The Road to Jan 6 Final

Intelligence Analysts 'Didn't Understand Donald Trump, How Far He Would Go'

In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

On Saturday November 28, according to the local news site New, a "Stop the Steal" caravan involving dozens of demonstrators traveled around the state for several hours to support Donald Trump and his election claims. The caravan ended at Governor Phil Murphy's home, where the protestors shifted to criticizing COVID shutdowns, calling for the reopening of New Jersey. Festooned with Trump flags and signs, the caravan moved to the sound of honks of encouragement.

It was just one protest, not worthy of national attention. According to MSA Security," a private security company, eight protests were planned for that Saturday, in California, New York, and Oregon. "Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies are reportedly warning officials of the increased chances of political violence amid ongoing election disputes," the company said. "Calls for civil unrest and possible violence have flooded social media," the company said.

There is no tangible evidence that anyone was being warned. Neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security kept a nationwide list of demonstrations. The FBI's effort focused on specific acts of potential terrorism, particularly bombings and other catastrophic attacks. The DHS served the nationwide network of state and urban-level fusion centers, funneling them open-source and investigative information. The primary focus was forecasting threats to law enforcement and "critical infrastructure, but also obsessions with new threats, such as countering unmanned aerial systems (drones)."

"DHS doesn't report on first amendment demonstrations per se," a contractor who works in the domestic intelligence world told Newsweek. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about government intelligence gathering and reporting. The first amendment label, the contractor said, isn't concocted or immaterial. "Balancing monitoring and protecting people's rights to protest is a constant struggle. So the intelligence system naturally gravitates towards the safer and less controversial subjects."

Donald Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign Joe Biden
Intelligence analysts "didn't understand Donald Trump, how far he would go." President Trump gives thumbs up to supporters from this motorcade on November 22, 2020 in Sterling, Virginia. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Image

One organization that does focus on nationwide protests and tracks trends is the U.S. Crisis Monitor at Princeton University. Their Regional Overview: The United States, 22-28 November 2020 reported that demonstrations decreased by half for the week, when compared with the previous week. "Demonstrations have declined overall in the weeks since the election," Crisis Monitor reported. With Donald Trump officially authorizing the transition process to begin, the report said, "the total number of election-related demonstrations significantly decreased." Election-related demonstrations declined from a high of over 300 during the week of the election "to less than a tenth of that number over the past week."

Crisis Monitor reports that the majority of demonstration around the country (just over half) didn't relate at all to the elections but were focused on COVID. Even there, though, coronavirus-related events remained below levels seen earlier in the year. More than half of these COVID demonstrations, the report said, were against government regulations and state-level restrictions. Demonstrations in support of government measures accounted for 40 percent of all COVID-related demonstration events.

The "Stop the Steal" demonstrations, the report said, "seem to have lost momentum." Groups like the Proud Boys and Three Percenters were increasingly visible, with the group present in more than a quarter of election-related demonstrations. "Other armed militia groups"—including the New York Watchmen and Patriot Prayer—were present at various demonstrations across the country.

"Almost two dozen demonstrations associated with the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement were recorded during the week," the report said, also a significant decrease.

When presented with these numbers, the homeland security contractor said that much of the decline probably related to the Thanksgiving holiday and didn't reflect an actual longer term threat. He said the November 14 rally in Washington was dismissed by most observers and analysts, that the demonstration itself was "a bust," and was also dominated by a few violent agitators. "I don't think we could say that any insurrection or seditious activity was yet forming."

Did the FBI or homeland security ignore the right-wing protestors because there were analysts who were sympathetic to their cause? The contractor didn't subscribe to that idea. "Did half vote for Donald Trump?" he asked rhetorically. "Maybe so and perhaps even more." But he felt that in the ranks, the workers were scrupulously impartial, interested as much in identifying a right-wing as a left-wing threat to the government.

"I can't say the same for the homeland security leadership," he said, "and that certainly influenced how far preparations could go." But then, he said, "the intelligence and law enforcement analysts also didn't understand Donald Trump, how far he would go. Because when it comes to threats to governance and the Constitution by those actually in power, no one in the federal government really bears any responsibility for thwarting that."