WASHINGTON (NBC)— The U.S. Capitol Police plans to maintain its enhanced level of security around the Capitol through at least President Joe Biden's first official address to Congress because intelligence suggests extremists could be planning an attack, acting Chief Yogananda Pittman said Thursday.
"We know that members of the militia groups that were present on January 6th have stated their desires that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible with a direct nexus to the State of the Union, which we know that date has not been identified," she told members of Congress, referring to Biden's upcoming first address to a joint session of Congress.
"So based on that information, we think that it's prudent that Capitol Police maintain its enhanced and robust security posture until we address those vulnerabilities going forward," she added.
Pittman's comments at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol came after she was asked about the need for continued security measures around the building, including fencing and the deployment of the National Guard.
Pittman emphasized that the insurrectionists that attacked the Capitol "weren't only interested in attacking members of Congress and officers."
"They wanted to send a symbolic message to the nation as to who was in charge of that legislative process," she said.
The president is expected to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress, similar to a State of the Union, sometime after Congress passes his Covid-19 relief package.
Pittman told members of the subcommittee that oversees funding for the legislative branch that while her department knew armed extremists could commit violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, intelligence collected in advance of the assault showed "no credible threat" of the size and scale of the riot.
The department prepared for that day’s events based on the information gathered by law enforcement, including the FBI and the intelligence community, she said.
"It has been suggested that the department was either ignorant of or ignored critical intelligence that indicated that an attack of the magnitude that we experienced, on January 6 would occur," Pittman said.
"The department was not ignorant of intelligence indicating an attack of the size and scale we encountered on the 6th," she said. "There was no such intelligence. Although we knew the likelihood for violence by extremists, no credible threat indicated that tens of thousands would attack the U.S. Capitol, nor did the intelligence received from the FBI, or any other law enforcement partner indicate such a threat."
The comments echoed the testimony her predecessor and other current and former law enforcement officials provided to the Senate earlier this week.
Pittman, who replaced former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund after he resigned following the attack, explained that her department had prepared an intelligence assessment on Jan. 3 that outlined what they expected to take place three days later. The assessment, she said, noted that “militia members, white supremacists, and other extremist groups” planned to participate in the event and that the groups planned to be armed. It also said that “the threat of disruptive actions or violence cannot be ruled out.”
That assessment was “shared widely” among Capitol Police and emailed to all officers above the rank of sergeant, said Pittman, who added that sergeants and lieutenant were then responsible for communicating the information to rank-and-file officers. It was also emailed to the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, she said.
Based on the assessment, the Capitol police made “significant changes” to their security posture, which involved increasing protection for certain members of Congress, deploying agents to provide protection outside the homes of congressional leaders and sending "counter-surveillance agents" to the Ellipse just south of the White House, where President Donald Trump was holding his rally on the morning of Jan. 6. They also made plans to “intercept the radio frequency used by some demonstration group” and monitor their communications that day.
Despite the assessment, “the department was not prepared for the massive groups of violent insurrectionists that descended” on the Capitol,” Pittman said in her prepared remarks. She said Capitol police were “quickly overwhelmed” by thousands of insurrectionists, many of whom were armed.
Asked by Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., about an assessment from the the FBI's field office outside Norfolk, Va., on Jan. 5 that there would be a "war" the next day, Pittman said that they did receive the report, but it was just "information" and not final intelligence. She said their protocol is not to take action on raw intelligence.
A 'multi-tiered failure'
Pittman also told lawmakers that the department has estimated about 10,000 demonstrators were on the Capitol grounds Jan. 6, and about 800 people broke into the building, while just over 1,200 officers were working there. When asked by Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Pittman said she agreed with Sund that they needed National Guard backup as the violence unfolded.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., the ranking member of the subcommittee, recounted during her questioning that she was on the House floor after the Capitol was breached and did not hear police officers receiving instructions over their radios.
"It was very clear that their head pieces, like the communications pieces, they were getting no actual real communication, they were getting no leadership, they were getting no direction," she said. "There was no coordination and you could see the fear in their eyes."
Herrera Beutler questioned Pittman about the communications failures on Jan. 6 among the officers. The acting chief said that it was a "multi-tiered failure" in which the department was so overwhelmed that the officers who should have been providing directions over radios were assisting officers on the ground defending the Capitol.
When asked about reports of officers taking photos with rioters and investigations into those incidents, Pittman also told lawmakers that 35 Capitol Police officers are under investigation and six have been suspended, with their powers revoked, since the attack.
Acting House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett said in his prepared testimony for the hearing that “the tragedy of January 6th is rooted in missing intelligence and analysis that negatively impacted the decision-making process.”
“Intelligence requires finding needles in a haystack," he wrote. "On January 6, there was a failure to either gather, synthesize, or disseminate intelligence and there were indications that intelligence was muddled or contradictory."
Blodgett replaced former House Sergeant-at-arms Paul Irving, who resigned after the attack. Blodgett said while his office received the Jan. 3 assessment from the U.S. Capitol Police, every single subsequent intelligence report over the next three days indicated only “remote, highly improbable, or improbable” chance of civil disobedience or arrests, he said.
“The intelligence missteps cascaded into inadequate preparation, which placed the health and lives of front-line officers at risk,” he said.
The security changes planned in the wake of Jan. 6 will “come with an accompanying cost,” Blodgett added.
“It will not only take funding, manpower, and training, but also changing organizational structures to ensure that security needs are met," he said.