Jan. 6 was ‘a colossal failure’ in tracking online extremism: former Homeland Security whistleblower

·Senior Producer and Writer
·2 min read

As a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration, Brian Murphy got a close look at the failures ahead of the insurrection at the Capitol.

His 26-year career at DHS and at the FBI focused on violent extremism and he watched, he said Thursday in a Yahoo Finance Live interview, as those departments failed in 2020 as an early warning system to the emerging threat from then-President Trump’s radicalized supporters.

Officials, he says, “were intimidated and were not looking at the obvious” planning that was taking place online.

Capitol police were caught largely flatfooted on Jan. 6, 2021 when thousands of Trump’s supporters stormed Capitol barricades after a rally near the White House. The barricades were quickly toppled before the rioters broke into the building at around 2 p.m. ET., as Congress was getting ready to certify Joe Biden's victory over Donald Trump.

Riot police push back a crowd of supporters of US President Donald Trump after they stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. - Donald Trump's supporters stormed a session of Congress held today, January 6, to certify Joe Biden's election win, triggering unprecedented chaos and violence at the heart of American democracy and accusations the president was attempting a coup. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP) (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
Riot police are overrun by a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump on January 6. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Media investigations quickly uncovered — some within hours and others within days — the extent of how Trump’s supporters had been openly planning the attack online on social media sites like Facebook (FB) and Reddit.

“It was a colossal failure,” Murphy said. “We as a country spent billions and billions investing in what we call the domestic intelligence architecture.”

‘We have the technology now’

During his time in government, Murphy spoke out about the Trump administration not taking domestic extremism seriously enough. He testified to Congress about the issue at the end of 2020.

The testimony came after a 24-page whistleblower complaint that accused the DHS leadership of actions meant to sway the 2020 presidential election. The central charge he made then was that his bosses distorted intelligence to play down the threats posed by Russia and by white supremacists in order to match then-President Trump’s rhetoric.

Since leaving the government, Murphy has focused on the issue from the private sector at a company called Logically.ai. The company described its mission as using technology "to provide everyone, from individual citizens to national governments, with the tools they need to identify and disarm damaging and misleading information being shared online."

“We have the technology now in this country — we're just not using it,” says Murphy, arguing that the key in his mind is making connections across multiple platforms to track trends. “Right now most of the social listening happening uses yesterday's technology,” he said. “That's not a recipe for success in the future.”

Murphy says the ongoing threat of extremism and disinformation online leading to real-world violence — and the government's failure to address it — is “wearing away at the pillars of democracy.”

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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