ends there. It doesn’t show what intelligence — if any — the DHS office shared with Capitol Police.

One former senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, said the emails are concerning.

“If I had been leading I&A, we would have thrown caution to the wind to get the Capitol Police everything we knew,” the former official said. “I can’t say what was in the leadership’s mind at I&A, but given this string of emails, it seems that they were overly cautious in sharing what information they had in real time with Capitol Police.”

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for CREW, said the emails highlight how U.S. law enforcement underestimated the threats that preceded the attack.

"These emails show what we've long suspected: that the government knew of the potential threat on January 6th and did not take it seriously,” he said in a statement. “That DHS's immediate response that day was to remind people not to pass information of potential threats on to other law enforcement agencies is particularly troubling."

Other Jan. 6 messages from the department have also come under scrutiny. At 1:40 p.m., a half-hour after attackers breached police barricades, the department’s National Operations Center sent out an update saying “there are no major incidents of illegal activity at this time” in Washington.

And the Capitol riot wasn’t the only violent episode to result in fallout for the office. During the 2020 turmoil in Portland, where rioters engaged in sustained attacks on a federal courthouse, I&A created intelligence reports about journalists — generating swift backlash.

The department’s acting head, Chad Wolf, condemned the overreach and ordered an investigation, and the head of I&A was removed. The eventual internal review, released on Jan. 6 last year, criticized the agency for lacking a formal training program for key employees.

While DHS’ watchdog is expected to fault the department’s training program for its intelligence failures, some current and former employees blame its leadership. I&A analysts saw worrisome social media chatter before the insurrection that they didn’t think was mere hyperbole, but were “handcuffed” on reporting it by leadership at the time, a DHS official familiar with the matter said.

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