Opinion: The Frog in the Capitol

Meir Gershuni analyzes the security failures that led to the attack by Trump supporters on Capitol Hill last week, and examines the absence of proactive consideration as well as the facilitative approach to the red flags that were raised months ago 

Trump supporters storm the Capitol building last week. Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Meir Gershuni

The attack on Capitol Hill that took place on January 6, 2021 is a startling event on every scale, and also in terms of the tragic consequences in the form of the deaths of five people.  After the many security breaches in the congressional compound and the White House over the years, the many large demonstrations in the city and alarming events such as clashes between violent protesters and security forces across the country, it was definitely to be expected that the Capitol police would be prepared for such an event. I will start by saying that confrontation with a violent crowd is one of the most difficult events to deal with in terms of security.  From the moment the rioters broke into the building - the security personnel should be commended for the restraint they displayed in the way they contained the incident. They did not take a "win at any cost" approach. With sensitivity and determination, they stood in front of the rioters and at the same time evacuated the occupants of the facility and protected them. The situation could have deteriorated into a bloodbath so it was good that they managed to avoid it.

A dramatic “wakeup call” event under similar circumstances occurred in Michigan on May 1, 2020 when many protesters, some armed with firearms, attempted to break into the House of Representatives and were eventually pushed back with great difficulty by police. After the incident, a senator testified that some of her colleagues wore bulletproof vests due to fear for their lives. This demonstration came two weeks after another event, also in Michigan, on April 15, when hundreds of protesters were sitting in their cars around the House of Representatives and actually placed it under siege.

Even then, President Donald Trump expressed his support for the protesters and tweeted "Liberate Michigan."

Analyzing this indicates two main surprises that should not have been a surprise: the first concerns the assessment/intelligence aspect and the lack of proactive approach to refer to catalysts that could agitate the crowd, in this case, that incumbent President Trump would escalate/degrade the situation to such a level. "Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” he tweeted to his supporters two days earlier and again at the end of his speech prior to the event, calling them to march towards the Capitol building.

The second surprise focuses on the security aspect and the astounding fact that is reflected in the inconceivable ease of the crowd storming into the building. The security gap was revealed in the absence of readiness for the scenario of a violent mob break-in, both in terms of physical protection measures to prevent and delay mass intrusion and in terms of tactical deployment. Thus, despite the large presence of police forces, they were overpowered relatively easily by the incited mob.

In view of the difficult scenes seen on the screens, it was difficult to avoid flashes of comparison to the events described in the TV series "The Designated Survivor" but this time it is a painful reality.

It is difficult to justify the security failures, perhaps the facilitative approach in reference to "red flags" raised at previous events stems from the assumption that their very presence is in the structure of prominent representatives, serving in the House of Representatives, who are ostensibly identified with the protesters' ideological and party line.  At the very least, even if there was a feeling among the police chiefs that there was a guarantee that there would be no violent actions in the Capitol and that the situation would not deteriorate, a contrary approach - consideration of the opposite view - was missing.

The failure is first and foremost of the Capitol Police, with an annual budget of over half a billion dollars! But also, of the secret service as the one in charge of the security of dignitaries who are in place, such as the vice president and also the DC city police who were supposed to control the crowd while in the far circles.

It is worth emphasizing a significant point of light in the functioning of the Capitol Police and it should be noted that it is certainly not negligible, and that is the fact that no representative from the House of Representatives was harmed during the event. This result was achieved thanks to the rapid, efficient evacuation to safe haven in the building.

The failure to be prepared can, in my opinion, be attributed to an ongoing "negative normalization" process of abnormal acts with potential threat, on the part of the police command, thinking that "this is not going to happen here." In fact, it is the epitome of the "boiling frog". A lack of response to significant changes that occur gradually. As noted above, in May 2020 protesters tried to break into the Michigan House of Representatives, some armed with firearms, demonstrating similar conduct without encountering firm resistance, and in recent weeks protesters arrived time and time again in Washington while encountering a minor police response.

There is no doubt that in-depth investigations and changes are already underway in the security preparations in the Capitol and probably in other government bodies that were amazed at the incident. It is likely that in the inauguration of the new president in less than two weeks we will see a massive security presence that has not yet been seen in the inauguration ceremonies thus far. The pendulum is now moving in the direction of aggravation and perhaps even over-security but eventually, it is to be hoped, the balance will be found.  The big challenge is to identify the changes in time and prepare accordingly.


Meir Gershuni is a former senior member of the ISA and owner of the consulting company "Meir Gershuni Consulting Ltd."

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