The January 6 Committee: Its significance and implications for understanding terrorism

The hearing was important for what it said about US politics. But it also had implications for the US understanding of terrorism.
Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., arrive as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds its first public hearing, June 9, 2022. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., arrive as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds its first public hearing, June 9, 2022. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Thursday evening, the House Select Committee on the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol held its first public hearing. Nearly 20 million Americans watched the proceedings.

The hearing was important for what it said about US politics. But it also had implications for the US understanding of terrorism.

The Hearing and What it Says about US Politics

On January 6, 2021, as a joint session of Congress met to certify Joe Biden as the winner of the November 3, 2020, election, Donald Trump's supporters attacked the Capitol building to block the proceedings. 

Trump claimed the vote was fraudulent, but as the hearing made clear, he had been repeatedly told by his senior advisors there had been no fraud on a scale significant enough to have changed the election results.

William Barr, Trump's Attorney General, told the committee that he had three discussions with Trump on this: November 23, December 1, and December 24.

"In that context, I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen," Barr said, "which I told the president was bullshit"—strong language for someone like Barr to use in such a formal context.

"You can't live in a world, where the incumbent administration stays in power based on its view, unsupported by specific evidence," Barr continued, "that there was fraud in the election." 

Trump's daughter, Ivanka, told the Committee, "I respect Attorney General Barr. So I accepted what he was saying."

Rep. Liz Cheney (R, Wyoming) is the Vice-Chair of the Committee. In her opening remarks, she provided a broad outline of what the Committee had learned and what future hearings would cover.

"In our second hearing," she said, "you will see that Donald Trump and his advisers knew that he had, in fact, lost the election" (that hearing will occur later today, June 13).

"But, despite this," she continued, Trump "engaged in a massive effort to spread false and fraudulent information to convince huge portions of the US population that fraud had stolen the elections."

Indeed, such charges were echoed incessantly in the conservative media, whether Fox News or lesser outlets, like the inaptly named "American Thinker".

Republican officials did much the same. At first, they were outraged, blaming Trump for the assault. Immediately afterward, the Speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R, California), told Republican leaders that he planned to tell Trump to resign or face impeachment—but, of course, he never did.

Contemporary America: 'Post-Truth' Society

Despite all that happened, including the deaths of five Capitol Police officers, the Republican Party's political base stuck with Trump. Rep. McCarthy hopes to become Speaker again after the mid-term elections in November, when the Republicans may well regain a majority in the House. So, rather than tell Trump off, McCarthy soon reconciled with him.

Gen. Michael Hayden, the retired director of two major US intelligence agencies—CIA and NSA—has called this the "post-truth world." 

Americans are now making decisions less on the basis of facts and evidence and more on the basis of feelings and emotional satisfaction, Hayden advised Kurdistan 24

Trump "brilliantly identified" this phenomenon during the election campaign, Hayden said, and continued "to exploit it" after he became president.

Thus, Cheney and her House colleague, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Illinois), who also sits on the committee, are among the few Republicans who have proven willing to challenge Trump. 

The rest place a higher premium on ensuring they retain their positions, and in her opening remarks, Cheney had some pointed advice for them.

"Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible," she said. "There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain."

The January 6 Conspiracy

"The violence was no accident," Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D, Mississippi) affirmed on Thursday, describing it as an "attempted coup" that "aimed to halt the transfer of power."

Cheney summarized the conspiracy in her opening remarks, "Over multiple months, Donald Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven part plan to overturn the Presidential election and prevent the transfer of Presidential power."

She described a meeting on December 18 that Trump held with, among others, retired General Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, and Sidney Powell, a former federal prosecutor from Texas.

"They stayed late into the evening," Cheney said, and "discussed a number of dramatic steps, including having the military seize voting machines and potentially rerun elections."

"A little more than an hour" after they left, Trump posted a tweet "telling people to come to Washington on January 6," Cheney stated. "Be there, he instructed them. Will be wild."

"As you will see, this was a pivotal moment," Cheney affirmed.

Nearly 900 people have been arrested and charged for their actions on January 6, including the leaders of two self-styled militias. A little over 300 of those charged have pled guilty, while seven trials have been held. 

Despite the multiple legal proceedings, what Cheney said on Thursday was quite new: on December 18, 2021, a "pivotal moment" in the conspiracy followed Trump's lengthy meeting with Flynn, Giuliani, and Powell.

It sounds like the scheme to bring Trump's supporters to Washington on January 6 to pressure Vice President Mike Pence and the US Congress, as they ratified the electoral results, was hatched in that December 18 meeting.

That conclusion comes from the committee's hard work in trying to understand the big picture, the structure of the conspiracy. Who was behind it? How high did it go?

It did not come out of the legal proceedings, which typically focus narrowly on the guilt or innocence of those individuals charged with crimes. 

Implications for Understanding Terrorism

In the 1980s, during the Reagan years, the US had a major debate about terrorism. The consensual view that emerged was that terrorism directed against the US was basically state-sponsored, a form of proxy war.

Following any major attack, there were two investigations: an FBI-led investigation aimed at arresting and trying individual perpetrators and a CIA-led investigation into the big picture: which if any terrorist state was behind the attack.

Thus, the US had a short list of terrorist states, and the chances were high that one of them would be determined to have been responsible. That was certainly the case for the October 23, 1983, bombings of the US Marine Corps barracks and the French paratroopers' headquarters in Beirut.

The US death toll was high: 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers. It was the single most lethal day for the Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

French casualties were also high, with 58 paratroopers killed—the largest loss of life in the French military since the war in Algeria. 

A shadowy group calling itself Islamic Jihad claimed credit for the attack, but the US did not accept the claim. The US had an intercept, and in November, as The New York Times reported, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger announced "that it was Iranians who exploded the truck bomb" which targeted the Marines "with the 'sponsorship and knowledge and authority of the Syrian government.'"

Similarly, in December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Following a multi-year investigation involving US intelligence and law enforcement, as well as their UK counterparts, a microchip, part of the bomb's timing device, the size of a fingernail, was discovered. 

It allowed authorities to tie the bomb to Libya and eventually arrest, try, and convict a Libyan intelligence officer. In addition, sanctions were imposed on Libya.

Both the state sponsor of the attack and as many individuals who could be identified as having participated were punished. It was an effective way to deal with terrorism, and there were no further major attacks against the US—until Bill Clinton became president.

Terrorism Under Bill Clinton

Clinton dramatically changed how the US dealt with terrorism. Instead of treating it as a national security issue, with the focus on determining state sponsorship, Clinton turned it into a law enforcement issue, with the focus on the arrest, trial, and conviction of individual perpetrators.

The issue was taken from those with significant experience dealing with it—the US national security agencies—and given to those with minimal experience—law enforcement.

Moreover, a "wall" existed between law enforcement and the national security agencies. Following any arrest, the FBI stopped sharing information with them. Supposedly, that was necessary to protect the defendants' rights to a fair trial. But it was really an FBI power play, as knowledge is power.

New York's World Trade Center was bombed on February 26, 1993, a month after Clinton became president. Already, six days after the bombing, the FBI made its first arrest: a 26-year-old Palestinian who returned to the rental agency for his deposit on the van that carried the bomb.

With that arrest, the wall went up. Neither US intelligence nor any foreign intelligence had access to the information the FBI was gathering. 

Much of it became public later, once the trial began. But intelligence agencies do not typically go to a courthouse to copy publicly available documents. They also don't wait months to reach a conclusion. Both US and foreign intelligence agencies suffered a radical lack of information: the most important information—the results of the FBI investigation—was not available because it was held up in judicial proceedings. 

Yet that did not stop them from reaching conclusions, even as they seemed not to know that New York FBI, the lead investigative agency, suspected Iraq was behind the attack. 

The mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, had entered the US on an Iraqi passport and was known in New York as "Rashid the Iraqi." He fled successfully. So, too, did an Iraqi-American, Abdul Rahman Yasin, who came from Baghdad before the bombing and returned there afterward.

To Jim Fox, head of the New York FBI, the initial arrests were too easy. It looked to him like a plot, masterminded by others, with the Islamic extremists left behind to be arrested and take the blame.

Read More: Revisiting Ramzi Yousef's terrorism: World Trade Center bombing and Philippines plane bombing plot

Since both indicted fugitives had ties to Iraq, Fox suspected that Iraq was behind the bombing. 

The reasoning was simple and straightforward. But the issue became hopelessly confused as blunders followed—including from Israel, which had developed the notion that a new kind of terrorism, based on Islamic extremism, had come into being, and it did not involve states!

But why can't terrorist states work with, use, and hide behind Islamic extremists? There was no reason at all—but Israelis and US Jewish groups were very active in promoting the opposite view.

Still, Clinton was the bigger problem. He did not want Americans to know of the suspicions of the New York FBI that Iraq was behind the bombing. They might demand that he do something serious about Saddam Hussein. But Clinton did not want to and did not think it necessary. 

Instead, Clinton found a sneaky way to deal with the problem. In April 1993, on the eve of a visit by former President George H. W. Bush, Kuwaiti authorities discovered a plot to assassinate him and broke it up.

On June 27, the Clinton administration launched a cruise missile attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters. It said the strike was punishment for Saddam's attempt to kill Bush, but Clinton meant the strike for the Trade Center bombing as well. Clinton and his senior advisors believed that that one strike would deter Saddam from all further attacks on US targets.

That was a great foolishness, as this reporter would argue strongly. In December 1994, Martin Indyk, Clinton's National Security Council Advisor on the Middle East, asked to meet with me. 

So I told Indyk what I understood to have happened: Saddam had bombed the Trade Center; New York FBI suspected that; the Clinton White House knew that; and its strike on Iraqi intelligence headquarters was meant as a response not only to Saddam's attempt to assassinate Bush but to the Trade Center bombing, as well. 

The White House believed that strike would deter Saddam from all further attacks, "but it only stopped Saddam temporarily," I said. 

To all of that, Indyk responded with just one word, "Temporarily?" 

"Sure, Martin," I replied, "One strike on an empty building at night is not going to stop Saddam forever."