As federal intelligence and national security officials testified before the Senate on Wednesday about the failures that allowed a pro-Trump mob to overrun police at the US Capitol two months ago, one exchange underscored how the 6 January insurrection has completely altered officials’ handling of future threats.
Melissa Smislova, the acting undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, told senators at Wednesday’s public hearing that her agency and the FBI issued a joint intelligence bulletin about possible militia attacks on the Capitol planned for this Thursday and Saturday, 4 and 6 March.
“Extremists,” Ms Smislova testified, have been “discussing” those two dates as possibilities to once again storm the Capitol and terrorise lawmakers.
That bulletin, which has been obtained by NBC News and others, warns in more detail that far-right militia members have “discussed plans to take control of the U.S. Capitol and remove Democratic lawmakers on or about 4 March”.
As threats of right-wing extremist violence for this Thursday continue to surface in intelligence bulletins, federal officials as well as Capitol security authorities have been trying out a new strategy to deter would-be knuckleheads from trying to storm the Capitol: transparency.
Before the 6 January insurrection, the historically tight-lipped US Capitol Police did not issue a single public statement about the myriad threats on the legislature, which were being openly discussed by scores of extremists on online forums and social media leading up to the attack.
Lawmakers and media outlets have groused for years that the USCP has been a brick wall, making it exceptionally difficult to obtain information about departmental operations, cases, and decision-making.
As an agency under the authority of Congress, the USCP is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. Key departmental documents such as inspector general reports are therefore not available to the public (or the media). Before the January riot, it was a long-running joke among some reporters who have covered the Capitol that USCP spokeswoman Eva Malecki did not actually exist.
The USCP issued nine press releases throughout all of 2020.
But the iron-curtain approach to information has changed dramatically in the midst of increased scrutiny on the department following the Capitol riot.
In the less than two months since the insurrection on 6 January, the USCP has issued 24 press releases, as many as from the previous two years combined. Many of those statements have pertained to departmental shake-ups and the ongoing response to the Capitol riot, the most devastating assault on the seat of Congress since British troops set fire to the building in 1814.
On Wednesday, the department issued a public statement — its second within the last 24 hours — announcing it had beefed up security at the legislature this week to respond to the ongoing threats from the most fanatical supporters of Donald Trump.
“We have obtained intelligence that shows a possible plot to breach the Capitol by an identified militia group on Thursday, March 4,” the US Capitol police said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We are taking the intelligence seriously,” the statement said.
A longtime Democratic aide on Capitol Hill told The Independent on Wednesday that the USCP’s public statements are “wildly unusual” given their usual penchant for secrecy.
“They are catching a lot of s*** right now, and it will have an effect. They are definitely taking unprecedented steps to raise people’s awareness about tomorrow” the aide said.
The USCP disclosed on Wednesday that it has surged “manpower” and other resources to the perimeter surrounding the Capitol complex, a not-so-veiled message to people thinking of confronting the National Guard troops and USCP officers patrolling the Capitol that they would be met with the full force of the law.
Since the riot, thousands of National Guard troops have been patrolling the perimeter of the Capitol, where a fence topped with coils of barbed wire now stands. The Guardsmen and Guardswomen are armed with black assault rifles from the Pentagon and stalk entryways in units of roughly four to eight.
This Thursday’s date, 4 March, is when most US presidents were inaugurated, before Congress passed a law after 1933 changing Inauguration Day to 20 January.
The date has taken on significance among adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory and other pro-Donald Trump groups who believe the ex-president will return to DC on Thursday and retake his former office. Mr Trump’s supporters have referred to 4 March as “true Inauguration Day”, according to an internal security bulletin from Tuesday from from House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett, obtained by CBS News and other outlets.
That security bulletin names a far-right militia, the “Three Percenters,” as posing a threat.
The Democratic congressional aide suggested to The Independent that it’s no accident the SAA’s bulletin has leaked to the press.
Mr Blodgett’s office sent its first warning about imminent right-wing threats to the Capitol on Monday with a note at the top that urged recipients of the email not to leak it to the press.
The SAA subsequently sent an updated warning on Tuesday — without a note regarding leaks.
That “basically [sent] the subtle signal that we were OK to share, which is partly why there have been so many more stories today,” the aide said.