The Just Security Podcast

The FBI’s January 6th Intelligence Failures

November 10, 2022 Just Security Episode 3
The Just Security Podcast
The FBI’s January 6th Intelligence Failures
Show Notes Transcript

The January 6th Committee is wrapping up its work, which has provided a detailed account of the individuals and groups involved in the attack. Thanks to the Committee, we know that law enforcement agencies like the FBI had intelligence about the attack ahead of time. What we don’t know is how they used that information or why they failed to stop the attack. 

Joining on this episode to discuss what the FBI knew, the culture inside the Bureau, and how to address reforms, are Andrew McCabe and Asha Rangappa. Andrew served as the FBI’s Deputy Director and Acting Director during the Obama and Trump administrations, and Asha is a former FBI special agent. 

Show Notes:  

Paras Shah: Hello and welcome to the Just Security podcast. I’m your host, Paras Shah. Joining me as co-host of this episode is Just Security’s Co-Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Goodman. 

Ryan Goodman: Thanks, it’s great to be joining you on this one. 

Paras: The January 6th Committee is almost done with its work, and over the past year, we’ve learned a lot about thegroups and people involved in planning the attack. Because of the Committee, it’s now clear that law enforcement agencies knew about the attack ahead of time. But the Committee hasn’t explored what agencies like the FBI did with thatinformation. If they knew about the attack, why didn’t they act to stop it? 

To discuss what the FBI knew, the culture inside the Bureau, and how to address reforms, are Andrew McCabe and Asha Rangappa. Andrew served as the FBI’s Deputy Director and Acting Director during the Obama and Trump administrations, and Asha is a former FBI special agent. 

So, Asha, the January 6 attack prompted a lot of questions about what exactly the government knew in advance. What was the FBI senior leadership saying about its intelligence gathering after the attack?

Asha Rangappa: So one of the things that I think is a red flag is that in the immediate aftermath of the attack, you had conflicting narratives coming from the senior leadership. Initially, you had the leadership saying that they had no intelligence indicating that violence was going to take place, and this was contradicted just a few days later, by the same person, the deputy director, indicating that they did have intelligence and that they’ve actually taken some steps proactively to prevent people who they believed might engage in violence from traveling to the Capitol. 

And so I think that not until we heard some of the testimony from the January 6th committee and also from the Oath Keepers trial, have we really gotten a much bigger picture of what the FBI and other law enforcement agencies actually knew and were monitoring leading up to the events of January 6th. 

And of course, Just Security has an incredible timeline of the various pieces of intelligence and evidence that had been not just collected by different agencies, but also circulated and shared among them, including among task forces. So I think that's, I guess, sets us up for this discussion because it's just a puzzle right now that doesn't quite add up.

Ryan: So, Asha, just to continue on that thread a bit, can you just drill down a little bit more about what parts of the January 6th committee hearings and what parts of the Oath Keepers trial raise these kinds of concerns so that folks can understand, you know, what we're learning that's new, in the past, let's say, few days, weeks?  

Asha: Yeah, so I think that with the January 6th committee, and this was the most recent hearing, and to me the most explosive part of this was not only that there was intelligence received by the FBI and the Secret Service, but that it was being circulated and they were coordinating and monitoring it. I mean, it wasn't just this lack of connecting the dots where, you know, different things were coming to different field offices. We’ve seen that movie before with 9/11, where there were things happening and somehow not actually shared or potentially connected, and the January 6th committee revealed that that is not the situation that was going on here.

With regard to the Oath Keepers trial, I think that was even more startling because what you had there was evidence that the FBI actually had been warned as early as November by an informant who they had in the Oath Keepers with a recording with direct concerns that this group was going to quote, “go to war” with the United States government. I just don't see how you squared that with what was being said after the attack. And you know, maybe immediately after the attack you might be able to say, Okay, you know, sort of the fog of crisis, but this is, this is extending into June of that year when Director Wray is testifying. He's repeating this claim that the FBI didn't have any actionable intelligence and based on what I've seen come out to me, that is simply not true. I would be interested to hear Andrew's view on this

Andrew McCabe: I think that the answers to these questions that we've heard from senior leadership have been really concerning from the very beginning. And they unavoidably point in one of two very different directions, both of which raise significant concerns about how the FBI was doing its job, monitoring the threats from domestic extremism, in the lead up to January 6th.  

And so as Asha’s summarized initially what we heard was, “Oh, we didn't have anything. We didn't have any information at all.” Which, if that's true — which I don't believe that's accurate in light of the great summary that Asha’s put together in a piece — but if that's true, then the question is, well, why not? The FBI's job on the intelligence side is to collect exactly that sort of threat intelligence and to understand what sort of threat these individuals in these groups pose to the United States, and let's not forget that the FBI's number one priority, which has been the same since 9/11, is to prevent an act of terrorism in the United States. So that's all part of that prevention effort. 

But very quickly after, we then heard, oh, well, you know, there was this one intelligence report out of the Norfolk field office and that was just kind of, you know, a little bit of stray voltage and it made its way to the command post at WFO, and was there for, I'm not even gonna say shared, they said shared. I don't think it was effectively shared with partners, but it was made available to anybody who was in the command post at that time or who had a presence on the task force, the JTTF, the Joint Terrorism Task Force. And so they kind of entered into this period of dismissing the Norfolk report and the things that came up after it as these low level, not particularly relevant, pieces of raw intelligence that really didn't point in any particular direction.

But what we now know is there were many such reports, and in fact large swaths of the law enforcement and intelligence were seeing very troubling rhetoric online. We're seeing very troubling conversations in some of the well-known, more extreme forums, all of which are open source and available to anybody to, I should say, much of which are open source. And, you know, there's few restrictions on viewing that sort of information. And they just didn't, it seemed more over time, like they weren't, they had access to that material. They just either weren't looking at it or were looking at it and dismissing it, not drawing the sort of conclusions that, clearly in hindsight, they should have drawn. 

So, the question for me from the very beginning has always been first, what did the FBI know in the lead up to January 6th? And then second, why didn't they know more? If the answer to that is they didn't know anything, then why is that? And then third, what did they do with what they knew? What kind of analytical decisions and analysis and assessments did they draw from the information they had available to them at the time? And I think what we're learning now is they had indeed many more pieces of information, many other sources of information who could have given them extraordinary visibility into some of the specific planning and, and some of these groups, but we still don't know what they were doing with that.

Ryan: This question I recognize asks you both to speculate. What do you think is the best explanation or set of explanations?  Do you have a sense of where you think the study of this question will lead or what you think might be, have been going on based on what, you know, we have as publicly available information? 

Andrew: I think that's a very hard question, Ryan, to answer at this point, because there's been so little transparent work done so far about understanding exactly what the FBI knew. And like I said, if the answer to the question is, you know, well, they didn't know really anything — which I don't think that's the answer — but hypothetically, if that's the answer to the question, they didn't, then the answers they had, they weren't generating the right informants, they weren't placing those informants in the right places to collect the sort of threat information that we need, and that opens up a whole area of potential problems that need to be remedied and fixed. We need to learn lessons from that. We need to maybe redistribute those counter-terrorism resources and rethink the sort of requirements that we're pushing out to the field and that are driving our intelligence collection.

If the answer is they had a lot of information, but they just didn't put it together in the right ways, they didn't draw the right conclusions, they didn't make the correct assessments about what they were seeing, then that opens up a different set of possible causes, right? And when you add to that, the fact that certainly at the senior leadership level, they were working for an administration that very clearly didn't want to hear about the threats coming from the kind of extreme far right of the political spectrum, an administration that was pretty well known for not wanting to focus on kind of domestic violence extremist issues, then that inextricably raises the question of, well, were they not looking in that direction? Were they not thinking about that? Were they not creating finished intelligence products on those issues because they were concerned about the reception they would get? I don't know that that was the case, but it’s certainly a possible cause and one that should be looked into vigorously and we need to know the answer to that.

Asha: Yeah. I will add to what Andy just said. You need to follow the trail of each of these pieces of evidence or tips and understand where the breakdown happened. This is what happened with the 9/11 Commission. So for example, you know, they were able to see that an agent in Minneapolis did report Zacharia Moussaoui, you know, as having this suspicious approach to wanting to take flight lessons and only wanting to take off and not land. What happened with that? Well, this illuminates the problem of the wall, right? We learn that this issue, that they couldn't get the FISA, they didn't want to open a criminal investigation because they didn't want to thwart the possibility of getting a FISA later. And this then leads to very specific policy solutions later.

Similarly, there wasn't evidence being shared between the CIA and the FBI. This leads to more porousness between the intelligence community. We right now, even with what I mention in my piece and what's laid out in the Just Security table that you've put together, Ryan, we know that these existed, but we haven't followed the trail of what happened with each of them at a granular level. Like whose desk did it land on and what did that person do with it, right? Because sometimes, I feel like my initial inclination was to give the FBI the benefit of the doubt. Institutions are big, they're slow, they're bureaucratic. 

It can happen that there's a lot going on and because especially with an institution like the FBI that has been conditioned for 20 years to think of terrorism in a very specific way, may not be suddenly able to turn on a dime and put this picture together, in a way that they became very adept at doing with international terrorism, but I think, is complicated by the fact that I don't think this was just systemic, or at least that's not to me the only variable that we need to look at as well.

Paras: That's a great segue into our next question. So, I want to touch a little bit on some press reporting around the culture of the FBI, so at least for some of its agents. So what is the culture that's being reported and what are the implications for the Bureau and the other types of law enforcement activities that it engages with?

Asha: I think by and large, the reporting suggests a culture of a law enforcement agency that is very diligently doing its job, right? I mean, we've had hundreds of prosecutions of people who were on the ground on January 6th. We've had seditious conspiracy charges brought against militia groups. We see from the affidavits, from the court filings that these agents are doing very in depth, serious investigations. There is reporting, though, that suggests that there is a strain within the FBI that is resisting these efforts, and I think the question is how pervasive is it and how much of it is affecting decision making at the top. 

So for example, there was reporting pretty early that the FBI had no evidence that the violence was coordinated, that this, you know, I guess it was just apparently spontaneous and that these militia groups were, you know, in contact with Roger Stone or Alex Jones, and this was very quickly disproven by the fact that the Oath Keepers were charged with seditious conspiracy. And so it felt to me that that was very premature, and I have to question why that would be put out there, when it was clearly just false.

There’s also, more recently, this was in the wake of the January 6th hearing, a letter that was sent to the deputy director, uh, expressing concerns about agents who sympathize with January 6th, or who felt that these prosecutions were overblown, and that made it sound like that was present in multiple field offices, like that it wasn't necessarily contained in one office. Then there's, you know, was actually an agent who was suspended for refusing to carry out a SWAT raid on a January 6th defendant, and who also claimed that he, you know, he felt that this was unconstitutional, infringement on political expression, suggested that, uh, his views were, were shared. 

And there have been hints that the delay in really focusing on Trump in his inner circle was coming in part from senior FBI agents who were resisting moving in that direction. I think it raises the question of what is going on here culturally. I would like to think that it's, you know, that this is a minority. I think it is. But I think that a minority can still have some influence depending on who they are and where they are, I think, and Andy would know better than I.

Ryan: Andy, I guess that is actually, the very question I'd love to ask you about and pick your brain because you've, you've been there as the deputy director, you've sat in the chair of the director where the buck stops with you. How do you think about this? Do you think about it as two problem sets? Do you think that they're related in a way that you would tackle them similarly? So, what I mean by that is this potential problem set that Asha just laid out about ongoing issues, potentially within the Bureau now, that have sympathies in a certain sense with what happened on January 6th, or resistance in a certain sense to the efforts towards accountability for former President Trump. That's one set. And then the other one is everything that we've been discussing up until this point in terms of what on earth happened before January 6th, and at what point does the director just say, buck does stop here and we need to have a fulsome after action review. 

Andrew: They are at least, um, at the outset, two different issues. That's how I see them. If you think of issue one as being the FBI's performance in the lead up to January 6th, and issue two being this potential cultural issue, whether or not people with strong political beliefs are allowing those beliefs to kind of color in some way, the way they approach their work. You'll never know if issue two was the cause of issue one until you go back and really focus on issue one and do a fulsome internal review of everything that led up to January 6th. And by that I mean those things we just talked about a minute ago. What information did we have? What information should we have had and what did we do with the information we had? What sort of assessments and conclusions did we draw? 

And it is possible that by working through that process, you know, maybe you determine that, the answer to the question of why we came up with incorrect assessments of the threat, maybe that was based on a cultural bias. I don't know the answer to that, but you're not gonna know that until you go in and do it. And I should also say that to me is, most importantly the focus of an internal review because no outsider, not the IG, not even Congress, is going to be able to come in and really peel back the confidential source reporting and understand it, put it in context in the way that you need to, to do that review. An outsider's not gonna be able to do that. You need experienced FBI agents and DOJ attorneys to really walk through that matter. 

As to your cultural question, I really did not see in my time, maybe there's only one time that this issue of personal political beliefs really kind of bubbled to the forefront in a way that took me by surprise. And, um, I should say twice, maybe I guess. The first and most significant time was in the aftermath of our infamous July 5th announcement to the world that we did not wish to request an indictment of Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of the email case. And there was a very, very strong kind of backlash to that announcement from inside the organization. All kinds of people were very frustrated with the fact that like Hillary Clinton was not gonna be prosecuted, which really struck me at the time because like if you would think one audience would understand the logic that we laid out, the reasons why we didn't think the case was sufficient, we didn't think there was enough evidence to even request such an action, you would think the one audience would understand that is professional investigators and people who work around the criminal process.

But, it was really striking to me how many people really disregarded all that, really didn't listen to anything we said and just were, vocalizing their disappointment with the fact that they weren't gonna get to see someone who they didn't like go to jail. And, of course a lot of that sentiment began leaking out to the media, particularly from the New York Field office and to people like Rudy Giuliani, we believe, and others. And that was very damaging, uh, to the organization. 

You know, later with the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, obviously the revelation of personal texts between people working on the case that indicated their political feelings about Trump and other candidates, like that was also a really corrosive thing for the Bureau. But, you know, in that case, like I worked very closely with both those people, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, and I know that like, that didn't ever come out in their work. That's not something that apparently they were discussing personally, but did not come out in, to my observation, in any of the work that they actually did on the case. So, you know, it's there, people have political opinions, but for the vast majority of the time, FBI agents don't bring that to the table in the work that they do. 

However, now you have this letter that's been released that Asha brought up — the email, I'm sorry, to the deputy director. And on top of that, you have this concern that, you know, maybe that sort of bias or inclination had an impact on the work the Bureau was doing leading up to January 6th. I think you absolutely have to look into it and beyond just looking into it, this is a time for the FBI leadership to really stand up and take a firm stand with their internal audience, which is always the most important, about how you don't do that. That's not what FBI people do. You know, you have to put those personal feelings, plus or minus for a political candidate or a party aside, particularly when you're involved in work that impacts those sorts of topics. Um, but again, we haven't really seen that from FBI senior leadership either.

Asha: We also haven't talked about kind of a sub-issue there, which is the culture of leaking, and that seems to, at least to some degree, still be there. I would love to know from Andy, like, is that something new that also surfaced in 2016? Because I just didn't have the bird's eye view that you did, but like, I don't recall in the time when I was there, you know, ever contemplating that anyone would leak about a FISA application, for example, or ongoing investigations. I don't, and I don't recall them coming up in mainstream media, so I assume that that wasn't happening. 

Some of these leaks, at least at that time, could have been coming from the Hill as well. So I don't wanna pin the blame completely on the Bureau, but it does seem like the OIG was not completely off.  

Andrew: Yeah, well, we were really struck by the amount of leaking that was happening in 2016 and at the end of the Clinton email case and the, you know, beginning of the Russia case.

Now, I should also say there's a lot of work that we did around those sensitive cases that didn't leak. But nevertheless, Director Comey and I were greatly concerned about some of the stories that were showing up in the media. And then like as we continued into 2017, you know, we had the same concerns.

So, we put together an effort to really kind of dig down on it. We looked at FBI telephones, and this'll drive my friends and colleagues in the media a little insane, but you know we just decided to look at our FBI telephones and to see how many of them were actually in contact with known media numbers.

We have a media department, and they have the phone numbers of reporters and media institutions. So it's not, it wasn't hard to combine those two lists. And what we saw was a lot of contact. 

We also realized that the internal policies and, more specifically, the lack of guidance on those policies created a really confusing background.

So, if people were actually wondering what they could or couldn't do with respect to media, it was kind of hard for them to know. The policies weren't clear. It wasn't like absolutely, you know, black and white. Where's the line drawn? Who, above what level are you allowed and expected to interact with the media, and below what level do you need to get special approval, that sort of thing?

So, we redrafted all those policies and that was a long process. That was only just being completed right around the time that I left in 2018. But we kind of rebuilt the FBI's media policies and the authorization levels and stuff, and had DOJ approve all that. But it was actually the phone analysis that revealed a remarkable number of contacts.

That's what led to the IG investigation. We basically handed all that stuff over to the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility. They, everything that comes in the door for them, they show to the IG. The IG gets kind of right of first refusal on those investigations.

The IG, as I understand it, ended up taking that investigation, and really nothing has ever come of it that I'm aware of. I mean, maybe one or two people I've seen have been disciplined for some media interaction, but remarkably few. So, I think one of the things that we noticed during that time, well, we thought was a likely contributing cause was the fact that, you know, things have changed dramatically in the last decade or so in terms of people's understanding about just sharing, right? This concept of, like, publicizing all sorts of aspects of your private life on social media and sharing your opinions about things and things like that.

I just think that the FBI that I left in 2018, the kind of attitude among employees about issues like sharing and talking about your work and things like that are very different than the FBI that I came into in 1996. Just, you know, things change over time, and it was time to kind of reorient the Bureau as to how to be a better steward protecting that information.

Paras: what should reform efforts look like here? Beyond a director-led review, what else needs to change and how do you implement those types of policy changes?

Asha: Well, the reforms have to be driven by what are identified as the failures, and I think that's what I was getting at with the example of the 9/11 commission. And so really the review is the first step, because you just don't know what it's going to illuminate, whether it is a change in the AG guidelines, whether there needs to be different protocols. 

I mean, there were so many things that happened after 9/11 and there was legislation too. The Patriot Act was passed, I mean, to make it easier to conduct certain kinds of investigations, because I think it would be unfair to say that the FBI was not constrained in any way.

I mean, domestic terrorism is, can be very tricky, and the FBI has a checkered past. And, you know, political association intersects with criminal activity. This is not a great combination for a law enforcement agency, and I think that it may be that legislatively that needs to be looked at with appropriate guardrails and things put in place, but the ability to be more robust, to the extent that there were legal constraints or perceived legal constraints in, in doing things. 

But I do think that it all has to start with the review. And I think, where we are, and I think the problem is, what Andrew identified, which is it seems like you can really drill down into those failures only from an internal perspective, I mean, to get really granular about it, and if Wray isn't willing to do that, I suppose you, I mean, my suggestion in my piece was that congressional committees need to get involved and I suppose there you get public answers, but you still don't get to the bottom of what happened.

And unfortunately, the January 6th committee is not situated similarly to the 9/11 Commission. The 9/11 commission existed solely for the purpose of figuring out what went wrong and I think the January 6th committee has so many different threads and I think is really looking for accountability for particular players. 

Andrew: I think first, the point needs to be made that the purpose of this sort of review that we're talking about, it's not about holding individuals accountable for, you know, malfeasance, like a sort of an IG investigation is kind of, that's typically the footing that they start off on.

This is about doing the work better, about improving as an organization, about acknowledging that you came up short, um, tragically short, and what is your number one priority. And so how do we avoid that problem going forward? And,as a senior leader in the organization, like that should be keeping Christopher Wray up at night since January 6th.

Like, I would not be comfortable that my counter-terrorism division wasn't running on all cylinders 24/7, especially on this threat. A threat that domestic violent extremism that the FBI itself says is their number one terrorism threat right now. So like until, you know, what led to the mistakes, or the oversight or whatever it was that led to January 6th that you can't really be comfortable that you'll be able to stop the next one wherever that or whatever that might be.

So I think it's absolutely essential that they do that sort of internal review, whether Congress has to force them to do it or not is a good question. That's an option, right? You see, you haven't seen any stated willingness on the part of the current FBI leadership to do that on their own. So maybe now is the time for Congress to come in and say, here's, you know, your funding for next year is gonna depend on X or whatever.

So I don't think you can really, I agree, you can't really be much more specific than that until you know exactly where the shortcomings were. In, you know, 2013, we thought we had done an amazing job on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. And we actually had, we did some amazing work there, but when we look back at it, we realize that there were some problems in the lead up to that attack, and we weren't sharing information as completely and robustly as we should be within our joint terrorism task forces.

We only figured that out because there were some, you know, not so clean handoffs in the Boston JTTF with respect to the information about the Tsarnaevs. And so, we took, when we figured that out, we changed the way the joint terrorism task forces around the country closed in open cases to make sure that their local counterparts were aware of anything that might be, uh, coming onto their radar. 

So, I mean, that's just one example. Um, the Fort Hood shooting is another great example that Asha discusses in her piece and on, and on, and on. It's just very curious to me that we haven't seen that sort of effort, uh, after January 6th. 

Paras: Let's wrap it up there. Asha, Andy, thank you so much for your insights.   

Ryan: Thank you both, that was really tremendous.

Paras: The Just Security podcast is produced in partnership with NYU's American Journalism Online program. This episode was co-hosted by Paras Shah and Ryan Goodman. It was edited and mixed by Ben Montoya. Our music is the song “The Parade” by Hey Pluto!

Special thanks to Ryan Goodman, Alex Kapelman, Andrew McCade, and Asha Rangappa 

If you enjoyed this episode, please give us a five star rating on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.