Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies are grappling with online chatter promoting violence, along with threats against lawmakers, inspired in part by the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, officials say.
“We are probably in one of the most volatile, complex and dynamic threat environments that I have experienced in my career,” said
the top counterterrorism official at the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security and other law-enforcement agencies last week warned state and local officials of a heightened potential for violence on the anniversary of the Capitol breach, noting they knew of no specific or credible threats.
An intelligence assessment said “threat actors will try to exploit the upcoming anniversary” to promote or commit violence, according to a person familiar with it. The document warns that conspiracy theories about election fraud that contributed to the riot “continue to resonate among domestic violent extremists and could again inspire some to commit violence.”
While last year’s mob included members of several far-right militias and other extremist groups, officials have said the vast majority of the more than 700 people charged in the attack weren’t affiliated with any such entity, and neither are many of those threatening violence since then in social-media forums, phone calls and emails.
That increasingly diffuse activity presents a challenge to law enforcement in the aftermath of the attack on Jan. 6, when supporters of then-President
overwhelmed police officers and stormed the Capitol to disrupt the certification of President
win in the 2020 presidential election. Widely criticized for failing to act on warnings about potential violence ahead of the riot, authorities at all levels of government have since sought to apply lessons learned during the attack, focusing on better intelligence-sharing and a more proactive law-enforcement strategy.
The U.S. Capitol Police, whose officers bore the brunt of the attack, is registering more instances of menacing communications. “We’re barely keeping our head above water in terms of looking at these cases,” said
J. Thomas Manger,
the new chief of the agency charged with protecting Congress, adding that he is seeking to hire more analysts to monitor the rise.
The 1,800-member police force was on pace to see more than 9,000 cases of threats against lawmakers by the end of 2021, Mr. Manger said in December. That continues a sharp increase over the past few years, from fewer than 4,000 in 2017 to just over 8,600 in 2020. Not all registered incidents rose to the level of a criminal threat, Mr. Manger said, with some being vague social-media posts or anonymous phone calls that reflect the increased level of threatening discourse that has come to characterize such interactions more generally.
Those numbers point to an increase in threats that was well under way before the Capitol attack and that has continued since then. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said the number of its probes into domestic violent extremism has more than doubled over the past 16 to 18 months with about 2,700 open cases.
The threat is dominated by extremists “advocating for the superiority of the white race,” the FBI said, a category it considers most likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians. So-called militia violent extremists, driven by antigovernment or anti-authority ideas, pose the greatest threat to law enforcement and government officials and facilities, the FBI said.
The FBI said that since the Capitol attack, it has put greater emphasis on “swift information sharing” with other law-enforcement agencies and made other improvements to help investigators and analysts in the field.
Law-enforcement officials say they often struggle to link concerning online commentary to specific people, making further investigation difficult.
The torrent of social-media posts also can make it difficult to distinguish online bravado from a genuine threat. Threatening members of Congress has resulted in federal charges for some people, who, for example, leave death threats on lawmakers’ voice mails or write threatening letters.
A series of watchdog reports after the riot found that the Capitol Police were seriously understaffed and lacked equipment needed to protect the complex ahead of the riot. The agency’s inspector general has recommended 104 changes, including better police equipment and improved intelligence protocols. The inspector general said in December that the force had completed 30 of them, including intelligence briefings for rank-and-file officers and improved civil disturbance training, but still needed to work on many improvements.
There has been a changing of the guard after top officials resigned after the failures on Jan. 6. Mr. Manger, a longtime local police chief, took the department’s helm in July and the Senate and House both have new sergeants at arms, who serve on the five-member Capitol Police Board that oversees the force.
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Mr. Manger said the Capitol Police force has improved planning and other protocols since the attack. The force has issued every officer a cellphone and sends daily intelligence briefings, he said, and has been holding daily calls to share intelligence with other law-enforcement agencies in the region.
Mr. Manger also credited a former U.S. Secret Service agent,
with taking a more robust approach to how the Capitol Police plans for big events. Authorities deployed more officers and erected fencing around the Capitol for the presidential inauguration and a September rally held in support of people charged in the riot, for example.
Congress recently approved legislation to make it easier for the Capitol Police to call in the National Guard in an emergency and passed hundreds of millions of dollars for Capitol security upgrades after the riot. Lawmakers have proposed raising the Capitol Police’s annual budget, currently roughly $515 million, to more than $600 million.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
(D., Minn.), the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, whose oversight responsibilities include the Capitol grounds, said while the personnel changes and increased budgets will help, the force still has more work to do, including hiring more personnel.
The force is short of hundreds of officers, resulting in high overtime demands, according to watchdog reports. Roughly 130 Capitol Police officers have retired or resigned since the Jan. 6 riot, compared with 70 during the same period in 2020, the agency said in December.
That attrition points to the strain on the overworked force. “Officers are spending a lot more time here at work, more than we had in the past, and then not being able to spend time with their families and loved ones,” said Capitol Police Officer
a 13-year veteran on the force who has spoken out in his personal capacity about the trauma of the riot.
After many officers reported physical and emotional trauma following the riot, the Capitol Police force said it expanded wellness services for officers, including bringing in experts in psychological trauma and wellness dogs, among other efforts.
Mr. Cohen, who oversees Homeland Security’s intelligence branch, stressed procedural changes to bolster the government’s awareness of emerging threats and “incorporate that analysis into our operational planning.”
Homeland Security officials are now regularly meeting with their state and local counterparts to discuss threat patterns and swap information, such as the intelligence bulletin issued last week. Analysts are receiving new training on how to evaluate online messages and share information with law enforcement. The agency in May announced a new domestic terrorism branch within its Office of Intelligence and Analysis to focus on producing such intelligence.
Mr. Cohen said the agency has seen online chatter that uses the Capitol riot as a rallying cry for more violence, which law-enforcement officials have sought to deter by deploying a robust and visible security presence.
“There’s going to be times when we’re probably dealing with violence,” said Mr. Manger of the Capitol Police. “But in the future, we will have the people we need, the plan in place, and everything else that we didn’t have on the sixth.”
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