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Police are flying surveillance over Washington. Where were they last week?

Aircraft are scanning the skies above DC–a level of security that raises questions about the efforts of Capitol Police before the assault on Congress.
January 18, 2021
defaced Capitol building
Lev Radin/Sipa USA via AP Images

As the world watched rioters take over the US Capitol on January 6, the lack of security was chilling. Some active police officers stood their ground but were outnumbered and defenseless. Other video showed an officer appearing to wave members of a pro-Trump mob beyond a police barrier; some were even filmed taking selfies with the invaders. 

Ahead of the inauguration, however, the government is responding with a show of force that includes ramping up surveillance measures that likely were not in place ahead of the riot.

Multiple surveillance aircraft have been tracked over DC in the last few days, according to data from flight-tracking websites ADS-B Exchange and Flight Aware and monitored by MIT Technology Review. A surveillance plane registered to Lasai Aviation, a contractor of the US Army, likely equipped with highly sensitive radar was logged circling Capitol airspace in a racetrack motion for several hours in the middle of the day on January 13. The same type of plane, also registered to Lasai Aviation, was previously spotted in Latvia near the border of Russia and Belarus. The Department of Defense has denied that the plane belongs to the US military. 

Screenshot of the surveillance plane from ADS-B Exchange

In addition, two helicopters registered to the US Department of the Interior and operated by the US Park Police have been flying over the city. One has been spotted almost every day since January 10 and another was tracked in the air on January 11-13. The Park Police said the flights were part of routine maintenance, and the helicopters are frequent fliers in the city. There have also been regular reports of DC Metropolitan police helicopters over Washington since January 6.

This is not the first time such vehicles have been deployed in the skies above Congress in the past year. Over the summer, for example, the National Guard used an RC-26B reconnaissance craft carrying infrared and electro-optical cameras to monitor the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington; it had previously been used for reconnaissance in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, says that the mob at the Capitol “was an attack on the core functions of our democracy.” From a civil liberties perspective, he says, increased surveillance is “certainly justified” to protect democracy, though transparency and policies around the use of technologies are essential. “We should scrutinize and interrogate the necessity for aerial surveillance in any situation”, he says. 

But the level of surveillance and show of force at the Capitol stand in marked contrast to the apparent lack of security in place ahead of January 6. A search by MIT Technology Review found evidence of only one helicopter run by the DC police in the skies at the time of the Capitol mob. Currently, thousands of troops are stationed inside and outside the building, and the situational response is taking on a formality and sophistication akin to a military operation. While Stanley cautions that it is unlikely that increased surveillance would have dramatically changed the course of the assault, the disparity between then and now has left many experts wondering what went wrong before the Capitol riot, and why.

“There just didn't seem to be any kind of a response,” says Seth Stoughton, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. “That looks like a planning, leadership, or command-and-control failure.”

So what should have happened, and what went wrong? 

Advance notice to a heavily-funded force

The potential threat on January 6 might have surprised some, but the danger was known and visible to law enforcement. According to the Washington Post, the FBI’s Norfolk Field Office sent a situational awareness report on January 5 about credible threats of violence at the Capitol. Hotels were booked up in the area, and there had been weeks of online discussion about organized violence. A leader of the Proud Boys was arrested in Washington, DC, two days before the rally with high-capacity firearm magazines. And most of all, of course, President Trump had been falsely telling his supporters for months that the election had been stolen from him, and that followers would have to “liberate” states. On the morning of the riot, he addressed the crowd and told them, “You will never take back our country with weakness.”

Despite all this, the US Capitol Police had prepared for a typical free-speech rally with only scattered violence, such as small fights breaking out in large crowds. There are no reports of standard surveillance measures used ahead of potentially violent large-scale events, such as police videographers or pole camera set-ups, and only one helicopter registered to the DC Police to perform aerial surveillance. Body cameras on police also appeared to be used sparingly, as the Capitol police do not wear them.

Nor were resources an issue. The United States Capitol Police, or USCP, is one of the most well-funded police forces in the country. It is responsible for security across just 0.4 square miles of land, but that area hosts some of the most high-profile events in American politics, including presidential inaugurations, lying-in-state ceremonies, and major protests. The USCP is well-staffed, with 2,300 officers and civilian employees, and its annual budget is at least $460 million—putting it among the top 20 police budgets in the US. In fact, it’s about the size of the Atlanta and Nashville police budgets combined. For comparison, the DC Metropolitan Police Department—which works regularly with the USCP and covers the rest of the District’s 68 square miles—has a budget of $546 million

The USCP is different from state and local departments in other important ways, too. As a federal agency that has no residents inside its jurisdiction, for example, it answers to a private oversight board and to Congress—and only Congress has the power to change its rules and budgets. Nor is it subject to transparency laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, which makes it even more veiled than the most opaque departments elsewhere in the country. 

All of this means there is little public information about the tools and tactics that were at the USCP’s disposal ahead of the riots. 

But “they have access to some pretty sophisticated stuff if they want to use it,” says Stoughton. That includes the resources of other agencies like the Secret Service, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, and the United States military. (“We are working [on technology] on every level with pretty much every agency in the country,” the USCP’s then-chief said in 2015, in a rare acknowledgment of the force’s technical savvy.)

What should have happened

With such resources at its disposal, the Capitol Police would likely have made heavy use of online surveillance ahead of January 6. Such monitoring usually involves not just watching online spaces, but tracking known extremists who had been at other violent events. In this case, that would include the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and the protest against coronavirus restrictions at the Michigan state capitol in 2020. 

Exactly what surveillance was happening before the riots is unclear. The FBI turned down a request for a comment, and the USCP did not respond. “I’d find it very hard to believe, though, that a well-funded, well-staffed agency with a pretty robust history of assisting with responding to crowd control situations in DC didn’t do that type of basic intelligence gathering,” says Stoughton. 

Ed Maguire, professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University, is an expert on protests and policing. He says undercover officers would usually operate in the crowd to monitor any developments, which he says can be the most effective surveillance tool to manage potentially volatile situations—but that would require some preparedness and planning that perhaps was lacking. 

Major events of this kind would usually involve a detailed risk assessment, informed by monitoring efforts and FBI intelligence reports. These assessments determine all security, staffing, and surveillance plans for an event. Stoughton says that what he sees as inconsistency in officers’ decisions to retreat or not, as well as the lack of an evacuation plan and the clear delay in securing backup, point to notable mistakes. 

This supports one of the more obvious explanations for the failure: that the department simply misjudged the risk. 

What seems to have happened

It appears that Capitol Police didn’t coordinate with the Park Police or the Metropolitan Police ahead of the rally—though the Metropolitan Police were staffed at capacity in anticipation of violence. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who announced his resignation in the wake of the riots, also asserts that he requested additional National Guard backup on January 5, though the Pentagon denies this.

The USCP has also been accused of racial bias, along with other police forces. Departments in New York, Seattle, and Philadelphia are among those looking into whether their own officers took part in the assault, and the Capitol Police itself suspended “several” employees and will investigate 10 officers over their role.

But one significant factor that might have altered the volatility of the situation, Maguire says, is that police clashes with the Proud Boys in the weeks and days before the event, including a violent rally in Salem, Oregon, and the arrest of the white supremacist group’s leader, Henry Tarrio, fractured the right wing’s assumption that law enforcement was essentially on their side. On January 5, Maguire had tweeted about hardening rhetoric and threats of violence as this assumption started to fall apart. 

 “That fraying of the relationship between the police and the right in the few days leading up to this event, I think, are directly implicated in the use of force against police at the Capitol,” he says. In online comments on video of the confrontation in Oregon, he says, it’s clear there’s “a sense of betrayal” among the Proud Boys.

“A land grab for new powers”

Despite all the problems in the immediate response to the assault, investigations and arrests of the rioters have been taking place. The Capitol grounds are well-fitted with surveillance tools, many of which will be called on as investigations continue. A sea of Wi-Fi networks and cell towers capture mobile-phone data, and an expansive fleet of high-tech cameras covers most of the building. 

As of January 16, the FBI has collected 140,000 pieces of social media through an online portal asking for tips and images from the mob. The agency also has access to facial recognition software from ClearviewAI, which reported a spike in use of its tool in the days after the riot.

But the lack of transparency into police tools, tactics, policies, and execution makes any attempt at connecting the dots speculation. Experts have been calling for formal investigations into exactly what happened ahead of January 6, because transparency into the intelligence analysis and operational decisions is the only way to determine the key points of failure. On January 15, the inspectors general of the Departments of Justice, Defense, the Interior and Homeland Security announced a joint investigation into the federal response.

As the inauguration of Joe Biden ramps up, all eyes will be on whether the security professionals are prepared. And their eyes will likely be on us, too, as surveillance continues to increase, though it’s unlikely the public will know about the true nature of that surveillance anytime soon. 

Stanley suggests we should remain vigilant about the impact of the fallout from the Capitol, cautioning that “the people who want various security powers and toys and so forth use an emergency to try and get it. We saw that after 9/11 and I think there's going to be some of that now too.” 

He echoes the calls for investigation and transparency into the Capitol police on January 6, but suggests that people remain skeptical. “Don't let this become a land grab for new powers and surveillance activities because of the law enforcement’s very failures,” he says.

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