Elaborate Network of Joint U.S. Federal-State-Local Intel Centres Conveniently Useless Before Jan. 6

Elaborate Network of Joint U.S. Federal-State-Local Intel Centres Conveniently Useless Before Jan. 6
A billboard on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest in Washington, DC, on Jan. 9. 2021. (Photo: Al Drago, Getty Images)

Shocker! The massive joint U.S. federal-state-local surveillance apparatus that supposedly keeps the nation safe from terrorism shrugged and gave up before the Jan 6. riots at the Capitol, which killed five people and sparked a national crisis.

Per the Wall Street Journal, which reviewed internal documents and interviewed current and former officials, offices called fusion centres — which handle joint federal-state-local intelligence-sharing arrangements — across the country dug up ample evidence of what was coming. They issued reports that right-wing extremists were increasingly using violent rhetoric regarding congressional certification of the 2020 election results, discussing arming themselves, and even openly sharing information about how best to storm the Capitol building during Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 rally. Fusion centre chiefs “convened a rare national call to discuss alarming information they were gathering” on Jan. 4, sources told the Journal.

Then senior officials in a position to do, like, anything about it promptly sent those warnings to their trash folders and went back to eating doughnuts or whatever. Per the Journal:

“Nothing significant to report,” read a Jan. 5 national summary from DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis that was sent to law enforcement across the country, according to a copy reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The office is responsible for monitoring threats online and sharing them with federal, state and local law enforcement.

According to the Journal, an FBI field office specifically reported that rabid Trump supporters were circulating maps of the Capitol building, while the Department of Homeland Security issued bulletins that the risk of violence was elevated leading up to the rally. But when reached for comment by the paper, both agencies said they hadn’t issued official joint intelligence bulletins due to the lack of “specific” or “credible” threats. The FBI told the Journal said it discouraged specific individuals from attending and set up command posts and tactical teams near the Capitol, while DHS explained it had “nothing significant” to report on Jan. 5 because it didn’t anticipate Trump inciting the crowd.

The FBI’s Norfolk, Virginia office did post a warning on Jan. 5 of online message board traffic showing violent intent towards members of Congress, and this was circulated through a joint anti-terrorism task force in the DC region. But according to the Journal, it was never acted on.

While the Journal characterised the systemic failure as stemming from a structure focused on foreign attacks rather than threats posed by U.S. citizens, that’s not really true. Fusion centres have played a huge role in domestic police crackdowns in recent years — so long as the targets of intelligence-gathering are protesters, left-wing activists, and minority groups.

Fusion centres across the U.S. have tightly monitored and disseminated intelligence on the Occupy Wall Street movement; protesters against Islamophobia, police brutality and racism; environmental and anti-pipeline demonstrators; immigration advocates; and even non-political events with tangential ties to Black Lives Matter movement (or no ties, other than that they were organised by Black communities.)

In many of these cases, fusion centre involvement was accompanied by massive and sometimes indiscriminate use of force by authorities. DHS intelligence documents leaked to the Nation showed that the agency discussed dealing with “violent opportunists” at Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 as a counter-terrorism issue, and that it uses fusion centres as a way to blur jurisdictions. Sometimes when a particularly juicy rumour began floating through the fusion centre network it sparked police training exercises and the creation of elaborate emergency plans, such as joint FBI-Iowa Division of Intelligence and Fusion Centre drills in 2019 to prepare officers for the imaginary threat of environmentalists sabotaging windmills. Fusion centres also often devote extensive resources to completely useless monitoring of things like “Criminal and Violent Extremist Use of Emojis” or non-existent plots to break Tiger King’s Joe Exotic out of prison.

The Journal reported that then-acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf had declined to declare a “national special security event,” which would put the Secret Service in charge of coordinating security, before the Jan. 6 rally.

The head of the DHS Intelligence and Analysis office, Brian Murphy, was ousted in August 2020 amid congressional scrutiny of the agency’s tracking of journalists and activists involved in protests against the police killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd. In response, sources told the Journal, DHS scaled back its night-shift analysis team and instituted rules that prohibited reporting of the kind of “veiled or indirect threats” that preceded the Jan. 6 rally. Wolf and other Trump-appointed goons at DHS also reportedly pressured the agency’s analysts that year to water down language on the growing threat of white supremacist terrorism and conflate right-wing extremists with the anti-fascist movement, a favourite bogeyman of the Trump administration.

“The issue here was not the lack of intelligence or the lack of information,” DC-area fusion centre chief Christopher Rodriguez told members of Congress last week, according to the Journal. “The issue here was the inability, or the unwillingness, to act on the intelligence.”

Following the failed insurrection at the Capitol, many politicians and prominent figures in the national security community have been calling for the U.S. to implement a domestic terrorism statute. Some, such as Rodriguez, specifically called for an expansion of fusion centres. A draft bill titled the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act supported by some congressional Democrats would have the FBI, DHS, and Department of Justice create “dedicated offices” to “monitor, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism.”

Perhaps these agencies and their state and local police partners already have more than enough resources at their disposal, but simply decide threats aren’t “credible” when they’re draped in the flag. There’s no guarantee granting them any new, unnecessary powers will result in anything but these same agencies doubling down on targeting left-wing activists and protest movements.

“Who do we really think these high-tech tools are going to be used against?” MediaJustice campaign strategies director Myaisha Hayes told BuzzFeed. “Technology is not going to be a solution to take to address the years of brutality and years of state-sanctioned violence that communities of colour have experienced at the hands of the police through technology.”