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DHS’ Rigid Security Protocols Contributed to Inadequate Jan. 6 Response, GAO Says

The department is too inflexible to be responsive to "the current environment of emerging threats," GAO found.

The Homeland Security Department’s confusing and rigid system for providing enhanced security at special events contributed to an inadequate response to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that led to at least seven deaths, the government’s top watchdog found in a new report. 

No government entity made a request for a National Special Security Event or a Special Event Assessment Rating, two designations that the Government Accountability Office said would have allowed the department to coordinate security in advance of the planned protests and rallies that precipitated the violence. Homeland Security officials told GAO—which conducted its review at the request of more than 100 House members—the events did not rise to the level of an NSSE or SEAR designation, but the auditors countered that the fallout made clear those processes were in need of an update. 

In addition to the deaths, the seven-hour melee by Trump supporters contesting the outcome of the 2020 presidential election resulted in assaults on 140 police officers and about $1.5 million in damages, GAO noted.  

Homeland Security typically awards NSSE or SEAR designations after a request from a governor or federal official. NSSE events are rare and have included inaugurations, conventions and state of the union addresses. SEARs are more common and include the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington or the Super Bowl. After a request is made, a working group makes a recommendation and the DHS secretary determines whether to grant it. After a designation, the Secret Service coordinates a response. 

On Jan. 6, President Trump held a rally at the Ellipse just south of the White House. GAO noted that some, but not all, previous presidential rallies were deemed SEARs. Homeland Security officials faulted the D.C. government for failing to make a request, but city officials said they did not believe they had the authority to request a special event designation on federal land. That confusion contributed to an inadequate response, GAO said. 

Homeland Security officials also said the certification of the election that took place on Jan. 6 was a routine congressional event and therefore did not rise to the level of requiring special security. GAO disputed that view, noting the vice president’s attendance, the fact that it was a joint session of Congress and social media posts prior to the day should have alerted DHS to the risks. The auditors accused department officials of failing to properly evaluate the context of the events given the contentious nature of the election and called on the department to be more dynamic going forward. 

“While election certification by the Congress was a routine event in the past, the threat environment in 2021 was different from past elections,” GAO said. “While past congressional certifications of election results were not designated NSSEs, and DHS officials considered this normal congressional business, the lack of consideration of other factors, such as the large rally at the Ellipse that mobilized to the Capitol, and the climate surrounding the 2020 election demonstrate a gap in the adaptability of how these events are considered.”

Homeland Security rejected GAO’s findings, saying it already factored the context of events into its security operations. NSSE designations take months to determine, department officials added. They argued that local officials should have known their ability to make a special request and therefore no policy clarifications were necessary. GAO said the results on Jan. 6 spoke for themselves with regard to the effectiveness of department policy.  

“While DHS has developed factors for designating an event an NSSE, it is not clear whether they are adaptable to the current environment of emerging threats,” GAO said. “The level of readiness to address the events of January 6, 2021, suggests that the factors may need to be revisited.”

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