9/11 and January 6: the Enormous Cost of intelligence Failure

Photograph Source: Tyler Merbler – CC BY 2.0

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

—Yogi Berra

There are two major types of intelligence failure: classic failures involving incorrect or unexamined assumptions and a failure to incorporate new information, and the politicization of intelligence that finds political interference corrupting intelligence production.  Classic failures include Pearl Harbor in December 1941, when the United States had the advantage of deciphering Japanese diplomatic codes, and the surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack against Israel in October 1973, when the United States had knowledge of Soviet actions that indicated the likelihood of war.  Politicized intelligence in the 1980s was responsible for the Central Intelligence Agency’s failure to track the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in 1991; politicization also created the phony justification for the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The 9/11 terror attacks and the insurrection on January 6th were classic failures, with flawed assumptions leading to the failure to incorporate new evidence into intelligence products.  In 2001, the CIA assumed the terror attack would take place against U.S. bases or facilities on foreign soil, and did not sufficiently consider the weaponization of commercial aircraft flying in the United States.  In 2020, various law enforcement and intelligence agencies assumed that the protests scheduled for January 6th would be in the name of free speech and the First Amendment.  They did not anticipate the involvement of so many militia groups; a super Trump rally; and Trump’s incitement of a violent attack on a specific target.  They did anticipate a violent effort to reverse the results of a presidential election that would involve the taking of hostages or even worse.

In both 2001 and 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not believe foreign or domestic terrorists had the organization and the wherewithal to exact such an horrific attack.  In virtually every intelligence failure, there was ample information available that warranted discarding the prevailing assumption or at least questioning the fixed notions that became conventional wisdom.

Several days after the attack on the Capitol, the head of the FBI’s Washington field office stated that the FBI lacked any information beforehand regarding a rally to be more than a defense of free speech.  A day before the riot, however, an FBI office in Virginia submitted an internal advisory that extremists were preparing to commit violence at the Capitol.  Intelligence units within the New York Police Department, which are some of the best available in the United States, submitted similar reporting to the FBI.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created in the wake of 9/11 in order to monitor and anticipate domestic terrorism, apparently provided no helpful intelligence.

It is the politicization of the DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) and the ineptitude of the FBI that is primarily responsible for the failure to warn about the domestic threat.  Our key intelligence collection agencies, CIA and the National Security Agency, are permitted by law and charter to collect intelligence only outside of the United States.  In view of the intelligence failure of 9/11, which included the failure to “connect the dots” and to share intelligence with relevant agencies, DHS’ I&A was designed to be the center of the effort against domestic terrorism.  I&A submitted no reporting that raised the possibility of violence on January 6th.

According to a whistleblower, Brian Murphy, the former head of I&A, the White House demanded that his office concentrate on foreign threats as well as Muslim threats at home, and  downplay the domestic threat except for such left-wing groups as antifa.  Murphy maintained he was ordered to downplay the public safety risk from domestic extremists, particularly right-wing groups.  Trump’s sycophantic following is still maintaining that January 6th was a false-flag operation and that antifa had infiltrated the ranks of the legitimate protesters at the Capitol.

There were also circumstantial matters that contributed to the horrific events of January 6th.  There had been legitimate criticism of the Department of Defense for their heavy-handed participation in the ugliness at Lafayette Square on June 1st in order to create a photo-op for the president.  And there was legitimate criticism of the Department of Justice as well as DHS for their heavy-handed role in containing legitimate protests of civilians in Portland and Seattle. These departments were particularly opposed to involving military forces in the defense of the Capitol.

The most stunning failure was the ineptitude of both the House and Senate sergeants-of-arms, who had law enforcement backgrounds, and failed to pass along essential information.  We need to learn why the FBI was unable or unwilling to coordinate a federal response to possible violence on January 6th.

Some agencies did make sure they were positioned to protect themselves, if not the Capitol.  For example, the Department of Justice had its Bureau of Prisons send 100 officers to supplement security at its headquarters building.  There were also law enforcement officers from the Bureau of Prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement deployed to the Reagan building.  If the FBI had done its job correctly, it would have coordinated a federal response to a crisis that seemed to be unfolding in real time.  The FBI maintains a watch list of potential terrorists and garden variety troublemakers yet ignored more robust security measures even with many watch listed individuals in Washington at the same time and place.

The key to the intelligence failure as opposed to the implementation failure is the institutional downgrading of white supremacist violence at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI.  Intelligence analysts at DHS understood the problem, but the politicization of the DHS obscured the issue.  The FBI, thanks to the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover, always exaggerated the role of Black extremist groups, which meant that Blacks never received equal protection under the law.  Domestic police departments and the entire federal government contribute to the problem by not comprehensively tracking right-wing violence in this country.  On January 6th, the executive and legislative branches of the government were put at risk as a result of downplaying white supremacist violence over the past 15 years.

Whenever a costly intelligence failure takes place, conspiratorial thinking typically emerges to provide dangerous explanations for the cause of the failure.  In the wake of Pearl Harbor, conspiracists and even historians contended that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had advance warning of the Japanese attack, but preferred to allow it in order to get the country to enter World War II.  In other words, an American president allowed the destruction of a large element of our Pacific Fleet that would be essential to a war with Japan.  The 9/11 attacks, a classic intelligence failure, led to conspiracies that it was an “inside job” because American Jews didn’t go to work on Wall Street that day (anti-semitic conspiracists) or that an office that belonged to the CIA was spared destruction.  Thanks to Hollywood director Oliver Stone, there are still conspiracy thinkers who argue that the CIA and Vice President Lyndon Johnson were involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Immediately after the events of January 6th, there were similar accusations of an “inside job,” which former CIA director John Brennan stated on MSNBC last week in describing “considered decisions” made at the highest levels of the government to ensure inadequate protection at the Capitol.  In view of the damage that Donald Trump has done to the United States by sowing discord and distrust, we don’t need Brennan and others contributing to our polarization and instability by circulating charges without evidence.  Brennan is exploiting his title as a “former CIA director” and contributing to Trump’s discordant efforts.

We do need a 9/11-type commission to investigate everything that went wrong in the run-up to January 6th.  It was under Donald Trump that legitimate demonstrators, dissidents, and protesters became national security issues. An insurrection involving white supremacists apparently set off lesser alarms.  We know that DHS tracked the communications of protestors in Portland and Seattle, but not in the nation’s capital.  The announcement of several Inspector General investigations presumably will allow us to learn how Washington, D.C. became a petri dish for the possible death of democracy. We don’t need half-cocked conspiracy thinkers adding to the anxieties and wrongheadedness associated with these horrific events.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.