The chief of the Capitol Police and its top intelligence officer personally approved permits for six demonstrations to be held on Jan. 6, 2021, despite signs that one of the applications was filed for an organization that didn't exist and that five of them were a proxy for a group staging large, violent protests across the country.
Capitol Police documented concerns that organizers had attempted to conceal their affiliation with Ali Alexander, the right-wing activist behind the group Stop the Steal, in a secret effort to coordinate their protests against the results of the 2020 presidential election. Despite those concerns, and COVID-19 policies that capped demonstrations at 50 people each, the Capitol Police force’s intelligence assessment said there were “no plans for participants to enter the buildings” and noted “no adverse intelligence related to the upcoming event.” It assessed “the Level of Probability of acts of civil disobedience/arrests to occur” during the demonstration “as Highly Improbable.”
The six closely guarded permits, along with intelligence assessments about the organizations, were obtained by BuzzFeed News. They shed new light on what Capitol Police knew about threats to the Capitol leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection and provide rare insight into the operations of the Capitol Police, which, as an arm of Congress, is not subject to Freedom of Information laws.
The release of the documents also marks a significant victory for BuzzFeed News, which filed a lawsuit last February after the Capitol Police declined a request for the permits. Attorney Jeffrey Light cited the “common law right of access” to public records, which maintains that the public has a basic right to review the records of its government that are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The Capitol Police opted not to fight the case.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that a lawsuit brought under the common law right of access has been successful as applied to a congressional agency,” Light said. “Forcing the government’s hand in this case is important because it shows that the right of access to congressional records is not just theoretical. We now have a concrete example of a type of document for which Congress recognized it can’t defend secrecy in court.”
BuzzFeed News is in ongoing discussions over the release of other records from the Capitol Police and its Office of Inspector General and continues to press its case in federal court.
On Dec. 21, 2020, a group called One Nation Under God filed an application with the Capitol Police’s special events section to stage a protest over “election fraud in swing states” at the Senate East Front grassy area on Jan. 6 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
The officer who reviewed the application noticed some irregularities. For one thing, the officer wrote in an intelligence assessment, “One Nation Under God is not an organization and does not maintain social media accounts or webpages.” For another, one of the people listed as a confirmed speaker was Alexander, a leader of Stop the Steal, which was planning a major rally at Freedom Plaza that same day.
“I explained,” the officer wrote, “that it appears that the Stop the Steal and the One Nation Under God is one in the same due to the similarities and the affiliation with Ali Alexander.” In an email on Dec. 31, 2020, another officer mentioned concerns about the approval of “certain permits,” specifically that “the permit requests … are being used as proxies for Stop the Steal” and “may also be involved with organizations that may be planning trouble.”
Still, One Nation Under God got the green light.
In an interview last April with Senate committees probing the attacks on the Capitol, Yogananda Pittman, who was the assistant chief of police for protective and intelligence operations, said she believed Capitol Police intelligence officers vetted the permit applications and none of the groups were affiliated with Stop the Steal.
Pittman — who was named acting Capitol Police chief after Steven Sund resigned under pressure — did not disclose that she personally signed off on the One Nation Under God permit, along with those for the five other parties that planned demonstrations for that day.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson defended the actions of the Capitol Police: “Denying someone a permit based only on a belief that the group is a ‘proxy’ for another group would be an unlawful prior restraint.
“Before January 6, the Capitol Police knew the Congress and the Capitol Grounds were to be the focus of a large demonstration attracting various groups, including some encouraging violence,” the statement continued. “Based on this information, the Department enhanced its security posture and tried to get support from the National Guard. What the intelligence didn’t reveal, was the large-scale demonstration would become a large-scale attack on the Capitol Building, as there was no specific, credible intelligence about such an attack.”
The permit application listed Nathan Martin of Shelby, Ohio, as a representative of One Nation Under God. According to the documents, a Capitol Police officer spoke with him on Dec. 28, 2020. The officer’s notes suggest that Martin was not forthcoming about the group’s plans.
“I inquired if he has any additional information he could give me for the event. Mr. Martin said there are a few events that they have going on and he does not know which one I was referring,” the officer wrote. “When I asked about the ‘few events’, he stated that the events were in the hotels.”
Martin, an Iraq War veteran who serves on his local city council, directed the officer to speak with Stephen Brown, a sound and lighting technician who was listed as a “spokesperson,” because Martin said he “only deals with the logistics and the hotel bookings for the event.”
Brown, according to the officer’s notes, said he was “shocked” Martin would say that “because he is in daily communication with Mr. Martin for information regarding the event. He does not understand why he would say that or not give me the information I requested.”
Brown, who did not respond to emails and phone calls requesting comment, told the officer Martin “is associated with Stop the Steal and travels with Ali Alexander.” Martin “does not seem to have an official title but he deals with the daily operations to include hotel books and car rentals.”
Alexander did not respond to a request for comment.
The officer reported advising Brown “of my concerns of not being able to regulate their numbers to 50 persons or less,” he wrote. “I explained that once information is on social media it is hard to regulate the number of participants. If his event is in fact one in the same Capitol Police will not be able to accommodate his event to the participant numbers being out of regulations and a public safety issue.”
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Martin acknowledged his affiliation with the two groups but said he could not explain what One Nation Under God’s mission was, how it was formed, and for what purpose. He said he had not seen the permit, could not explain why his name was on it, and was unaware that the demonstration had been capped at 50 people.
Four other permit applications were submitted for Jan. 6 and suspected of being connected to Stop the Steal: those by Bryan Lewis, a private citizen who lives in South Carolina and wanted to “urge Congress to nullify votes from states that made illegal changes to voting rules during their elections”; Virginia Freedom Keepers, which intended to hold a “rally for health freedom”; Women for a Great America, which sought to “pray and worship for our nation”; and Rock Ministries Church, which planned to hold a “prayer campaign encouraging pastors, leaders and citizens to pray for the United States.” An additional permit was requested for Jesus Lives, which sought permission to pray for the United States.
An officer raised concerns that those four permit applications, like One Nation Under God’s, were “associated w/each other & Ali Alexander” and “have potential” for more than 50 people. The documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show that the department performed only superficial research into the groups and their organizers, relying in some cases on what a cursory internet search turned up. Despite an absence of any public information about Lewis, the department determined that the likelihood that his event would produce acts of civil disobedience was “remote.”
On Dec. 30 and 31, 2020, and Jan. 4, 2021, Sund and Pittman signed off on the four additional permits.
Marsha Lessard, the director of education and advocacy for Virginia Freedom Keepers, told BuzzFeed News she is not familiar with One Nation Under God and declined to work with Alexander. “We did not coordinate with any of the other groups who organized for that day,” she said, noting that when reviewing her permit, “the Capitol Police were incredibly professional, kind, and considerate.”
“They followed procedure and SOP,” she said. “They worked diligently to ensure a safe and secure environment.”
The permit application for the One Nation Under God rally listed Reps. Mo Brooks and Andy Biggs as confirmed speakers and Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar as possible speakers, along with Kimberly Fletcher, president of Moms for America, a group that opposes “radical feminism.”
Clay Mills, a spokesperson for Brooks, told BuzzFeed News the lawmaker had no plans to speak at the event. A spokesperson for Biggs did not respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this year, Alexander released a statement that in effect acknowledged One Nation Under God was a proxy for Stop the Steal, saying that group had “permitted space on Capitol Hill and had worked with the US Capitol Police for weeks to secure a safe and orderly event near the Capitol building.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Fletcher rejected the suggestion that the group’s permit application was in any way deceptive. “A ‘fake name’ was not provided for the permit to gather on January 6. Stop the Steal pulled the permit for a group of organizations under ‘One Nation Under God.’ The false information from Antifa and Biden supporters, and from the left media who do not want to perform necessary and thorough research, is slothful and simply ignorant at best. The truth will prevail.”
The One Nation Under God demonstration was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. near Constitution Avenue NE and First Street. A stage, podium, and sound system were set up. But Martin said they were never used.
A couple of miles away at The Ellipse that morning, tens of thousands of Trump supporters began to gather for a Stop the Steal rally to protest Congress’s certification of the presidential election. Brooks, who was supposed to speak at the One Nation Under God rally, told the crowd, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” Around noon, then-president Donald Trump began to speak, telling the crowd to “never give up” and “never concede.” A half hour into his speech, armed Trump supporters began gathering in front of the Capitol, and by 1 p.m., crowds began to storm the barricades. As he wrapped up his speech 10 minutes later, Trump said, “We’re going to the Capitol.”
Thousands of people headed over, and hundreds of them forced their way in. In the ensuing violence, well over 100 police officers would be injured. ●
Correction: A graphic in an earlier version of the post misidentified the location of the Jesus Lives protest.
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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