Federal agencies highlight security improvements a year after Capitol attack

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Justice Department Wednesday in advance of the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Justice Department Wednesday in advance of the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol. CAROLYN KASTER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The Homeland Security Department said officials do not “have information indicating any specific or credible threats related to the anniversary.” 

Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Homeland Security Department is sharing how it has improved its intelligence operations, particularly those focused on domestic extremism. 

Last year on January 6, swarms of protestors breached the Capitol as lawmakers were taking up certification of the 2020 presidential election, with then-Vice President Mike Pence presiding. Then-President Trump had refused to concede the election, claiming there was widespread fraud, which led to an unprecedentedly rocky transition of power between November and January that is normally seen as a bipartisan tradition. Over the last year, the security preparations by federal agencies and other law enforcement entities––and lack thereof––have been the subject of congressional, inspector general and other investigations as well as lawsuits. 

“The Department of Homeland Security does not have information indicating any specific or credible threats related to the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol on January 6th,” a DHS spokesperson told Government Executive on Wednesday. “Since the violent events one year ago, DHS has enhanced its ability to detect, analyze, and respond to threats. The men and women of our department remain vigilant in their national security mission, and we will continue to review the threat environment and share information with the public and our partners.”

One of the changes is that DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis established a new domestic terrorism branch in May 2021 as well as expanded its review of online activity in order to look for potential threats of violence, according to a fact sheet shared with Government Executive. DHS improved information sharing with federal, state, local, tribal and private sector partners, which resulted in over 50 engagements with them about possible and emerging threats. 

Senior Biden administration officials have informally concluded the lack of high-level information by the federal government was one of the key missteps in the leadup to the attack as well as the failure to imagine what could happen, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday. 

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced an internal review in April 2021 to address possible domestic extremism threats within the department. “More than 240,000 dedicated DHS employees carry out the department’s mission to safeguard the American people, our homeland, and our values,” so this “is an important next step toward ensuring that violent extremism does not compromise our ability to keep our communities safe and secure,” DHS said at the time. 

Other actions DHS took are: 

  • Issued more than 80 intelligence products about domestic violent extremism to inform the public about the latest threats, such as a bulletin on January 27 warning that elected officials and federal facilities could be targets;
  • Established the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership to “expand the department’s ability to prevent terrorism and targeted violence through the development of local prevention frameworks;”
  • For the first time, Mayorkas designated countering domestic violent extremism a “National Priority Area” in Federal Emergency Management Agency grant programs, which led to the spending of about $77 million on this area;
  • Worked with federal, state and local partners to strengthen the National Capital Region’s security;
  • Formed a task force to coordinate the department’s efforts to combat domestic violent extremism and violence against members of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities and then in September it was broadened to add others; and, 
  • In fiscal 2021, DHS gave out $180 million in grants through FEMA to upgrade physical security for nonprofits, including houses of worship, that are at risk.

DHS did not respond to Government Executive’s question about specific security preparations for the anniversary of the attacks on Thursday. However, in the lead-up, DHS has been running a 24/7 intelligence watch and determining if and where personnel deployments are needed. The Secret Service and Federal Protective Service, both housed within DHS, have plans for deployments if needed, a law enforcement official told CNN. 

“DHS is coordinating with the FBI, the Metropolitan Police Department, U.S. Park Police and Capitol Police to ensure that adequate personnel and physical security measures are in place, the official said, adding that they are tracking intelligence indicators to see if they can identify groups of people who may be traveling to the region,” according to CNN’s report on Tuesday. 

As for the Defense Department, “to date, the department hasn’t received any requests for assistance from our government partners in connection with the anniversary of events of January 6,” Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a department spokesman, told Government Executive on Wednesday. 

Similar to DHS, the Capitol Police released a report on Wednesday detailing what improvements they’ve made since last year, such as updating its equipment and personnel practices in alignment with the best practices from other federal law enforcement agencies. 

“Unlike agencies that protect the White House, the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and other buildings, the [Capitol Police] safeguards a public institution that, but for the restrictions of COVID-19, is regularly open to the public, who can freely access the buildings,” said the report.  

Attorney General Merrick Garland said during an address on Wednesday to mark the anniversary that “there is no higher priority for us at the Department of Justice” than holding those responsible for the attack accountable. The January 6 investigations are “the largest, most complex, and most resource-intensive [ones] in our history,” which has been complicated by court closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Led by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and the FBI’s Washington Field Office, DoJ personnel across the department in nearly all 56 field offices in nearly all 94 United States Attorney’s Offices and in many main Justice components have worked countless hours to investigate the attack,” Garland said. “Approximately 70 prosecutors from the District of Columbia and another 70 from other U.S. attorneys’ offices and DoJ divisions have participated in this investigation.” 

He thanked the over 115,000 Justice Department employees for their work since he came into office, but also the past several years that have been marked with “unprecedented challenges,” including the pandemic. 

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said in a statement on Tuesday, the “the anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack serves as a harsh reminder that we must remain vigilant in efforts to fortify our democracy.” Just a few hours after the attack 147 Republican lawmakers voted to overturn the results of the presidential election and a year later the former president and others still challenged the results. Also, many states have passed more restrictive voting laws over the past year. 

“Lawmakers must pass pro-democracy reforms, like those in the Protecting Our Democracy Act, to provide a check on unrestrained presidential power and increase accountability in the federal government,” Brian said. “Only with comprehensive reform aimed at protecting our elections and system of checks and balances can our democracy overcome this assault.”