Q&A

‘This Was Like Charlottesville on Steroids’

Security expert Erroll Southers speaks with Foreign Policy on the roots of the Capitol assault.

Riot police push back a crowd of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump at the Capitol
Riot police push back a crowd of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump after they stormed the Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 6. Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 has shocked Americans—not just at the sight of an insurrection encouraged by a sitting president, but at the security failures that allowed domestic terrorists to reach the heart of government. To understand what went wrong, Foreign Policy’s deputy editor James Palmer spoke to Erroll Southers, a professor and leading security expert who is director of the Safe Communities Institute and Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, as well as being a former FBI agent.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: What went wrong on Jan. 6?

Erroll Southers: Where do I begin? Obviously, they did not heed the open-source information by individuals and groups about their planned intentions for Jan. 6, accompanied by the statements from the executive office and the constant drumbeat since Nov. 3 to suggest that the election was unfair or rigged—and this could be corrected despite 60 lawsuits, 59 of which failed, a rejection from the Supreme Court, and all of the Electoral College votes being in place. The first thing that went wrong is that the agencies involved, despite all of that information, especially the [information about] violence, thought they were going to have a peaceful assembly, and that it would end peacefully. It went totally off the rails when some of the speeches were made in the speeches that morning.

Erroll Southers testifies during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in Washington on May 9, 2013.

Erroll Southers testifies during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in Washington on May 9, 2013. Susan Walsh/AP

I honestly believe a 9/11 Commission should be undertaken to review this incident. There was a full independent review of the Charlottesville incident—an excellent review by an independent group—and this was like Charlottesville on steroids. The review has to cover the multiple intelligence failures. Months ahead of this, [the Department of Homeland Security]’s threat assessment unit was gutted by the executive branch. The agencies didn’t work together anticipating this kind of activity. Requests to send in the National Guard were ignored—and so it went from bad to worse to terrible. The Charlottesville review, although the department didn’t like it, was very fair.

Leading up to this, we knew there would be violence that day. In fact, I predicted violence at every state capitol, and there was violence at many of them. This was not a secret. You didn’t have to have a security clearance to know what was going to happen.

I have a number of courses I teach to largely public safety officials, police, fire, and emergency managers. I’ve told them all along, the anti-government groups, left or right, are not friends of yours. If you wear a uniform, you are the most visible form of what they disagree with, every day. And unfortunately now we have two police officers dead. There are also going to be some really interesting reveals about the complicity of some of the officers that day, aiding and abetting the bedlam.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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