Capitol riot probe zeroes in on Pentagon delay in sending troops
Three hours and 19 minutes, while a riot raged at the Capitol.
That’s how long the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard says elapsed between then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund’s “frantic” plea for help quelling a violent mob and the ultimate approval of military aid by the Pentagon. The discrepancy between his estimate and the Pentagon’s conflicting testimony is now at the heart of lawmakers’ investigation into the security lapses that prolonged the siege on Congress on Jan. 6.
The conflict in officials’ accounts of their response to the insurrection came into sharper view on Wednesday, when D.C. National Guard chief William Walker told senators he was blocked from reacting quickly while Pentagon officials disputed his account. As lawmakers wrestle with an investigation into what went wrong, they found their key witnesses on very different pages.
And the overlapping narratives of Jan. 6 are hitting a Capitol already dealing with a volatile security environment, as Capitol Police warn of multiple ongoing threats — one to the as-yet-unscheduled State of the Union address and another on Thursday, when some Trump-supporting militia groups have suggested once again breaching the Capitol.
Walker, with evident exasperation, told two Senate committees that he preemptively loaded troops on buses amid the chaos of the insurrection while awaiting approval from acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller. That approval took hours to arrive, he said. In the interim, top Army leaders — including the brother of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn — pushed back, worrying that the visual of National Guard troops ringing the Capitol could “inflame” the rioters, Walker said.
Pentagon officials challenge that account, saying Miller reacted rapidly but that his approval may not have been communicated to Walker efficiently. Nonetheless, Walker testified that earlier action by the Pentagon could have made a difference.
“We could have helped extend the perimeter and push back the crowd,” Walker said.
Now top lawmakers are calling for Miller and former acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to answer questions about their roles in driving the events of that day.
“Certainly, they were intimately involved in the decision-making process, and it’s very important for us to hear from them directly,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The panel has yet to reach out to Miller or McCarthy, Peters said, but expects to seek testimony from them in the coming days as part of the Senate’s bipartisan probe.
The diverging accounts begin at 1:49 p.m. on Jan. 6, when, according to Walker, Sund called him with a desperate request for National Guard assistance.
“Chief Sund, his voice cracking with emotion, indicated that there was a dire emergency on Capitol Hill and requested the immediate assistance of as many Guardsmen as I could muster,” Walker recalled.
Walker says he raced to relay the request to senior Pentagon officials.
“We already had Guardsmen on buses ready to move to the Capitol,” Walker wrote in his prepared remarks to the Senate Homeland Security and Rules committees, which are conducting a joint investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Tensions grew on a 2:30 p.m. call that included Walker, Sund, the Secret Service, the D.C. deputy mayor and top Army officials, including Charles Flynn. On that call, described in previous testimony by Sund and confirmed Wednesday by Walker, Army officials repeatedly worried that sending guard troops to the Capitol could make matters worse.
“The Army senior leaders did not think it would look good” to send troops to the Capitol and also worried about further incitement of the violent mob, Walker said.
Robert Salesses, a top Pentagon official who handles homeland defense, pushed back against Walker’s account.
Salesses said that following the 2:30 p.m. call, McCarthy undertook an assessment of what the National Guard’s mission at the Capitol would be — whether they were being asked to enter the building, where gunfire had been reported, or help secure the perimeter. Salesses emphasized that at 4:10 p.m., in service of this assessment, McCarthy visited the headquarters of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, before securing Miller’s final approval at 4:32 p.m.
Despite that approval, the go-ahead wasn’t communicated to Walker until 5:08 p.m, a delay that Salesses attributed to a communication issue. That approval came well after rioters had overtaken the Capitol, sending lawmakers fleeing for safety. Walker singled out Miller in particular as he described the slow-walking of Sund’s request.
“Consequently, at 5:20pm (in under 20 minutes) the District of Columbia National Guard arrived at the Capitol,” Walker said. “We helped to re-establish the security perimeter at the east side of the Capitol to facilitate the resumption of the Joint Session of Congress.”
Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also backing up the Pentagon’s version of events. He told reporters Tuesday that the Pentagon reacted at “sprint speed” to the request for aid to Congress. Mobilizing a large force of guard troops in a few hours amounts to lightning quickness in military terms, he emphasized.
Walker’s testimony adds a new piece to the puzzle of security lapses and miscommunication that enabled a violent mob to ransack the Capitol and delay the certification of the 2020 election results. He is the latest official to suggest that senior military leaders were partly responsible for tying the hands of the security officials on the ground as they hustled to respond to the threat.
In his testimony, Walker agreed with Capitol security officials that Pentagon leaders gave a tepid response to urgent pleas for aid during a 2:30 p.m. call on Jan. 6.
McCarthy was not on the call, according to Walker, even though others wanted him to be. Walker described that coordination as a stark contrast from the military’s response to civil unrest during racial justice protests over the summer, when McCarthy was in real-time contact with him about helping law enforcement.
Other officials who testified addressed the intelligence assessment that led Capitol security officials to dismiss the need for preemptive National Guard support. An FBI intelligence assessment sent on Jan. 5 by the bureau’s Norfolk Field Office, which described those descending on Washington as prepared for “war,” never reached top officials. And even if it had, they said, the information was largely culled from social media and was “raw” and “unverified.”
Nevertheless, Sund, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman and Washington, D.C.’s acting Police Chief Robert Contee III said the bureau hadn’t sounded a significant alarm about the intelligence that might have elevated it to their attention.
FBI Director Christopher Wray offered his agency’s timeline of events on Tuesday. Wray agreed that the intelligence was “uncorroborated” and said it underscores the challenge for investigators seeking to separate social media hyperbole from actionable information.
Jill Sanborn, FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, added additional details about the FBI’s response to the Jan. 6 assault, telling lawmakers that FBI tactical teams helped respond to reports of explosive devices placed near the Republican and Democratic Party headquarters that day.
Sund and other Capitol security officials have said the intelligence warnings they received in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 attack didn’t support the need to line up a significant National Guard presence.
Rather, they said, the available intelligence suggested that the volume of protesters would resemble turnout in November and December, when pro-Trump rallies sparked spasms of violence but were ultimately contained. Never, those former Capitol security officials said, did they anticipate an organized, coordinated assault on the legislative branch that would overwhelm the 1,200 officers on-site and result in a breach of the building.
The hearing Wednesday came as Sund’s successor at the helm of the Capitol Police, Pittman, urged lawmakers for a $70 million increase in her department’s budget to respond to the gaps revealed by the insurrection. She said she’s seeking funds to revamp the department’s intelligence-sharing technology and to confront sharply rising threats against lawmakers, which have spiked more than 93 percent in the last year.
Pittman also described significant resources being afforded to officers affected by the Jan. 6 assault, including counseling for them and their families, hotel stays and hot meals.