In Normal Times…

I’ve been thinking about how White Houses in the past would have prepared for the events of last week. I know that’s a stretch given that it’s hard to imagine any other administration but Trump’s contesting an election past all legal and reasonable recourse and/or encouraging a demonstration against Congress (and a Vice-President) performing their constitutional duties. Nevertheless, if you compare what might have happened in normal times with what actually appears to have happened last week, you get a sense of a dangerously dysfunctional administration.

During my time in government, the FBI Director had at least a weekly time slot with POTUS during the morning security briefings during which he would brief on internal security issues. As I remember it, the Director of National Intelligence and the POTUS briefer would also attend, although I can imagine a topic so sensitive that the room would be cleared.

The FBI Director arguably should have been aware of the reports of criminal plotting by some planning to demonstrate at the Capitol on January 6. We know that at least one FBI officer had warned of the possibility of violence and that the warning was shared with other law enforcement agencies. We also know that law enforcement officials had advised known troublemakers not to go to the DC event and that they had enough information in advance to arrest a Proud Boys leader as he arrived in the District. I haven’t seen any reporting, however, on whether or not the FBI Director was also directly told of this assessment. (This is a common problem/failing of warning intelligence; it isn’t always shared with everyone who needs to know. And even when it is shared appropriately, many people don’t take it seriously.)

Assuming the FBI Director was aware of the reporting, then it would have been his duty to inform the White House, if not the President, about the possibility of criminal activity at the Stop the Steal rally. If they still occur, the weekly briefing would have been the appropriate setting for the FBI Director to bring up the issue, although I doubt the briefing is still a regular event. It would have been a sharp “speak truth” moment but a necessary one for the President’s own safety. Informed by the FBI briefing, POTUS and/or his advisers could have chosen to cancel his speech or more likely explicitly warn the crowd not to act unlawfully.

So that’s how the process would have worked in a more normal administration. My guess would be that this process has decayed or been completely abandoned. I’ve always been opposed to process for its own sake, but I have to admit that this scenario highlights the importance of having a reliable, rigorous approach to crucial issues, such as national security.

In addition to highlighting the importance of a consistent approach to national security, the consideration of how the scenario would have unfolded in a more normal administration reveals several other questions that need asking.

First is how aware was the FBI Director of the threats that his officers were picking up on social networks prior to January 6? If he wasn’t aware, then he needs to reexamine how information flows in the Bureau. If he was aware, did he forward the warning to other parts of the government? Did he for example inform the Secret Service, responsible for the security of the President and Vice-President? (One would hope so.) Might that be the reason the President did not accompany the marchers to the Capitol, after saying he would? Would a desire to avoid having to answer such questions explains the FBI Director’s lack of public comment to date?

But if the President and/or White House were in fact warned about the potential for violence and did not alter their plans, then their complicity appears clear, even if they were not involved in the planning beforehand. If they weren’t informed about the threats, then they are probably to blame for creating an environment where government officials don’t want to deliver bad news or see no purpose in speaking truth to power. A dangerously dysfunctional administration.

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