The founder and administrator of an obscure website about underground infrastructure in Washington, D.C., saw a sudden and suspicious spike in traffic in the days before the U.S. Capitol insurrection.
The sharp increase in web visitors alarmed the site’s operator so much that he contacted the FBI. Elliot Carter, who operates the site, worried people were covertly seeking escape routes or entry points to the Capitol ahead of the electoral college count in January.
That concern about web traffic to WashingtonTunnels.com eventually made its way to leadership of U.S. Capitol Police, the News4 I-Team has learned.
“These people were suddenly obsessed with the Capitol building,” Carter said.
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Carter, a longtime D.C. professional who once interned on Capitol Hill, created and curates the website detailing the history of underground tunnels and pipe systems in the nation’s capital. The site, which has a narrow but devoted following among D.C.-area history and city planning buffs, includes maps and details of the underground transit rail system, along with water and sewer systems.
Carter has also included maps of the unique and heavily traveled underground tunnels on the Hill, which connect the Capitol building to House and Senate Office Buildings, the Library of Congress and the Capitol Visitor Center.
Traffic on the website is usually limited to visitors and referrals from people in D.C. and in nearby communities in Virginia and Maryland, Carter said. But starting on New Year’s Day, a spike in traffic included visitors nationwide. He said a deeper review of analytics from his site revealed many of the clicks were coming from hyperlinks shared on anonymous message boards, sites and forums named after militias or firearms, or using Donald Trump’s name.
“These were names I really didn’t recognize,” he said.
Carter said his concerns led him to email the FBI’s Washington Field Office on the evening of Jan 1. Though he said he did not receive a response, the tip about WashingtonTunnels.com was mentioned in the U.S. Senate Rules and Homeland Security committees' June 2021 review of the U.S. Capitol insurrection. The committees' joint report said an “online tip” was “received by the FBI National Threat Operations Center of a ‘significant uptick’ in new visitors to the website WashingtonTunnels.com.”
In a written statement to the NEWS4 I-Team, a US Capitol Police spokesman said: “A law enforcement source alerted U.S. Capitol Police leadership to the spike in website traffic regarding the maps. Ahead of January 6, the USCP knew Congress and the Capitol grounds were to be the focus of a large demonstration attracting various groups, including some encouraging violence. Based on this information, the Department enhanced its security posture. What the intelligence didn’t reveal was the large-scale demonstration would become a large-scale attack on the Capitol Building, as there was no specific, credible intelligence about such an attack. The USCP consumes intelligence from every federal agency. At no point prior to January 6 did it receive actionable intelligence about a large-scale attack.”
News4 also reached out to the FBI but did not hear back.
The wave of traffic that flooded WashingtonTunnels.com might have started on anonymous message boards, but it appears to have transitioned onto mainstream social media sites. The I-Team’s review found that a hyperlink to the website was shared on Twitter on Jan. 4.
Kristofer Goldsmith, a military veteran who studies extremist groups and their use of social media and communications technology, said the sudden flow of visitors to Carter’s website indicates the information eventually was shared on mainstream social media platforms.
“It may start in the dark corners of the internet, but where it becomes dangerous is when it ends up on these mainstream platforms,” Goldsmith said.
Carter said he briefly took the website offline, in the wake of the Insurrection, but reposted it. He said the site does not contain any sensitive information that is not available from other sources for the public.
Thousands of staffers and visitors use the underground tunnels on Capitol Hill on a daily basis, when the campus is open to tourists. The underground labyrinth includes small shops, a post office, credit union branches, food courts and offices.