In the aftermath of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, there will be resignations, hearings and inquiries at the Capitol Police department, the respective House and Senate sergeant-at-arms offices and other law enforcement or military entities.
The warning signs and intelligence were there — they were just ignored.
But let’s be clear: What happened to our democracy that day was not an intelligence failure; it was a failure to act upon available intelligence.
We all saw this coming. Anyone who spends any time assessing the social media threads of violent domestic extremists knew that the Proud Boys, violent militia groups, QAnon quacks and others more loyal to the president than to our nation were planning travel logistics, talking about “overwhelming the Capitol Police” and attaching the hashtag #StormCongress to their planning posts.
While we ponder the vulnerability that followed from a failure to act on clear warning signs, there’s an even more serious concern to consider: Our adversaries are pondering the same thing — on a far grander scale.
This certainly isn’t the first time our nation’s leadership failed to act on clearly articulated intelligence pointing to security vulnerabilities. Ever since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there has been debate as to how and why our country was caught unaware and who knew what, and when, regarding Japanese plans to attack. But the U.S. wasn’t caught unaware.
The warning signs and intelligence were there — they were just ignored. In 1925, Gen. Billy Mitchell published a report warning of an attack like that on Pearl Harbor. Two war exercises involving simulated air attacks on Pearl Harbor in the 1930s were assessed as devastating and successful.
Adm. James Richardson, who had been fired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he pushed back on the president’s order to station the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, blamed Roosevelt for permitting the vulnerabilities that led to the devastating foreign attacks.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, we learned of the failures to act upon the signals that were sent for months prior to that tragedy.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, we learned of the failures to act upon the signals that were sent for months prior to that tragedy. FBI field offices told FBI headquarters of suspicious men from abroad taking flying lessons. Other U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted “chatter” clearly indicating an impending large-scale Al Qaeda attack. Then-CIA Director George Tenet explained in subsequent testimony that in the summer just before the attacks, “The system was blinking red.”
Our system is “blinking red” again. While our current president and his cadre of acting and interim henchmen at the top of the departments of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security may not see it or care about it, adversaries like Russia, Iran, North Korea and China surely do.
What those nations are seeing is bigger than the breach of any building. What happened at the Capitol is a sign of a much larger vulnerability. Those who want to do us harm see an absence of leadership, an isolated president, resigning Cabinet members and administration officials, no clear law enforcement command presence and a deranged population capable of a coup attempt. They see an America more vulnerable than it’s been in modern history. And no one should be surprised if they act on their available intelligence. In fact, those countries have been repeatedly testing our vulnerabilities.
In past months, we’ve experienced the most widespread cyber intrusion in U.S. history. That attack, squarely attributed to the Russian intelligence service, compromised the most sensitive agencies in our government — and there’s no indication that it’s over.
What those nations are seeing is bigger than the breach of any building.
Russia, as it did in 2016, again attempted to interfere in the 2020 election, and but for a valiant effort by U.S. Cyber Command, Iran and Russia would have succeeded in attacking our election. Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism, has threatened retaliation for the U.S. assassination of a top Iranian general and has begun enriching uranium in response to President Donald Trump’s termination of a nuclear deal agreed to by former President Barack Obama.
North Korea continues to build its nuclear and missile programs unabated. China watched the near-total inability of our federal government to effectively respond to a deadly virus originating in Wuhan and learned precisely how vulnerable we are when faced with a global threat.
If those adversaries are inclined to undermine us with a debilitating cyberattack on our infrastructure, a deadly terror assault against U.S. interests or the provocation of a military incident, they will do it while they perceive no one is in charge — and their perception may be correct.
Their plan need not be that dramatic to have a global impact. Our enemies may decide it’s an optimal time for an incursion into, or annexation of, a desired territory. Perhaps one or more of those nations might determine that the time is right to assassinate a world leader or act out against one of our allies — simply because they perceive the U.S. might lack the leadership to retaliate or come to the aid of our friends. Their perception might be right.
The lights are blinking red, and they will continue to signal our vulnerability for the final two weeks of this leaderless administration. Our adversaries are watching. Whether or not they act on the available intelligence depends on our capacity to see what they see: a soft target that needs to secure far more than the building on Capitol Hill.
CORRECTION (Jan. 9, 2021, 7:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the date of the storming of the U.S. Capitol. It was Jan. 6, not the 7th.