A fence in front of the U.S. Capitol in 2021 Credit: Kelyn Soong

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On New Year’s Day 2021, Elliot Carter contacted the FBI about his hobby.

The writer sent in a tip about his site, Washington Tunnels, a passion project mapping out the city’s underground. He was now seeing a surge of traffic from extremist militia and QAnon accounts coming in droves to his site—which shows the tunnel complex under the U.S. Capitol.

Five days later, the Capitol insurrection happened. After then-President Trump’s Jan. 6 speech repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, his supporters broke into the building and sent lawmakers scrambling for their lives. In total, five people died that day and four Capitol officers who defended the building later died by suicide. Reuters reports the majority of the insurrection was uncoordinated—but many, including Carter, say they had nefarious intentions. 570 people have since been arrested for their alleged involvement.

While Carter says the FBI never responded to his tip, NBC4 reported a U.S. Capitol Police spokesman saying “a law enforcement source alerted U.S. Capitol Police leadership to the spike in website traffic regarding the maps.” This information came to light last week after it was mentioned in the Senate insurrection review by the Rules and Homeland Security committees. Carter called it “surreal” to see his six-year hobby and passion project end up here.

“I had no heads up,” he says. “This thing you’re tinkering with in coffee shops in your free time that is being cited as something authoritative.​​”

Tunnel of Love

Carter’s site, Washington Tunnels, dives below the surface of D.C. Using public information and historic photos, he maps out the placement of D.C.’s utilities, transportation, and pedestrian walkways and tells the history of how they were developed.

He says he’s always had a fascination with architecture. But his interest with D.C.’s underground began while in an “under-stimulating” Hill internship. He took advantage of his access to wander the Capitol complex’s hallways for hours while avoiding his “bullshit” job.

“It was like playing this human submarine kind of a game. ​​How far could I get without coming outside? Do I know how to get over there without asking for directions?” he says. “I spent an entire summer doing this just like sponging up the architectural history.​​”

He adds that, much like his internship, the maps of the Capitol’s tunnel network are “shitty” because they don’t really illustrate where you are spatially when compared to the aboveground.

“It was actually a … way to navigate kind of for new interns on the Hill or staffers on the Hill. I think actually members of Congress have printed it out,” he says. “But the secondary audience, I think, it’s like something universally interesting.” 

“Nobody would wonder why there’s interest in the landscape of parks in Washington or the landscape of the waterfront,” he adds. “The underground landscape is just as significant. It’s important, but it’s like, totally escaped most people’s notice or appreciation [as] part of the nation’s capital.

Underground Movement

But this love of tunnels would end up misused. Carter says at the end of December he realized his site had gotten abnormal traffic the two previous months. He followed the links backward to sites and posts posting screenshots of his website’s display ”marked up” with ways he says to attack the Capitol. He adds there were “explicit calls to violence” with nooses and shooting involved.

“This isn’t a direct quote, this is a gist,” he says. “Posts, like, ‘We need 2,000 people holding this line,’ ‘This is where we catch them exiting the parking garage.’ ‘This is the tunnel that infiltrates’ with arrows and stuff.”

Getting wrapped up in these threats made him feel “preyed on,” he says. 

“I think a lot of Washingtonians will instinctively identify with when our hometown is hijacked,” he says, the day after a man who made bomb threats was arrested outside the Library of Congress. “I had been very diligent about presenting in a responsible way that didn’t … divulge anything sensitive and they were kind of hijacking it for their own very dangerous, very sensitive purposes.”

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Carter says, in the moment, he didn’t know whether his indirect involvement would get him in legal trouble. He took the website down and left it offline for months. During the downtime he grappled with whether his passion project made the insurrection more likely or worse. But he says he doesn’t feel “remorse or cringe” and brought the website back online ”verbatim” what it was before the insurrection.

Carter says fringe groups like QAnon are obsessed with tunnels. He says tunnels bolster conspiracies theories about lawmakers operating sex trafficking rings and other illegal activity out of sight. However, he says his site reframes D.C.’s tunnels as nothing special and demystifies the federal government.

“It kind of tracks with that aphorism about how D.C. is more Veep than House of Cards. There’s more like, good natured incompetency and quirkiness rather than organized planning or malfeasance.”

“All the information on this website has previously been reported. It’s not really a new reporting project. It’s an aggregation project or a curation,” he says. “There’s nothing nefarious about the swamp. There’s nothing nefarious about these tunnels. We are a lot stronger as a city and nation by noting those things up front, rather than trying to conceal them.”

He adds that far right groups have identified one correct factoid: “There are a shitload of tunnels under Washington, D.C.” 
—Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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