“The Capitol has been pierced. Lock down the SCIF and prepare to evacuate. The call to my direct line came just off the Senate floor shortly after 2:15 p.m. I heard what he said, but I had a hard time understanding what had happened.
A year later, we are still looking for answers.
One thing is clear: where Americans are torn by internal strife and mistrust, adversaries see an opportunity. And they take it. Unless we stop them.
The Senate “SCIF” – the large secure facility supporting the classified work of the Senate – is in the United States Capitol, two stories below ground and behind arched doorways. As Director of Senate Security at the time, I only had a small team on site that day due to COVID constraints. We had been monitoring intelligence updates on potential foreign threats to the joint session of Congress all morning, but none seemed to warrant additional precautions beyond the preparedness posture already in place.
Then we learned that two bombs were discovered a few blocks away, near the national headquarters of the Democratic and Republican parties, drawing police away from the Capitol to evacuate nearby buildings and cordon off the areas. This investigation was ongoing when my phone rang.
“The Capitol has been pierced.“How could that be? Video feeds from both chambers went dark as the Senate, then the House, abruptly went into recess, and we switched our TV screens to news coverage of just what was happening. above us…
Were these people armed? Had they brought more pipe bombs – or worse – into the building? The United States Capitol is a known target of foreign terrorists; were any among the crowd who had attacked the police and were now roaming the halls freely?
Text messages and phone calls were flying as we tried to track the hasty movement of senators and staff off the Senate floor and away from intruders. I thought the heavily vaulted SCIF was probably the safest place in the Capitol: we weren’t going to leave.
The officer posted at the entrance secured the area around the SCIF and moved inside with us, where he monitored calls continuously on his police radio. Staff locked up sensitive documents and alarmed internal spaces, while I filled out situation reports from emergency preparedness teams and across the Capitol complex.
“They’re coming this way,” reads the silent email from a fourth-floor staff member. “I hear them in the hallway,” added another. “They are trying to break down the door,” another staffer wrote. ” I do not know what to do. I am alone here.”
We relayed their pleas for help to Capitol Police, but they were overwhelmed and unable to respond for over an hour.
All we could do was urge people stuck in their offices to stay put, barricade the door and keep quiet until help arrived.
Later, a first-year Conservative senator told me, “It was my first time in the Senate. I didn’t know if we were going to be killed or what. No one could believe this was happening. How could Americans storm their own Capitol and attack the US Congress?
The great American experiment in democracy has always been based on the premise that there are more things that unite us than divide us. Whatever our disagreements, we can find our way back to a common goal.
However, something has changed.
As President George W. Bush warned on 20and anniversary of September 11, “An evil force seems to be at work in our life together that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures.”
The ominous lessons of January 6 have not been lost on Moscow or Beijing or others who see benefit in deepening discord within our borders.
Last summer, the intelligence community reported (again) that Russia continued to interfere with our domestic politics. The already robust influence operations of Russia, China and Iran have grown even bolder as America’s internal polarization has deepened. With social media turning the truth into a popularity contest, it has become so easy for them: just insert lies, conspiracy theories, stolen personal information and watch what happens.
Either the American people will overcome the divisions that tear us apart, or future generations will bear the cost – but that judgment should be on our own terms, not the product of foreign manipulation. In June, the Biden administration released the first National strategy against domestic terrorism. It’s a rallying cry for unity at home – but it completely overlooks this darker reality.
Congress has ordered the director of national intelligence to set up a “Foreign Malign Influence Response Center” to assess and warn of these growing threats, but its launch date remains uncertain. The warning is vital, but it is only the beginning. We also need the national will and capacity to act.
“It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty,” President BidenJoe BidenRussia moves naval drills over Irish concerns Britain’s Johnson says he’s ordered armed forces to prepare for deployment next week amid Ukrainian tensions Youngkin sparks Democratic backlash in Virginia MORE said of these malicious acts. So how is it possible that we still don’t have a strategy to stop them?
The US government has substantial resources to counter foreign intelligence threats – but successive administrations have failed to produce a cohesive plan to orchestrate them to a common end. A 2018 law calling for the appointment of a White House-level coordinator to combat influence operations was never implemented. The default for our counterintelligence business has been the status quo, while threats – and our vulnerabilities – continue to grow.
For example, according to news reports, counterintelligence officials sent an all-post cable in September warning of unexplained casualties to CIA sources around the world. If true, these compromises, endangering countless lives, have clouded the integrity of CIA reporting and bring deep emotion to the question, what now?
Having been head of US counterintelligence when the position was created in 2002, my answer is simple: It’s time to go on the attack. Yes, step up security, educate the public, pursue legal remedies, engage social media platforms to block dangerous content – but playing defense alone will never be enough.
The United States needs a national-level strategic program to identify and disrupt hostile intelligence and influence operations directed against us. The Senate version of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2022 would lay the groundwork to begin with.
President Biden’s new counterintelligence chief (who has yet to be named) will face the urgency of this task. Neither the FBI, nor the CIA, nor the military services can assume these threats alone. Unity of effort may be rare in America today, but it is vital here. And long awaited.
Amid shattered windows and divisive debris a year ago, the joint session convened well after dark — to tally the votes, as the Constitution required. It was nearly 4 a.m. when Senate counsel brought the 51 verification certificates to SCIF for safekeeping. As the last chore of the night, we locked them in the safe and turned off the lights.
The long hallway was deserted as I headed for the elevator.
The sign that read “Senate Security” had been smashed and thrown down a flight of stairs.
No, we didn’t see it coming. But we are now widely warned of the dangers that await us.
Our sovereignty has been violated. We can never come together as a nation again if we leave ourselves vulnerable to adversaries who intend to tear us apart. The only question is: will our political leadership find the shared sense of purpose necessary to stop them?
Michelle Van Cleave served as Director of Senate Security from 2020 to 2021; she previously served as head of US counterintelligence under President George W. Bush. She is a national security lawyer and consultant and is currently a senior advisor to the Jack Kemp Foundation.