A Capitol Riot Commission Done Right

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Crowds gather outside the U.S. Capitol for the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Does all this talk about “insurrection” and domestic terrorism, or calls to apply counterinsurgency tactics to the American people in peacetime, strike you as a little irresponsible?

What are you, a terrorist sympathizer? 

With this kind of reasoning afoot, it’s no time to mince words. Republican lawmakers who don’t push back forcefully on this talk are setting up a monumental betrayal of their oaths to uphold the Constitution, and—in a violation of more fundamental laws of politics—possibly exposing their base to political persecution. 

It looks like we’re going to have a 9/11 Commission-style inquiry into the Capitol riot. Right now there remains some wrangling over its composition and scope. Senate Minority Leader McConnell and House Minority Leader McCarthy are right to insist on an equal balance on the commission, reportedly a bone of contention in negotiations. 

But ultimately the balance is less important than who the Republican commissioners are and whether they have subpoena power. Any commission in which Republican members aren’t given subpoena power should be a non-starter. Given that the only confirmed violent deaths were on the rioters’ side, and the likelihood of informants among the rioters, the reason for this is obvious. Anything less means the commission is a partisan exercise. I suspect this is the arrangement we’re likely to get, and I’m even less sanguine about congressional Republicans being brave enough to ask the right questions.

According to CNN, McConnell wants the January 6 commission to choose either a narrow focus on that day, or a broader focus on domestic extremism nationwide. A preference for the former demonstrates an understandable interest in moving on, but it also is likely to produce results unduly deferential to federal law enforcement. A better response is to concede Democrats’ broad scope, and then for Republican commissioners to investigate by their own lights. For instance, I’d like to know what all those libs, or children of liberal judges, were doing there that day. 

We also deserve answers about various informants at the Capitol that day, possibly among the Proud Boys, who have been under scrutiny by federal law enforcement for some time now and whose leader was a “prolific” snitch before the group even existed. We have also recently found out that an Oathkeepers leader used to be an FBI section chief. Perhaps he’s completely cut ties with his former employers, perhaps not. I’d like to know either way. Indeed, Speaker Pelosi, let’s figure out whether there was an “intelligence failure” on January 6. If there was, it probably wasn’t for lack of intelligence inputs.

Without the ability to ask questions like these, we are probably going to have a “28-pages”-sized hole in the official narrative of the Capitol riot. Democrats will not want to ask about human intelligence sources, either within thuggish groups like the Proud Boys or among more harmless kinds of cranks, such the QAnon moms. One does not need to sympathize with these groups to see this kind of thing as a potential political threat to conservatives. 

It’s also important in establishing a risk profile of the event. Can any dissident activity that is immediately location-tracked by attendees’ phones, subjected to immediate uncompelled financial surveillance by Bank of America, and heavily infiltrated by law enforcement, possibly pose a credible threat to the U.S. government, let alone be described as an “insurrection”? I think not.

What worries me about the way extremism works in this country is virtually nobody has an incentive to de-escalate these groups, and this kind of infiltration creates an incentive to make it worse. The SPLC has fundraising to attend to, the feds want to make cases, antifa wants to ruin as many lives as possible, infiltrators want to make themselves useful (often law enforcement already has significant leverage over them), and the media wants to make it all look salacious. 

There is very little room, as the response to Gwen Kansen’s piece here in October can attest, for anyone to say that maybe every member isn’t a monster, and that common law enforcement tactics used against these groups can end up ensnaring more or less innocent people. We aren’t permitted to say this in polite company anymore, but there really are lots of ways to deal with street hooliganism short of involving the FBI.

You may notice these points are similar to ones also made in these pages about Islamic extremism. That’s because they are, and it strikes me as a serious failure both of nerve and principle if we don’t make them with respect to right-wing groups as well. Other researchers—Trevor Aaronson’s book comes to mind—have pointed out how Islamic terrorists are often goaded on to violent acts by federal law enforcement, who then swoop in after all but putting bombs in their hands and get to pretend they foiled the next 9/11. In other words, there is a level of infiltration activity that goes beyond just intelligence gathering and into the realm of influence and control. The list of such operations is long.

Taking the longer view, the odds are good Minority Leader McCarthy will be Speaker of the House in two years, and here is one conservative who thinks McCarthy should respond to the threat of domestic terrorism with deadly seriousness. Not because the problem is much worse than it’s been in the past, but because the current panic is an obvious bluff, and the GOP needs to call it by asking questions about how much federal law enforcement knew, and when. Trust me, the Democrats do not want to actually take domestic extremism seriously—such inquiries would lead back to too many progressive foundations if done in an even-handed way.

It’s become a bit of a cliche among conservatives to talk about how we’re no longer living in the Reagan years, and of course it’s true. New times call for new economic responses, new political strategies, and the rest of it, but the most important way in which now is different from then is today the deep state is against us rather than with us (consider the difference in how Oliver North was treated compared to Mike Flynn). And only Congress can hold it accountable. 

Of course it wouldn’t do for a GOP legislator to suggest some of the things above. That would be irresponsible and crazy, totally Marjorie Taylor Greene territory. All the same, it should concern GOP legislators that a meme spread on the platforms of big tech, which has a high degree of control over what gets seen there, seems to have poisoned the brains of a not-exactly-negligible chunk of their base. I’m afraid Republicans may not be able to ignore this sort of thing forever. They may not be able to ignore it now.

Fortunately, no GOP legislator needs to credit anything I just said in order to check this. Please do not! All they need to do is concede the left’s point, then proceed to investigate by their own lights. Say that we, too, are deeply concerned about domestic terrorism, and we’d like to provide some oversight of federal law enforcement efforts in this area. Then get those subpoenas out. Ask the intelligence agencies when they first started tracking QAnon, or the Proud Boys, and demand everything. Informant arrangements, information ops, everything. This strategy is an example of what I wrote about in a previous column, using Congress’s investigative powers much more freely. I fully intend to beat this drum for at least the next two years. 

Republicans shouldn’t say that the Capitol riot was a false flag, as Ron Johnson and a Michigan state senator did recently. It probably wasn’t, whether or not you can find some antifa people there, and it’s irresponsible to say so without proof. The point of doing all this is to figure out what happened, and to learn whether our current defenses are sufficient. I suspect we will find they are more than sufficient. 

This is real oversight. The fake kind of oversight is creating a show, knowing full well what the witnesses are going to say. That will make you look like extremist sympathizers. The real kind, though, is totally constitutional, good for the body politic, and amounts to defending the party’s base from overreach while testing the government’s defenses against legitimate extremism. It’s the right thing to do. What the GOP needs to get over is its unstinting deference to g-men. If you think they still deserve that deference, I have a Durham Report to sell you. It probably isn’t just David French who’s itching to treat his countrymen like insurgents in Fallujah, and this urge has to be resisted, whatever poetic justice you might see in Trump supporters—many of whom probably voted for the president who brought us the Patriot Act—being subjected to the security state’s Eye of Sauron.

When the commission has finished investigating, they should call some witnesses and have hearings; perhaps some of Enrique Tarrio’s handlers can be compelled to testify. Maybe it will turn out their actions truly have been completely above board. If so, good! Also call some federal investigators who have helped put truly vicious criminals behind bars; the point is not to discredit law enforcement. Also call some QAnon moms, let the world see how harmless most of these people actually are, let them describe how they fell for nonsense, and describe what they’ve learned. That would be a good exercise for everyone.

In the hell-carnival of the 2020s, domestic extremism is the shooting gallery. A lot of ducks have been illuminated, but some are real targets, some aren’t. To end the carnival, send in the clowns. As the song goes, they’re already here.

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