House speaker says Jan. 6 footage should be blurred to protect rioters, then backtracks

PHOTO: A large group of pro-Trump protesters stand on the East steps of the Capitol Building after storming its grounds, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.PlayJon Cherry/Getty Images
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House Speaker Mike Johnson said Tuesday he was blurring the complete surveillance footage from the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in order to protect participants from being charged by law enforcement -- a statement soon reversed by a spokesman.

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"We have to blur some of the faces of persons who participated in the events of that day because we don't want them to be retaliated against and to be charged by the DOJ [Department of Justice] and to have other, you know, concerns and problems," Johnson, who joined some other Republicans in seeking to overturn Trump's 2020 election defeat, said at a press conference.

In a statement issued on social media soon after, however, spokesman Raj Shah wrote: "Faces are to be blurred from public viewing room footage to prevent all forms of retaliation against private citizens from any non-governmental actors. The Department of Justice already has access to raw footage from January 6, 2021."

Indeed, federal investigators have possessed the blurred footage from that day for nearly three years and have used it to help identify suspects in the riot, sometimes with the public's help.

To date, more than 1,200 people have been charged in connection with Jan. 6, including 117 people who have been accused of using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to a police officer, according to the DOJ.

PHOTO: A large group of pro-Trump protesters stand on the East steps of the Capitol Building after storming its grounds, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Jon Cherry/Getty Images
A large group of pro-Trump protesters stand on the East steps of the Capitol Building after storming its grounds, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

"This is the most wide-ranging investigation and the most important investigation that the Justice Department has ever entered into. And we have done so because this effort to upend a legitimate election, transferring power from one administration to another, cuts at the fundamental of American democracy," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in 2022.

However, the Jan. 6 security tapes have also become of increasing interest in conservative circles. Earlier this year, then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson used some of the surveillance footage, released to him by then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, to try and play down the rioting as peaceful.

Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger said in an internal memo at the time that Carlson's coverage of the tapes was "filled with offensive and misleading conclusions."

Former President Donald Trump has said suspects charged in Jan. 6 are "hostages."

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Johnson emphasized that the release of the tens of thousands of hours of Jan. 6 security tapes was a "critical and important exercise" and again said that sharing them publicly was about "transparency."

"House Republicans trust the American people to draw their own conclusions," he said.

PHOTO: U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington.

"We're going through a methodical process of releasing them [the tapes] as quickly as we can," Johnson said.

He said the process of blurring was "slow" but "we're working steadily on it. We've hired additional personnel to do that. And all of those tapes ultimately at the end will be out."

Democrats have criticized his decision to release the full footage.

In a statement last month, New York Rep. Joe Morelle, the ranking member on House Administration Committee, called the move "unconscionable" and said it would "undermine the Capitol Police and politicize Capitol security."