Does the public have a right to see the Capitol riot security footage?

Fox News has Jan. 6 footage, and Democrats are worried. Should they be?

(Image credit: Illustrated | Gettyimages)

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently turned over more than 40,000 hours of Capitol building security footage taken during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to Fox News' Tucker Carlson. The host justified his newfound access by telling Axios that "if there was ever a question that's in the public's interest to know, it's what actually happened on January 6. By definition, this video will reveal it."

This invocation of "public interest" was echoed by McCarthy, who told The New York Times he believes the tapes "do belong to the American public. I think sunshine lets everybody make their own judgment."

Congressional Democrats, however, have balked at McCarthy's decision to hand over so much unredacted footage — some of which was already made public over the course of the Jan. 6 Select Committee hearings — to an overtly partisan figure like Carlson. Legitimate public interest in the events of Jan. 6 notwithstanding, multiple high-profile Democrats have begun expressing concern in recent days over the safety and security implications of Carlson's newfound ability to selectively edit and broadcast potentially sensitive information without context, or oversight. So what exactly are Democrats so worried about, and what — if anything — can they do about it?

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What are Democrats saying?

In a "Dear Colleagues" letter to fellow Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that the footage given to Carlson contains a "treasure trove of closely held information about how the Capitol complex is protected," such as the location of various security cameras, and a look at police emergency response plans. Accordingly, Schumer contended, "its public release would compromise the safety of the Legislative Branch." Moreover, by tapping Carlson specifically as the recipient of footage, "McCarthy laid bare that this shame is simply about pandering to MAGA election deniers, not the truth."

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) offered similar concerns in his own letter to congressional Democrats this week, writing that McCarthy's arrangement with Carlson "represents an egregious security breach that endangers the hardworking women and men of the United States Capitol Police." Airing the footage is, Jeffries claimed, "yet another example of the grave threat to security" posed by the House's "extreme MAGA Republican majority."

In a separate statement, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) noted that during his time chairing the Jan. 6 committee, "access [to the footage] was limited to members and a small handful of investigators and senior staff, and the public use of any footage was coordinated in advance with Capitol Police." Thompson, the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, also called on McCarthy to explain "what steps he has taken to address the significant security concerns at stake" in giving Carlson the video.

Is there a real risk here?

Ultimately, there seem to be two concerns among Democrats and their allies here. First, that releasing the footage could reveal materially sensitive information on specific methods and measures used to secure the Capitol complex, putting occupants at risk for future incursions. Second, that in Carlson's hands, the complete tranche of footage could be selectively edited in such a way as to feed into pro-insurrection sentiment, skepticism, and sympathies, and in doing so contribute to future violence or election denial.

That first point seems to be the more immediate worry for Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) who served on the Jan. 6 committee. "It's really a road map to people who might want to attack the Capitol again," she warned. "It would be of huge assistance to them." As Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) pointed out, the unredacted footage shows "floor design, it lays out evacuation routes, it lays out where the vice president went, it lays out where the senior members of Congress were evacuated, and so on." Another person associated with the Jan. 6 committee who spoke anonymously with The Hill confirmed that evacuation routes in particular were a major factor in deciding which footage could be shared in public during televised hearings. "We worked with Capitol Police ahead of time to make sure that we weren't showing the VP's exit route, the exit route for the Speaker, for the members," the source explained.

Worries over the selective use of the footage to deliberately enflame public sentiment seem similarly grounded in precedent, with many critics pointing to Carlson's "Patriot Purge" miniseries as evidence of the broadcaster's penchant for baseless allegations about the events of Jan. 6.

"It is not lost on anyone that the one person that the speaker decides to give hours and hours of sensitive secret surveillance footage is the person who peddled a bogus documentary trying to debunk responsibility for the January 6 riot from Donald Trump onto others," Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), who previously served as chief counsel for Democrats during the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump, told The Guardian. In an interview on MSNBC, Raskin offered a similar critique of Carlson, calling his use of the footage "in search of a conspiracy theory."

"We know that from his three-part miniseries that he put together, Patriot Purge, which asserted [the insurrection] was a false flag operation run by antifa and the FBI," Raskin continued. "We found no evidence of that."

Former Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, and Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera have each criticized Carlson's documentary as well, with Cheney saying it "spread the same type of lies that provoked violence on January 6."

What do conservatives think?

Congressional Republicans have largely backed McCarthy's decision, at least publicly, on similar grounds that releasing the footage to Carlson amounted to wholesale transparency and "not a one-sided narrative and unfair two-tiered justice system," as McCarthy ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (D-Ga.) tweeted.

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"The public deserves to see everything that was hidden," added Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).

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Former Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, considered one of the more moderate members of his party until he was ousted by a Trump-backed primary challenger in 2022, agreed, telling The New York Times none of the footage was particularly surprising, or would change the overarching narrative of that day.

Indeed, according to at least one GOP source, McCarthy's decision to release the footage (albeit not to Carlson specifically) wasn't solely McCarthy's decision in the first place; it was one of the demands made by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz in order to earn his support for McCarthy to become speaker.

Joining the lawmakers were some conservative media outlets, including far-right wing website Breitbart, which described members of the Jan. 6 committee as having "howled in protest" over McCarthy's release of the footage. Others, however, have taken issue with Fox News' exclusive access to the videos. Vocal Trump supporter Mike Lindell has threatened legal action against McCarthy for not sharing the footage with his eponymous "Lindell TV" during an interview with former White House advisor Steve Bannon, while Newsmax reporter Cara Castronuova made a similar argument for more widespread access, tweeting a list of other right-wing media figures who have "BEEN POURING BLOOD 2GET J6 TRUTH OUT."

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Is there anything the Democrats can do?

While McCarthy may be within his rights to have accessed and released the footage, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent says Democratic lawmakers should "at least debate giving news organizations access as well. Presumably they would be at least as sensitive as Carlson — if not more so — to the risks of airing or reporting on specific footage without the Capitol Police signing off first." At the very least, Sargent added, "Democrats could access the footage now by themselves, if only to prepare for the worst."

Legally, it seems Democrats can do just that, no matter that they're in the House minority at the moment. Asked about McCarthy's handling of the footage, Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger told the Post that "when congressional leadership or oversight committees ask for things like this, we have no choice but to give it to them." Crucially, however, a Capitol Police spokesperson noted that "It doesn't matter if it's the majority or the minority, we cannot control what congressional leaders or the oversight committees do with the materials we provide."

The question Democrats must ask themselves, then, is whether their immediate worries about releasing potentially sensitive footage outweigh the long-term risks of what might happen if that footage is shared exclusively through a conservative media lens.

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