The failed coup of January 6, writes journalist Joe Conason, “illuminated the national landscape like a flash of lightning. It is now clear even to those who have pretended otherwise that Trump himself represents a grave danger to national security.”
And yet as this danger gathered, U.S. domestic intelligence agencies–namely the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI –failed to take action, despite ample warning. As the threat gathered, policymakers were blinded by unconscious racism and a defunct definition of “national security.” In a flash, we see how and why American democracy was left undefended.
As Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the American policy establishment, notes:
Law enforcement, which uses a heavy hand against Black Lives Matter protesters and prepares carefully to stop possible al Qaeda attacks, was apparently unprepared for the mix of white supremacists, anti-government extremists, conspiracy theorists, and other pro-Trump supporters who openly organized to “burn DC to the ground” to overturn an election at the behest of the president. Although it’s too early to point fingers, the Capitol Police and other security forces clearly have some explaining to do.
“Other security forces” is right, if too kind in its vagueness. The blame goes much higher than the Capitol Hill police force, which only has jurisdiction over a small part of the area where the insurrectionists roamed freely.
And explaining is urgent. Why didn’t Christopher Wray at FBI and the (unlawfully appointed) Chad Wolf at DHS mobilize to support the Capitol Hill Police in the face of a threat that advertised itself hourly on the internet?
Racism obviously played a role, as President-elect Biden noted. It is a plain fact that White cops–including the affable Christopher Wray–don’t view White people as much of a threat as Black and Brown people and White leftists. I was in McPherson Square in 2012 when the DC police, backed by FBI agents, cleared out the Occupy DC site. The cops were pitiless. In the January 6 coup, many cops acted bravely, and one paid with his life. But overall the performance was pitiful.
The Capitol Hill cops were victimized by a defunct concept of the national security, which has governed US foreign and domestic policy for the past 70 years. DHS analysts said Trump’s defeat might trigger right-wing terror. And still Wray’s FBI and Wolf’s DHS were not prepared for the January 6 putsch.
It’s not that former US intelligence officials weren’t harshly critical of Trump. Many called out the president’s “ignorance and psychosis.” It’s that such warnings seem to have had no effect on security preparations for the Electoral College ceremony. The failure was not personal. It was systemic.
So the reckoning is not just for the Capitol Police and DHS and FBI, but for the entire $75 billion a year US intelligence community (IC). How does the US government mobilize against the clear and present danger that White policymakers did not take seriously?
The danger now at the door–in the seat of democracy–is one that the IC has largely ignored in favor of other threats that are now secondary. Today’s threat is not jihadist terror (al Qaeda and ISIS). It is not great power rivals (China and Russia). It is not weak hostile adversaries, like Iran or Hezbollah or Venezuela, none of whom have not taken armed action against U.S. civilians in the 21st century.
What Is the Threat?
The IC has to start by defining the biggest threat to the American people today with precision: It is “fascism.” I think the term is better than “white nationalism” or “white supremacists” for two reasons,
First, because, as the US intelligence community has documented, the American insurrectionists have international support, from Russia and from European fascists working with Steve Bannon. So concepts like “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” seem too narrow.
Second, because the Trump insurrection, while overwhelmingly white, is not necessarily racially defined. Don’t forget that Trump gained Black and Brown votes nationwide in 2020, even in blue bastions like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s district. The leader of the Proud Boys is the head of Latinos for Trump. Racial and ethnic categories are often not useful in threat assessment .
As Anthony DiMaggio notes in Counterpunch, fascism is not a word that Americans journalists, much less national security policymakers, are comfortable with. They need to start by remembering the enemy in World War II. It was not Japan, Germany, or Italy, but what those regimes had in common: fascism. The enemy today is not the Proud Boys or the Republicans’ insurrectionist caucus or the soon to be ex-president. It’s what they have in common.
After Election Day, one scholar asked, Is the US headed for a domestic insurgency? We already have one, thanks to the biggest intelligence failure since 9/11.