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Documents Show How Federal Law Enforcement Was Tracking Extremists Ahead Of The Capitol Riot

Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show authorities particularly focused on the Proud Boys, even monitoring the hotel they were staying at.

Last updated on March 3, 2021, at 9:26 p.m. ET

Posted on March 3, 2021, at 9:15 p.m. ET

Amanda Andrade-Rhoades For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Members of the Proud Boys rallying in front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6, 2021

The day before a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, Homeland Security officials warned “domestic extremists” would be taking part in the pro-Trump rallies planned for Jan. 6. Authorities had been actively monitoring far-right groups like the Proud Boys as well as Facebook events with thousands of confirmed participants, some of whom explicitly outlined their plans to march on Congress and rally at the Capitol.

In spite of that, leaders insisted there was no intelligence that federal facilities would be targeted, according to a cache of internal documents from the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service.

“There is no intelligence/information that indicates that FPS-protected federal facilities will be targeted this week however a number of federal facilities are located in the anticipated protest area and we will be prepared to respond if necessary,” Richard “Kris” Cline, FPS’s deputy director, said in Jan. 5 email with the subject line “preparation Wed protests.”

The details in the 81 pages of redacted documents, which include emails, photographs, and intelligence bulletins, shed more light on how closely federal security officials had been monitoring the activities of extremist groups and Trump supporters from across the US in the days leading up to the deadly insurrection. Though police at the US Capitol were unprepared for the violent mob, the documents show Department of Homeland Security officials had information that tens of thousands of Trump supporters would be converging on the National Mall and specifically focused on the Proud Boys, even listing the hotel where they were staying. In DHS communications, officials shared dozens of Facebook events, including some from militant groups, and wrote that they expected groups to march to the Capitol.

Obtained by BuzzFeed News via FOIA

A photo emailed by a Federal Protective Service official shows the crowd massing at the Ellipse for then-president Donald Trump's speech.

Now under new leadership, DHS is promising it will work with local law enforcement and other agencies to improve its ability to handle domestic extremist threats in the future.

“The lessons learned from the violent and illegal events of January 6th will help enhance our ability to stop future acts of violence. DHS is participating in investigations into the response to the attack and internally reviewing how best to enhance information sharing about threats,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “Under Secretary Mayorkas' leadership, addressing domestic violent extremism is a top priority for DHS.”

BuzzFeed News obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request. The agency withheld some information from the records citing a number of exemptions, including ongoing law enforcement investigations, privacy, and possible threats to individuals, such as law enforcement personnel or informants, if the details were disclosed. The Washington Post also reported on the documents Wednesday.

The Federal Protective Service is a law enforcement and security agency within DHS that protects 9,500 federal properties around the country, though not the Capitol building itself. The once little-known agency, which has about 1,300 full-time staff members and 13,000 contracted security guards, garnered national attention and outcry after it sent officers to Portland, Oregon, during the height of the summer’s racial justice protests at then-president Donald Trump’s direction. Its director, L. Eric Patterson, also made the unusual move of giving officers from other agencies within DHS the power to join the protest response without proper training, according to a critical report from the Office of the Inspector General, sparking chaos and violence as they clashed with protesters, injuring several and using unmarked cars to snatch and detain others.

Though an FPS email said there was no intelligence of a threat on Jan. 6 to federal buildings, communications involving top FPS officials reported that the Proud Boys and other extremist groups would be pouring into DC along with thousands of Trump supporters from across the US. They planned to protest what they believed was a stolen election, and they also had plans to march to the Capitol to confront Congress.

On Jan. 3, the department’s regional regional director told leaders in an email that numerous permits approved by the National Park Service and sold-out hotels indicated that there would be “large crowds.” Among the “large number” of protesters expected, the director listed “Proud Boys and “many other smaller groups.” The director also flagged the Capitol as a location where Trump supporters would congregate, though he noted that “we do not anticipate any threats against federal facilities, based on the nature of this event.”

Then, on Jan. 5, FPS’s investigations branch prepared a detailed information bulletin that was disseminated to National Capital Region law enforcement, the General Services Administration, and other divisions within DHS, warning of potentially violent threats associated with the Jan. 6 rallies.

“Domestic extremists to include anarchist extremists, anti government extremists, and racially motivated violent extremists will likely participate in First Amendment protected activities and the use of activities as an opportunity to promote their ideologies and motivate followers to promote violence,” the bulletin said.

Obtained by BuzzFeed News via FOIA

That night, authorities arrested four demonstrators for possessing a weapon and being “disorderly” around Black Lives Matter plaza, according to an email. Homeland Security physical security officers also found and cleared protesters trying to sleep in their cars near the National Mall. In an email sent the morning of Jan. 6, the regional director, whose name is redacted, once again noted that they were expecting “large groups” at the US Capitol because of Congress’s joint session at 1 p.m. to certify the results of the election. FPS was tracking three major rallies, the regional director wrote, two of which had plans to march to the Capitol when Congress started its session.

FPS officials had already been combing social media to track and monitor Trump supporters’ plans to rally in DC that day. In emails and intelligence bulletins shared with Homeland Security’s national operations center and watch officers, FPS officials outlined dozens of Facebook events and other postings that explicitly detailed which groups were planning on attending rallies, where they were coming from and meeting, and how many people had RSVP’d. Their lists included groups coming by bus from places like Ohio and New Jersey. One memo from Homeland’s intelligence collecting arm, known as the Joint Strategic and Tactical Analysis Command Center, cataloged 29 protests of the election scheduled in DC for Jan. 6 alone.

A March on Congress event, for example, had 1,200 people committed and 5,000 interested. A Million MAGA March/Stop the Steal rally had 2,300 interested. The US Capitol Police also flagged demonstrations and shared them with federal partners — one of which was planned for the eastern front of the Capitol with the purpose to urge Congress to vote against certifying what organizers said was a fraudulent election.

On the day of the attack, FPS officials continued to discuss the crowds and sent briefings about groups of Proud Boys and disturbing potential threats. In a noon memo sent to FPS leaders and the FBI’s National Crisis Coordination Center, a commander counted “300 Proud Boys at the US Capitol” and added that they were “trying to shut down the water system in the downtown area, which includes government facilities.”

At that time, there were about 25,000 people around the White House, and, due to bag restrictions, “individuals are hiding bags in bushes around the building.” In email threads, federal security officials tracked the movements of the thousands of protesters, as well as militia groups and people “in riot gear,” as they moved around the area. DC’s Metropolitan Police also responded to a man carrying a rifle at one point.

“Approximately 200 persons representing Proud Boys are at Union Square,” one update from 11:13 a.m. read. A minute later, an FPS officer sent a screenshot of a tweet that reported a “contingent of Proud Boys” broke up from the main crowd “and is marching down the mall to the Capitol.”

An email that reads "Protesters moving towards the capital down Pennsylvania, Constitution, and Madison in numbers estimated 10-15,000," sent at 12:28 PM
Obtained by BuzzFeed News via FOIA
An email that reads "POTUS is encouraging the protesters to march to capital grounds and continue protesting there," sent at 12:21 PM
Obtained by BuzzFeed News via FOIA

Exactly an hour later, the officer updated his superiors: “POTUS is encouraging the protesters to march to capital grounds and continue protesting there.” Shortly after, at 12:28 p.m., he emailed again: “Protesters moving towards the capital down Pennsylvania, Constitution, and Madison in numbers estimated 10-15,000.”

At 12:57 p.m., a large group breached a US Capitol Police barricade.

As the crowds began to roam around the National Mall and head to the Capitol, protective service officers were monitoring their livestreams, sending screenshots of Trump supporters first standing on federal monuments, then bursting into the Capitol. Officials then sent a flurry of emails over the course of an hour about the protests.

At 1:45 p.m., right after Congress started its session, an FPS officer sent two screenshots from Capitol Square, showing a sea of American flag–toting Trump supporters breaking past barricades to stand and sit on what appears to be the Peace Monument.

Obtained by BuzzFeed News via FOIA

Photos emailed by Federal Protective Service officials showing rioters on the western side of the US Capitol

In that same email thread about protesters swarming the Capitol grounds, a FPS official replied, "great picture."

Another partially redacted image from 2:26 p.m. shows about seven individuals, mostly in red hats, winding their way up a stairwell in the Capitol. By this time, the updates to FSP leaders were coming in fast and urgently, showing how quickly the rioters overpowered police forces and flooded the building. “Multiple Capital Police officers reporting injuries…” the FPS officer wrote.

Obtained by BuzzFeed News via FOIA

Rioters seen climbing the stairs inside the US Capitol

At 2:51 p.m., the Federal Protective Service dispatched one small squad to assist Capitol Police, who had already requested “mutual aid from Maryland and Virginia,” according to the records.

By dusk, authorities had finally cleared the building of rioters. In an email sent at 6 p.m., an FPS official asked to know how many of his officers were there assisting. The Department of Homeland Security “has 24 bodies supporting,” they wrote. “I need to know if they are including FPS in that count.”

An investigations branch chief for FPS replied three minutes later. There were just 16 FPS officers at the Capitol. ●

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    Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.

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A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.