The mob that rampaged inside the halls of Congress on Wednesday might have taken a lot more than Americans’ illusions of invulnerability.
“National security equities” may have been among the records stolen from the Capitol on Wednesday when pro-Trump insurgents stormed the building and looted several congressional offices, the Justice Department said in a briefing Thursday.
Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., said it will likely take “several days to flesh out exactly what happened, what was stolen, what wasn’t,” noting that “items, electronic items were stolen from senators’ offices, documents and materials were stolen, and we have to identify what was done to mitigate that [damage].”
Lawmakers and congressional staffers are demanding answers about how a federal complex in the nation’s capital with its own police force was overrun in broad daylight, leading to four deaths and dozens of injuries.
But it’s not only the physical security of members, staff and other employees that was endangered by the breach—congressional offices were ransacked, and at least one laptop, belonging to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), was stolen, Merkley said. Rioters were photographed sitting at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk and removing a piece of her mail from the building. And the Senate Parliamentarian’s office was raided, leaving piles of documents scattered across the floor and into the hallway.
“We have to do a full review of what was taken, or copied, or even left behind in terms of bugs and listening devices, etc.,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), raising the possibility that foreign adversaries could have easily infiltrated the crowd that encircled the Capitol.
The House Chief Administrative Office said in a memo to staff on Thursday evening that “at this time, there have been no indications that the House network was compromised,” noting that the office issued commands on Wednesday to lock computers and laptops and shut down wired network access amid the protests. Classified national security information, moreover, is supposed to be secured in Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities in the capitol, which were not breached during the attack, congressional aides said.
But questions remain about whether the attackers were able to remove any physical documents containing personal identifying information, legislative strategy or sensitive logistical details. The failures of the Capitol Police, which prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to request the police chief’s resignation on Thursday, and the risk that lawmakers might again be targeted makes it all the more urgent that officials get fully apprised what sensitive information — about members’ schedules, for example, or inauguration plans — was stolen, lawmakers said.
“If this were an organized, fully intent terrorist group — and there were certainly terrorist activities yesterday, but I mean, al Qaeda style — they could have killed a lot of representatives and god knows what else,” Gallego said. “There has to be a full accounting of what happened here.”
Gallego is one of dozens of lawmakers, staffers, capitol employees and journalists who were on the Hill on Wednesday when Capitol Police officers — a 2,000-person police force who were mostly in regular uniforms rather than riot gear — were swarmed by thousands of Trump supporters who had marched to the Capitol at the president’s urging to protest the results of the 2020 election.
Standing between the mob and the Capitol building — where lawmakers had assembled that morning to officially count the electoral votes for Biden and ultimately declare him the president-elect — were short, fairly lightweight barriers with “Area Closed” signs that protesters were seen simply ripping off before they charged the fences and the officers standing behind them.
Just over 100 people were arrested throughout the day, and dozens of Capitol Police and D.C. Metro Police officers were injured, law enforcement officials said on Thursday.
But Capitol Police are now facing a reckoning after appearing to feed the rioters’ perception that they would not be severely punished for their behavior, as one congressional staffer said — videos have circulated online appearing to show a Capitol police officer taking selfies with the protesters, and some Metro D.C. police officers were seen chatting and joking around with protesters who had breached the perimeter.
“The fact is that it’s explicitly because they were white dudes with the support of the president that law enforcement basically did nothing,” the staffer said.
One current Metro D.C. police officer said in a public Facebook post that off-duty police officers and members of the military, who were among the rioters, flashed their badges and I.D. cards as they attempted to overrun the building. “If these people can storm the Capitol building with no regard to punishment, you have to wonder how much they abuse their powers when they put on their uniforms,” the officer wrote.
“I agree they would take over the Capitol in minutes,” said another Democratic lawmaker when asked whether, on an average day with even looser security, an even more organized and militarized terrorist group might be able to breach the building. “Virtually every member is asking how this could happen,” he said.
The police on Thursday indicated that they were unprepared for the violence. D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said in a press conference on Thursday that there was “no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol.” And Capitol Police chief Steven A. Sund, who is expected to resign on January 16 over the security failures, said in a statement that while the Capitol Police had a “robust plan established to address anticipated First Amendment activities … these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior.”
It remains unclear why the police force was not prepared for the protests to escalate, given the repeated and explicit threats by many of Trump’s supporters — as recently as Tuesday night — that they were prepared to use force if necessary to enter the Capitol.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee that oversees Capitol Police funding, told reporters on Thursday that he was “livid” with police leadership and said that while “the rank and file did everything they could,” they were only able to hold off the mob for just over an hour until they breached the building because there “was no expeditious plan.”
An investigation into the security failures, he added, has to be done “rather quickly because we’ve got the inauguration coming in two weeks.”
Olivia Beavers and Heather Caygle contributed reporting.
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