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GAO Slams DHS for Failing to Recognize Deteriorating Threat Environment that Led to Capitol Attack

The Department of Homeland Security has been condemned by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for its inflexibility and failure to designate January 6, 2021 as a special event.

GAO has a body of work underway that examines the preparation, coordination, and response on January 6, that it will begin issuing over the next several months. The watchdog released a report on August 9 which focuses on the extent to which federal, state, and local government entities requested a special event designation for the planned events of January 6, 2021.

The report said there was enough intelligence regarding the planned protests for DHS to designate a special event, which “would likely have assured additional security to help respond to the January 6 attack on the Capitol”.

The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 resulted in assaults on approximately 140 police officers, and about $1.5 million in damages, according to information from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Capitol Police. In addition, the events of the day led to at least seven deaths. Questions have understandably been raised about the extent to which necessary steps were taken to adequately secure the Capitol Complex, and share intelligence information.

DHS can award specific designations for planned special events to bolster security-planning processes and coordination between federal, state, and local entities. For example, these designations enhance coordination of protective anti-terrorism measures and counterterrorism assets, and restrict access. These designations include the National Special Security Event (NSSE) and the Special Event Assessment Rating (SEAR). These designations were not assigned to the events occurring on January 6, 2021.

The events of January 6 included a non-permitted protest at the U.S. Capitol, a scheduled Presidential rally at the Ellipse, and a joint session of Congress to certify the 2020 election results. GAO said that if requested, the Presidential rally and joint session of Congress could have been considered for a designation as an NSSE or SEAR because, for example, they were large events with Presidential or Vice Presidential attendance. However, according to DHS officials, the non-permitted incident at the U.S. Capitol was not consistent with factors currently used for NSSE and SEAR designations. This non-permitted incident was not designated, even though there were other indications, such as social media posts, that additional security may have been needed at the Capitol Complex on January 6. 

DHS has developed factors for designating an event an NSSE, but GAO’s review found it is not clear whether they are adaptable to the current environment of emerging threats. “Being able to be dynamic and responsive to change would enable federal entities to implement better security planning.” the government watchdog said.

From calendar year 2017 to 2021, DHS designated 13 total NSSE events, eight of which occurred in the Washington, D.C. area. Of these 13 total events, eight were predesignated as recurring, such as the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and the opening period of the United Nations General Assembly. Of the eight events that occurred in Washington, D.C., five were predesignated by DHS, such as the inauguration and the State of the Union address. From 2017 to 2021, DHS received 104,198 event submissions for SEAR levels, 1,717 of which were located in the National Capitol Region. According to DHS officials, approximately 64 percent of all SEAR events submitted for 2021 were recurring, such as a weekly movie at a state or local park. Examples of submitted events include the Super Bowl, Indianapolis 500, and the Kentucky Derby.

Election certification has historically been viewed as a routine event but GAO said DHS failed to recognize that the threat environment surrounding the 2020 election was different from past elections and therefore did not adapt as required. An FBI report warned of calls for violence and for individuals traveling to Washington, D.C. to be ready
for “war” at the Capitol, and social media activity provided further evidence of a precarious environment.

GAO found that agencies had varying rationales for not requesting an NSSE or SEAR designation for the events of January 6. The Park Service and D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency officials stated that a SEAR rating was not requested for the planned presidential rally because it was a First Amendment demonstration. Further, D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency officials stated that D.C. Government did not request a SEAR because the rally occurred on federal property. While the certification of the 2020 presidential election results was ultimately impacted by the event, DHS officials stated that a SEAR rating was not requested because it was considered routine congressional business. They also told auditors that they did not receive a request for an NSSE
designation for the planned rally at the Ellipse or the joint session of Congress to certify the election results on January 6.

The watchdog also found confusion among key stakeholders. Although Secret Service officials stated that a request from the local government in Washington, D.C. would typically initiate consideration for an NSSE designation, D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency officials indicated that they did not think the District Government had the authority to request an NSSE designation for an event on federal property. In May 2021, the Director of the Secret Service testified that designating the joint session of Congress on January 6 as an NSSE would have resulted in more security measures in place around the Capitol.

GAO said DHS policy does not clearly identify who can request an NSSE designation on federal property in Washington,
D.C. and that u
pdating and communicating its policy for requesting an NSSE designation will help DHS ensure that relevant agencies are aware of, and understand, the process for requesting such event designations and may help to better secure the Capitol Complex and other federal properties in the future. 

The report makes just two recommendations to DHS this time. First, that the Secretary of Homeland Security should consider whether additional factors, such as the context of the events and surrounding circumstances in light of the current environment of emerging threats, are needed for designating NSSE events. And second, that DHS policy should  be updated to clarify and communicate the process for requesting an NSSE designation for an event held on federal property in Washington, D.C. to all relevant stakeholders, including relevant federal and local entities.

DHS argued that its existing designation process already allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to take the context of the event such as the current environment of emerging threats into consideration. DHS officials said that context,
current environment, and emerging threats are evaluated when determining whether to designate an event as an NSSE. They noted that the process is proactive and involves months of organization and collaboration with law enforcement partners and others. While this is understandable, the process must also be dynamic and responsive to change as the threat picture can often change dramatically overnight.

DHS also disagreed with GAO’s second recommendation and noted that a change to an internal policy would not clarify the process for requesting an NSSE to outside entities. DHS added that it believes the current D.C. Mayor was
aware of how to request an NSSE because, on January 9, 2021, “she requested to change the start date of the already approved NSSE for the Inauguration from January 19 to January 11”. However, GAO said the D.C. Mayor requested the extension of the NSSE period due to the chaos, injury, and death experienced at the Capitol on January 6. The D.C. Mayor did not need to request the inauguration be designated an NSSE because it was a predesignated event. The watchdog added that as stated in its comment letter and as learned during the course of the audit, “D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency officials believe that the District Government does not have the authority to make such a request on federal property”. In addition, the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency said that it has worked with DHS to support the operations of prior NSSEs, but did not have the authority to request an NSSE on federal property.

GAO concluded that the level of readiness to address the events of January 6, 2021, suggests that the factors for designating events may need to be revisited, and clarifying the designation process would avoid confusion and improve security for future events.

Read the full report at GAO

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Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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