Saturday, July 30, 2022

The Calls Weren't Coming From Inside the Bureau

The Washington Post decries the flawed investigation of a crime without suggesting that a crime necessarily took place. Photo via bendydiaries.

This may turn out to be kind of unimportant and boring, but I've put too much into it to stop—about an old January 6 story that came up in a dust-up between esteemed commenters on Wednesday's post—and it touches on some general matters that have been preoccupying me for a long time, on how we're to go about looking at reality.

The story, which appeared in competing versions in Mother Jones and The Guardian on Halloween Day 2021, was extracted from a massive investigative piece (16 reporters are listed in the byline) that had come out earlier that day in the Washington Post, laying out everything they could learn about the insurrection considered as a security failure, as far as their sources understood it at that point, and it  focused, as The Guardian wrote it up, on one particular dereliction attributed to the FBI:

Among information that came officials’ way in the weeks before what turned into a riot as lawmakers met to certify the results of the presidential election was a 20 December tip to the FBI that supporters of Donald Trump were discussing online how to sneak guns into Washington to “overrun” police and arrest members of Congress, according to internal bureau documents obtained by the Post.

The tip included details showing those planning violence believed they had orders from the president, used code words such as “pickaxe” to describe guns, and posted the times and locations of four spots around the country for caravans to meet the day before the joint session.

On one site, a poster specifically mentioned Mitt Romney, a Republican senator from Utah, as a target, the Post said....

An FBI official who assessed the tip noted that its criminal division received a “significant number” of alerts about threats to Congress and other government officials. The FBI passed the information to law enforcement agencies in Washington but did not pursue the matter, the Post said.

“The individual or group identified during the assessment does not warrant further FBI investigation at this time,” the internal report concluded, according to the Post.

But when I go back to the much more detailed (but unfortunately not too coherently written) WaPo account, a somewhat different story starts telling itself. Keeping the timeline in mind, for one thing, it's important to remember that December 20 was the day after Trump's "Will be wild!" tweet invited all the maniacs to Washington for January 6, and the maniacs were in high gear online: the Bureau and other agencies were flooded with reports of things like this from the Three Percenters—

American Patriots III% Recruiting (MeWe chat group)
January 6th is the last opportunity we will ever have. For a brief moment, we still hold power, we have the opportunity of a disputed election, and a call has gone out from our President. This, here, in two weeks is the fight. This is what all the preparation has been for.

—at first mostly "aspirational" like that one, showing an inclination or a mood; it was later that the organizing proper began:

“How much more of this s--- do you need to see … There is only one way. It’s not signs. It’s not rallies. It’s f---ing bullets!” read the post from a person identifying as an Oath Keeper.

[Social media observers for the Digital Forensic Research Lab] soon spotted a shift from threats to planning.

Members of self-styled militias from all over the country were sharing plans for protester convoys to Washington.

(The article doesn't say how "soon", but the earliest date I can find for an Ali Alexander Jan6 organizing video is the 23rd.)

The FBI wasn't simply ignoring the incoming on the 20th, in any case; it was working frantically to sort out the wheat from the chaff in preparation for a big teleconference on the 22nd, coordinating an approach to January 6, set up by the DC police with the participation of the Bureau, the Secret Service, the federal Park Police, and the Capitol Police; the tip highlighted in the Guardian story was just one of hundreds coming in that day. And there was something specifically useless about it that was also bothering me at the time. when you and I were wondering about the possibility of a regular coup d'état: How were they planning to do it? What was the connection between overturning the police and overturning the election?

Of the combined tips, an FBI official wrote: “None of these sites have specifics on what they’re going to do once they overturn the DC police. These sites are wanting to do this ‘because it will stop the steal.’ ”

Because the Bureau had a theory of its own of what the plan might be, and it was different, based on the different kind of violence Trump supporters had conducted in Washington in their demonstrations of November 14 and December 12, in street battles with counterprotestors:

The day after the Dec. 12 melee, D.C. police officials gathered and began reviewing the violence. Along with the vandalism of the church, officers reported several Proud Boys had worn earpieces and seemed to be communicating with one another to identify targets.

Within the FBI, many would draw the wrong lesson from that night — that the principal danger posed by Proud Boys or other extremist groups was street clashes. It would prove to be a grave miscalculation.

It's more or less the same theory I was to pick up a year later from Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, the Reichstag strategy in which the Proud Boys would create a pretext for Trump to declare emergency rule and postpone the transfer of power that way (I'm still attached to it, though I have to recognize that the idea of storming the Capitol was around considerably earlier than I'd supposed). So the FBI let the police in Louisville, Scranton, and Columbia (SC) know that convoys of Three Percenters might be congregating in their malls on the way to January 6, and moved on to the next tip. 

Anyway, I don't think it was such a grave miscalculation (a much worse one was their loss on New Year's Eve of access to their social media observation software, due to a long-planned upgrade); and in the particular case of the December 20 tips, they were right: nobody congregated in Louisville or Scranton or Columbia, nobody came to attack the DC police, and while a contingent of armed Three Percenters really did show up (one from Texas convicted last March, and six from California indicted in May—they'd been told their weapons were to defend themselves against "antifa"), they weren't a significant force.

And the focus on "antifa" wasn't just the FBI, either:

On Jan. 3, leaders at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, joined one in a series of conference calls to go over security concerns about Jan. 6. The group discussed the possibility of protesters targeting federal buildings. Most officials saw the biggest risk to be what one called the “same old” fighting between pro-Trump protesters and liberal demonstrators that had occurred at earlier rallies, particularly after sunset. O’Brien thought the biggest danger would be the counterprotesters — what the president referred to as antifa.

Another, larger theme the WaPo writers don't seem fully aware of themselves is that of institutional conflict, in particular between the FBI and other police forces on the one hand and the homeland security agency and its regional "fusion centers", who seem to have been the Post's most important sources, on the other. FBI in particular didn't have a lot of respect for the DHS personnel

For gun-carrying agents at the FBI and elsewhere, the nation’s network of fusion centers set up in response to 9/11 had long been viewed as producing uneven work. Some even disparagingly referred to them as “confusion centers.” Their mission was to keep tabs on open-source information and to make sure tips didn’t get lost between agencies. Yet early on, some social media posts that centers had flagged sent police on wild goose chases. “These guys often couldn’t find their lanes,” said one senior federal law enforcement official who was on the Dec. 22 call with the FBI and others.

and they weren't invited to that December 22 call. The fusion centers returned the poor opinion, regarding the Bureau as timid and director Christopher Wray as overly worried that Trump might fire him, and seem to have similarly failed to invite FBI to a vital conference call as late as January 4:

That same day, [San Francisco fusion center director Mike] Sena held the call for fusion centers from around the country. No one from the FBI spoke, and Sena couldn’t tell whether anyone from the bureau had even joined. Kurt Reuther, a senior Department of Homeland Security official, piped up at one point, saying the department was standing by to help. It struck several as a hollow offer. There was already plenty to do. Officials from several fusion centers said on the call that they knew of groups mobilizing. “MAGA Drag the Interstates” rallies were planned, and analysts had picked up chatter of an “Occupy the Capital” movement.

I can't shake the impression that DHS sources were working the Post reporters to plant the idea that the FBI was to blame for the catastrophe. Now that serious rot seems to be getting exposed at DHS in the cases of the missing text messages from the Secret Service and from the unlovely figures of the illegally appointed Trump-minion heads of the agency, Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, it's hard not to suspect them and their inspector general of being behind a long-term effort to cover up some activities of their own, in which fusion center officials may unwittingly have participated, and in which a deliberate effort to cast blame on the FBI may have figured.

During the Russia investigation I used to wonder how it could be that journalists and politicians would denounce Trump's "failure to protect us" against Russian interference, as if he hadn't been the one to bring the Russian interference on board and welcome it with open arms. It was a very weird way of trying to keep the discussion nonpartisan, as if it could possibly be nonpartisan and still make any sense.

I'm having a similar reaction to this Washington Post project of analyzing the "failure of national security" as if the national security establishment wasn't part of a corrupt government intent on destroying democracy. It should be a happy surprise that time-servers like Christopher Wray or Jeffrey Rosen did anything right at all. I happen to think Mark Milley was wrong in keeping the National Guard away from the action on January 6—

Milley was worried that once troops were activated and on the streets of the nation’s capital, it would be much easier for Trump to redirect them as he wished. He thought that was a distinct possibility, having little faith that Trump would suddenly act rationally and not in his personal self-interest to stay in power.

—but I'm so relieved he, or anybody, was thinking enough about the possibility to worry about it! (I think Milley also was the most instrumental figure in blocking Trump from using the military in the 2020 George Floyd disturbances from the streets of Portland, where Chad Wolf deployed his own stupid militia, to the park of Lafayette Square).

Trump and his mobsters, whether outside the government like Giuliani and Stone and Flynn or inside it like Meadows and Barr and Clark and Ornato and the pardon-seeking congressmembers, are no doubt the villains of the story properly speaking, how could they not be, along with the whole Republican party for its sullen combat against democracy going back more than a century by now, at different levels of culpability and with many honorable (if partial) exceptions of one kind and another. 

But the real intelligence failure isn't that of the FBI, for all the errors it may have made and all the cowardice it may have displayed, or any of the agencies that showed up, however belated, and enabled Congress to do its job in the early hours of January 7. It's the legacy news media, our great papers like the Times and the Post and our public broadcasting system, and I'm not denying their greatness, who wouldn't say what was as obvious as the noses on their faces, because that wouldn't be "ethical", and went into narratological contortions to avoid it.

Hopefully the House Select Committee on January 6, with its focus on making that impossible, is having an effect.

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