U.S. Capitol Police intelligence chief warned Congress in July of right-wing attacks

John Shiffman
·3 min read
A day after Trump supporters occupied the U.S. Capitol building, in Washington

By John Shiffman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The director of intelligence for the U.S. Capitol Police warned Congress in July that rebellion against COVID-19 precautions had accelerated violence by right-wing “revolutionary extremists,” according to congressional testimony.

Four months before he joined the force, John K. Donohue, then a private security consultant, testified that the country desperately needed a sophisticated social media early-warning system, akin to the U.S. nuclear missile launch detection capability, to prevent a catastrophe.

“America is at a crossroads,” Donohue told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism during a July 16 hearing. “The intersection of constitutional rights and legitimate law enforcement has never been more at risk by domestic actors as it is now as seditionists actively promote a revolution.”

He added: “The time for acknowledging this phenomenon and rapidly working to preserve civil society is upon us.”

Donohue’s public warning, which has not been previously reported, came six months before a right-wing mob incited by false online conspiracies and President Donald Trump violently stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died as a result of the riot.

Donohue was hired by the Capitol Police as intelligence director in November, four months after his testimony. Reached by Reuters on Tuesday, Donohue declined to comment.

At the time Donohue testified, he was a recently retired New York City Police Department (NYPD) chief, following a 32-year career. According to a resume posted on the House committee’s website, Donohue’s work for the NYPD included planning for presidential, papal and head-of-state visits to the United Nations.

Before joining the Capitol Police, Donohue worked for much of 2020 for a private security firm and as a fellow for Rutgers University.

During his July testimony before the House subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, Donohue cited a link between restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus and “exponential growth in participation in the cyber-social domain that has coalesced around revolutionary extremist themes.”

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, these ingredients - social isolation, vast unemployment, fear of changing social order, and the most powerful ingredient, a perceived martyr for the cause - existed to a much lesser degree,” Donohue testified. “During the pandemic, in contrast to any previous time in world history, those ingredients have dramatically come into alignment.”

Donohue gave similar remarks to another House committee in September and this year co-authored a Rutgers research paper titled “Covid-19, Conspiracy and Contagious Sedition: A Case Study on the Militia-Sphere.” The paper explored how social media, including fringe chatrooms 4chan and Gab, helped fuel disinformation and foment violence.

“The potential for violence is now palpable,” Donohue co-wrote in the introduction. “That potential is amplified by an emerging and uncharted network for opportunistic violence and propaganda.”

Appearing before Congress in July, Donohue cited as harbingers of rebellion against the government last summer’s murders of federal building guard David Patrick Underwood and California sheriff’s deputy Damon Gutzwiller by members of a loose affiliation of right-wing people who espouse violent anti-government sentiment. Donohue also cited the fire-bombing of an NYPD police car by civil rights protesters.

“We need to learn from our past; we need to learn from our mistakes,” Donohue testified. “We need to move beyond that, and there is a path forward, but it is not through violent insurrection.”

(Reporting by John Shiffman ; Editing by Robert Birsel)