DHS has to account for what it knew about the Capitol riot, but didn’t tell anyone

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Congress, the Justice Department and the courts continue to deal with the break-in at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The Homeland Security Department is dealing with issues of its own. A report from its office of inspector general found that the department’s Intelligence and Analysis office had threat information, but didn’t tell everyone it should have....

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Congress, the Justice Department and the courts continue to deal with the break-in at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The Homeland Security Department is dealing with issues of its own. A report from its office of inspector general found that the department’s Intelligence and Analysis office had threat information, but didn’t tell everyone it should have. Joining the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with more, DHS Principal Deputy Inspector General Glenn Sklar.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Sklar, good to have you back.

Glenn Sklar: Great to be here, Tom.

Tom Temin: And I guess the principal finding is that yes, they did have open source, legitimately obtained information about the Capitol Hill insurrection, riot, break in, whatever you want to call it, but it didn’t get out. So give us what you generally looked at and what you’ve generally found here.

Glenn Sklar: Yeah, as you might imagine, Tom has spent a great deal of interest in learning about Homeland Security’s role in the run up to the events of Jan. 6, and specifically how the Department of Homeland Security’s Intelligence Component performed in ferreting out potential risks. The Intelligence Unit is supposed to provide DHS and its federal, state and local partners with timely intelligence to keep the homeland safe. And as hoped, the Intelligence Gathering Unit actually did uncover a variety of risks hiding right in plain sight prior to Jan. 6. For example, the group found that the Jan. 6 event organizers are actually encouraging attendees to bring weapons to the Capitol on Jan. 6. They also found that there were threats of violence against various law enforcement agencies. They also saw individuals boasting online about sacrificing their lives while conducting violence at the U.S. Capitol. And again, we’ve looked at thousands of emails and text messages from the Intelligence Group. And we can see that the Homeland Security employees collecting this information, they’re becoming increasingly concerned about the prospect of real trouble on Jan. 6, and I could share a couple of those messages with you if you’d like.

Tom Temin: We’d like that. Let me just make sure that we clarify that the IMA Unit does use open source, they don’t have any wiretaps, and they don’t have anything like other elements of the IC might have, the intelligence community. So this was not something that they got in in nefarious manner.

Glenn Sklar: That’s exactly right. It’s all open source information. It’s information out there in the public domain. Let me just share with you a couple text messages from concerned DHS intelligence employees that they share with their coworkers, you know, basically information they found online, “I found a map of all the exits and entrances to the Capitol building. I feel like people are actually going to try and hurt politicians. Jan. 6 is going to be crazy.”

And here’s one more message shared between two coworkers, each responsible for collecting what we talked about this open source intelligence, where they express concerns about the future. And here’s the quote, “I mean people are talking about storming Congress, bringing guns, willing to die for the cause, hanging politicians with rope.”

So as you can see, Tom, there are serious concerns expressed by these DHS employees to each other in private text conversations between themselves in advance. They weren’t shared with federal, state and local officials,

Tom Temin: Right. And there is one little twist in what they’re supposed to do. And that is be able to sort out actual, what they consider true threats versus hyperbole. And is there any sliver of chance they thought this was the hyperbole and not really a threat?

Glenn Sklar: I think that was a real problem. I think they were actually somewhat worried that these were just exaggerated folks boasting online, and that they weren’t real threats that were actionable, and that they could do something about.

Tom Temin: Right. So they didn’t create what you call an intelligence communication or an intelligence product, although they did, but it came out on June 8, which was a little bit late.

Glenn Sklar: Yeah, right. That’s not so helpful. Yeah, we found three main problems with the Intelligence Group. First, many of the individuals that were tracking what was happening online, they’re really inexperienced in the limited training. Second, the individuals tracking online activities, they didn’t follow those existing intelligence guidelines. And they demonstrated some sort of cognitive bias. What do I mean by that? Example, were the threats that I just read to you those quotes with a really hyperbole? Are they legitimate threats that required action, and in the end, the intelligence community employees tracking online communications, thought the storming of the U.S. Capitol was unlikely or simply not possible, so they didn’t act. And finally, I want us to look at the event in the context of its time. The office that we reviewed, specifically, the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, had just been criticized for being too aggressive, and reporting open source information about the unrest in Portland, Oregon, now starting summer 2020. And in that case, inexperienced employees scooped up information about journalists, and they were heavily criticized for doing that. So as you might imagine, as a result, the information collectors told us they were quite reticent about drawing conclusions about the Jan. 6 risks. And in the end, They didn’t move this information forward to federal, state and local law enforcement partners,

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Glenn Sklar, principal deputy inspector general at the Homeland Security Department. So basically, they were gun shy to use a bad metaphor. But ordinarily, who would they have shared this information with? Or should they have?

Glenn Sklar: Typically it would go to federal, state and local partners, and there’s a network that they would share it widely. They would obviously shared across all of the different DHS law enforcement entities here too, such as the Secret Service or TSA, the Federal Protective Service.

Tom Temin: And is there some sort of medium by which they do this officially, like a LEO (law enforcement officer) type of network that those that would have to respond would be looking for?

Glenn Sklar: There actually is an official network, and unfortunately, that official network was not used for this purpose. We share it somewhat informally. But typically, it would go through the Homeland Security Intelligence Network.

Tom Temin: And did you ask them why they sent the information out after the fact? Because I guess by then they knew that it really did happen?

Glenn Sklar: Well, it was a little bit late. The bottom line is, you know, we’re hoping that in the future, they act much more quickly, and they really do follow the policy. And we did have a few recommendations for them, Tom, first and foremost, they need to be better trained, especially the new employees. They need faster turnaround time for intelligence products going to our federal, state and local partners. They need to develop policies on the timely issuance of warnings. And they definitely need greater redundancy across DHS intelligence community in terms of sharing threats. So you know, there is one bit of hopeful news here to end on, Tom, the Intelligence Group was incredibly helpful and cooperative during the course of our work. They did give us broad access to all the documents, to all the witnesses, they made them available. And they’ve already begun to implement our recommendations.

Tom Temin: But there’s one question that still bugs me a little bit, because you said they were inexperienced, and they had been kind of burned by what had happened earlier in Portland. Was there no experienced person around that they could take this email or take this what they were seeing and saying, what do you think? I mean, it seems like you would have some counsel, some collaboration with someone and old hand at it, before deciding we’ll just sit on it.

Glenn Sklar: Not really, the majority of the information collectors have less than one year of experience. And to the extent that they had access to more experienced personnel, they themselves were somewhat inexperienced. So really, it’s a fairly new organization that was really getting set, they just expanded and the timing was just very, very unfortunate.

Tom Temin: And has the department moved to make sure that that process happens, that there’s an oversight to it or a place they can check upward, you know, up the ladder to make sure that their hunches are valid?

Glenn Sklar: Yeah, they’re definitely improving their training for new collectors. And they certainly are making more experienced personnel available to these entry level folks.

Tom Temin: I mean, DHS is the agencies that originated if you see something, say something. So this seems to be a good kind of case history in that.

Glenn Sklar: Obviously, if you see something before Jan. 6, you want to say something, not on Jan. 8. But again, we’re hopeful that they are taking our recommendations and suggestions seriously, and we do feel that the future should be brighter.

Tom Temin: All right. Glenn Sklar is principal deputy inspector general at Homeland Security. Thanks so much for joining me.

Glenn Sklar: Thank you very much, Tom. Great to be here.

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