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Senate report: intelligence agencies 'failed to fulfill their mission' ahead of Jan. 6

A noose is seen on makeshift gallows as supporters of Donald Trump rioted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
AFP via Getty Images
A noose is seen on makeshift gallows as supporters of Donald Trump rioted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Updated June 27, 2023 at 1:04 PM ET

Nearly two and a half years after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Senate Democrats are criticizing intelligence agencies for failing to "accurately assess the severity of the threat identified" and work with law enforcement to prepare for the violence.

Although public reporting and primetime congressional investigations have already shown intelligence agencies received tips about plans for violence on Jan. 6, the report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's majority staff adds new information about the extent of those warnings, and alleges the agencies both downplayed the threat level and didn't share the intelligence effectively with law enforcement.

"Despite the high volume of tips and online traffic about the potential for violence – some of which the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Intelligence and Analysis were aware of as early as December 2020 – these agencies failed to sound the alarm and share critical intelligence information that could have helped law enforcement better prepare for the events of January 6th," committee chairman Sen. Gary Peters said in a statement.

The 105-page report, entitled Planned in Plain Sight, details the warnings intelligence agencies received about plans for violence on Jan. 6, the day Congress convened to certify the electoral college results of the 2020 presidential election.

One example cited in the report came via the social media platform Parler, which sent a post from one of its users to the FBI on January 2, 2021 that read: "It's no longer a protest. This is a final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill. ... don't be surprised if we take the #capital."

In response to the committee's report, the FBI defended its efforts to "disrupt and stay ahead of any threats."

"We are constantly trying to learn and evaluate what we can do better or differently, and this is especially true of the attack on the U.S. Capitol," the FBI said in a statement, adding that since the attack, the agency has increased its focus on "swift information sharing" with law enforcement partners across the country and has made improvements to assist analysts in field offices.

Report says intelligence leaders 'failed to sound the alarm'

The report says the failures leading up to Jan. 6 were "not failures to obtain intelligence, noting that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis obtained numerous tips "in the days and weeks leading up to the attack that should have raised alarms."

"Rather, those agencies failed to fully and accurately assess the severity of the threat identified by that intelligence, and formally disseminate guidance to their law enforcement partners with sufficient urgency and alarm to enable those partners to prepare for the violence that ultimately occurred," the report states.

The report casts the agency's actions as a "failure of imagination", fueled by a "bias toward discounting intelligence that indicated an unprecedented event."

The report says intelligence analysts and leaders "failed to sound the alarm about Jan. 6th in part because they could not conceive that the U.S. Capitol Building would be overrun by rioters."

"This reflects the intelligence community's struggle to adapt to the new reality that the primary threat to homeland security (as identified by these same agencies) is now domestic terrorism driven largely by antigovernment and white supremacist ideologies," the report adds.

The report also noted the FBI changed contracts for third-party social media monitoring just days before the attack, which caused it's open-source monitoring capabilities to be "degraded."

"Internal emails obtained by the Committee show FBI officials were surprised by the timing of the contract change, and lamented the negative effect it would have on their monitoring capabilities in the lead-up to January 6th," the report reads.

The report also found the Department of Homeland Security was hesitant to issue warnings ahead of Jan. 6, partly due to criticism it received the prior summer over its handling of information regarding protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

The DHS says it has "strengthened intelligence analysis, information sharing, and operational preparedness to help prevent acts of violence" and has conducted an organizational review of I&A since the Jan. 6 attack.

"Starting in early 2021, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) undertook steps to enhance its capacity to collect and produce intelligence about homeland security threats, while maintaining its commitment to protecting the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans," a DHS spokesperson said in a statement. "Since that time, I&A has significantly enhanced training for its collection and analytical staff, has developed and clarified guidance and policy around the handling of domestic violent extremism issues, and has doubled the size of the Intelligence Oversight Office that provides guidance to I&A's operational staff."

New Orleans FBI office issued warning ahead of attack

While the FBI received warnings ahead of the attack, internal emails obtained by the committee show the agency repeatedly said it did not identify a credible threat.

The report pointed to just two limited intelligence documents produced by the FBI the night before the attack, and argued the FBI was more focused on potential clashes between protesters and counter-protesters, and not the threat to the Capitol and the lawmakers inside.

Those two documents came from the New Orleans FBI office, which warned that some of the participants in the D.C. protest created an armed "quick reaction force" in Northern Virginia. The FBI Norfolk Field Office in Virginia issued a "situational information report" that shared some threatening online posts. The committee argues the FBI didn't widely distribute those documents to all federal partners.

The report offers recommendations, including improving FBI and I&A policies and procedures for collecting, analyzing and sharing intelligence to partner agencies, and designating a lead federal agency to help coordinate significant events.

The Senate report comes as the DOJ's inspector general continues its own investigation into failures leading up to the Capitol attack.

NPR's National Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson contributed to this report. contributed to this story

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.