Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new paperback is “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” View more opinion on CNN.
Nick Quested, a British documentary filmmaker, testified on Thursday evening before the House select committee investigating the January 6 Capitol insurrection. I spoke with Quested on Friday. He told me that he wanted the public to understand the truth of what happened on January 6 and expressed worries that the riot could be a dress rehearsal for another attack on America’s constitutional order.
Quested and his producing partner Sebastian Junger became interested in the far-right group, the Proud Boys, and followed them in the weeks leading up to January 6. Quested, who captured key footage of the group during the attack at the Capitol, shared his work and his personal account of the events of that day during the committee’s first televised hearing.
He told me about the scenes of mayhem that he and his colleagues filmed that day, as well as the mysterious meeting between the leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, another far-right group, that took place in a Washington, DC, parking garage the night before the assault on the US Capitol.
Disclosure: I have appeared as an interviewee in one of Quested’s documentaries. Also, I was interviewed by House select committee staff members who were interested in discussing the history of right-wing extremism.
The interview below was edited for clarity.
PETER BERGEN: Why did you decide to testify?
NICK QUESTED: Because we’re approaching living in a post-factual world, and I think it’s important that these facts about January 6 are brought to bear and in an unpartisan way, especially if we can use these hearings to make sure that something like this never happens again.
BERGEN: And you had a subpoena to appear before the committee?
QUESTED: I had a subpoena. I spoke to the authorities in an interview beforehand, but when they were using my work in the way that they did, I felt it was only appropriate for them to subpoena me.
BERGEN: Your work – did you just hand it over to them, or did they request it? How did that work?
QUESTED: Well as a journalist, having filmed what were potentially many crimes, I didn’t feel there was any journalistic jeopardy giving that to authorities. I called a friend who is a US Attorney, and I said, “Listen, I have filmed I don’t know how many crimes. What do you think I should do with this?” He said, “We’ll call the DC Criminal Division.” I was then referred to an agent from the FBI. And we still had to process the footage because we shoot very high-quality video, which needs to be processed. So, we did that and then I gave it to the FBI.
BERGEN: On the morning of January 6th, what happened in terms of the Proud Boys?
QUESTED: I turned up on the National Mall around 10:30 am and the Proud Boys were already marching in an easterly direction towards the western side of the Capitol, and I immediately kicked into gear and started trying to cover the scene. I’m shooting a wide shot. I’m shooting long lens. I’m in the middle of the crowd with them. I’m shooting slow motion. I’m just trying to edit a sequence in my head, because I’ve done a lot of marching with these guys. They love marching up and down the Mall. We’d done that on December 12, 2020.
So I thought that’s what we were doing again. And we walked around the Capitol, and still they were marching. They’re singing their songs. It felt like hooligans at a soccer match. There were bawdy jokes. There’s sort of been an evolution in the Proud Boys, and at one point, people said that they were a drinking club with a political problem. I’d say they’re a political club with a drinking problem now.
And it wasn’t until that crowd moved near the barrier around the Capitol that I felt the world shift. At 12:54 pm, I feel the commotion and run over, and soon, the barriers are coming down and people are streaming forward and running towards the Capitol.
BERGEN: Were you frightened?
QUESTED: I wasn’t frightened at that point. But the language had started to change. There were more challenges to police to “respect their oath” and comments like, “We pay your wages. Do your job. Choose a side. Respect the oath.” And then people are starting to kick down the next fence. They’re starting to break up the fence and take pieces out of it to use as makeshift weapons, and it was different. It felt like some people were in rapture. It felt like a crusade, like they felt they were right, and they were unappreciative of the irony of using violence to overthrow a constitutionally elected body and justifying that violence by citing the Constitution.
BERGEN: Their interpretation of the Constitution.
BERGEN: How and when did you decide to profile the Proud Boys?
QUESTED: In the summer of 2020, I was chatting with the war reporter and my producing partner Sebastian Junger, and we were talking about the psyche of the country at that time. We were in the first few months of Covid-19. People were scared because they had no idea what this virus’ potential was. The hospitals were full. There was a hospital ship in the harbor in New York. The emergency rooms were overflowing. There were stories in the papers about pressure on the food supply and Covid ripping through meatpacking plants.
And then you have the murder of George Floyd, and you literally have medieval-style pitched battles in the cities of America. And we asked ourselves this question: Why is America so divided when Americans have so much in common?
So, we thought, let’s see what the far right has to say and what the far right and the far left actually have in common here. And we wanted to ask both sides: What does it mean to be American? If you can’t define it, then how can you find commonality, if there is commonality to be had here?
BERGEN: So, you reached out to the Proud Boys.
QUESTED: Yeah. We called up the Proud Boys. On November 4, 2020, when President Donald Trump falsely claimed that he won the election before a winner had been declared, we were like, “Oh, here you go.” Because one of the fundamental tenets of America is having a peaceful transfer of power. I called up Enrique Tarrio, the head of the Proud Boys. He liked the film “Restrepo” that war reporter Tim Hetherington, Sebastian, and I made together. And he just said to come down. So we went down to DC on December 11, 2020 and started working.
BERGEN: When a revolution happens, even the revolutionaries sometimes have no idea what is going to happen. To what extent did the Proud Boys know this was going to happen on January 6?
QUESTED: I don’t know. We did definitely look at the Proud Boys and say, “Well, are Proud Boys Jacobins? Are they Brown Shirts? Or are they football hooligans?” Or is it just Trumpism? Because that was a very unifying factor throughout the Proud Boys. There are no RINOs in the Proud Boys. It is the cult of Trump, and they were the muscle.
BERGEN: The footage that you have, why is it of interest to the committee, and what does it show?
QUESTED: It was shot with very high-end cameras at a very high resolution with high-quality lenses by trained professional journalists. There were three of us there and also a freelancer that we met on the day. I was shooting as well. So, basically, what we have is a full view of the day because, even though we were separated at the beginning, we managed to have parallel experiences that have nexus points. We were able to cut documentary scenes from different angles because we’re all seeing the same parts at the same time.
BERGEN: What are the key scenes?
QUESTED: The Proud Boys walking down the Mall, the Proud Boys at lunch, the barriers coming down, the Proud Boys just as the barriers come down at the West Plaza of the Capitol, the fight on the lower West Plaza, and the fight at the tunnel on the west side of the Capitol.
BERGEN: The battle scene in the tunnel? You were there?
QUESTED: I was there.
BERGEN: What did you see?
QUESTED: Chaos and mayhem. I mean, mayhem in the true sense of the word.
BERGEN: Had you ever seen that in the United States?
QUESTED: I have not seen that in the United States, no.
BERGEN: Have you seen it anywhere?
QUESTED: Yeah. I’ve seen it around the world.
QUESTED: Venezuela 2017, Nicaragua 2018.
BERGEN: Were you scared?
QUESTED: I wasn’t scared because I’m so living in the moment, and my job is to document this. I have a task. So, I focus on my task. I got beat up pretty bad. My camera was broken. I got shot by a beanbag or pepper balls. I got tear-gassed.
BERGEN: What was that like?
QUESTED: Well, it’s not great. It’s not great because you’re in a big crowd, and you know no one in this crowd. You lose all sense of awareness, everything. But for all those in the crowd who were violent, there were many people that were just there to witness the event. They might have chanted or whatever, but there were also people there helping others. Someone came and poured water into my eyes, and I was like, “Don’t do that?” because I was worried I was going to get Covid. And I was like I’d rather be tear-gassed.
My phone didn’t work, so I couldn’t communicate what I was doing until basically six o’clock, when I called my family and said it’s all good.
BERGEN: You also filmed a meeting on January 5 between the leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers?
QUESTED: This meeting was in a parking garage. We picked Enrique Tarrio up by car from jail, as he had just made bond. (Editor’s note: Tarrio had been arrested on January 4, 2021 on a warrant charging him with burning a Black Lives Matter banner taken from a historic Black church and he was also found with high-capacity magazines, which are illegal in Washington, DC. He was later sentenced to a total of five months in jail for both crimes). We went to pick his stuff up from a lock-up garage south of the Mall. Then we went back up to pick up some bags from the Phoenix Park Hotel in downtown DC, and outside the hotel, we bumped into Stewart Rhodes, leader of the Oath Keepers. We picked up the bags, and somebody said, “You’ve got to come over to this parking garage.” So we went over to this garage, and there was Enrique Tarrio and Stewart Rhodes, along with a few other people.
BERGEN: And what were they doing there?
QUESTED: Ostensibly, they said they were meeting to discuss the issue that Enrique felt he had, which was that he had brought extra capacity gun magazines into DC, which is illegal.
But there were also discussions about his communications and how they were potentially compromised. I heard him say, “I want to stay close to my boys,” and assumed he was having a discussion about where he was going to go next. But that’s all I heard.
I was close to them but at the request of Enrique Tarrio, I put down my camera. My colleague Nico Lupo, who was approximately 20 feet away from Tarrio and Rhodes, was filming from behind a car, so the mic wasn’t picking up the sound as well as we would have hoped.
BERGEN: Do you think it was a planning meeting for the following day?
QUESTED: I don’t know. I can’t say it was a planning meeting. I can tell you it looks pretty bad that you see the two leaders of the two groups that have been charged with seditious conspiracy in a meeting beforehand, but I can’t say what they were doing.
BERGEN: What are your hopes for your film?
QUESTED: Well, so we pivoted from our film about why America is so divided to a film that looks at the 64 days from the 2020 presidential election to January 6, 2021.
BERGEN: Is there interest in this film?
QUESTED: It took a lot of time to get interest in this film. We made an experiential film, which was just footage from the day, and we submitted it to a bunch of film festivals and hardly even got a reply, and when we did get a reply, they were like, “No, thank you. We’re not here to give any oxygen to these people.” And I said, “But if we don’t discuss this and bring truth to light, then how are we going to make this better?”
So, our film wants to lay out the facts of what happened in those 64 days in a fair and objective manner as we possibly can.
BERGEN: How much time did you spend with the committee and their investigators?
QUESTED: I had a few interviews, but my testimony of record lasted for seven hours.
BERGEN: What were the key points that you made?
QUESTED: Basically, my testimony revolves around my footage. So, I was explaining the context for my footage and what I saw.
BERGEN: Your entire life is about reporting and making a narrative. Is that what the congressional committee is doing?
QUESTED: I think that is, but, you know, we’re in a world where the narrative is driven by the politics.
BERGEN: Do you think these hearings will lay out the evidentiary basis of what happened on January 6?
QUESTED: I think they will. From my conversations and the line of questioning, I think that they have a group of investigative counsels that are legitimately interested in being able to show the truth and prove it.
BERGEN: And you didn’t have any problem cooperating with them as a journalist?
QUESTED: Look, I’m in the business of truth, and I think they’re in the business of truth, and however people use the truth, that’s not my interest. My interest is having the truth out there.
BERGEN: Did you ever imagine that you would be where you were testifying on Thursday night?
QUESTED: Oh, hell, no. I like to ask the questions. I don’t like answering questions.
This piece was updated with an expanded disclosure note.