April 15, 2021

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Military leaders are prepared to defend Pentagon response to Capitol riot at Senate hearing

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During hearings last week, the former chief of the Capitol Police, as well as the former House and Senate Sergeant at Arms, all of whom resigned following the riot, accused law enforcement agencies of proving bad intelligence and blamed the Defense Department for not responding fast enough to their requests for help.

But military leaders have maintained there was no delay on their end and that it took time to clarify and organize a response to what they say was a vague yet urgent request for help from city officials and Capitol Police.

In conversations over the past few weeks, defense officials have reiterated that the National Guard is not a first responder unit capable of sending armed troops into a hostile situation with minimal planning. There is also a sense of frustration and annoyance among some former officials that Capitol Police and others in Washington, DC, expected Guardsmen to show up instantaneously.

“The Army cannot mobilize Guardsmen or plan for contingencies without request,” former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in late-January.

Pentagon officials repeatedly offered more National Guardsmen before January 6 and were turned down, including on the day before the riot. Meanwhile, some Defense Department officials have wondered why the Secret Service and the Park Police didn’t sound the alarm earlier in the day of the riot when they witnessed large crowds gathering and making their way toward the Capitol.

McCarthy is not scheduled to testify at the Senate hearing on Wednesday. Instead, Gen. William Walker, commander of the DC National Guard, and Robert Salesses, a civilian official acting as the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, are expected to testify.

Confusion over chain of command

In a joint hearing last Tuesday, the former Senate Sergeant at Arms, the former House Sergeant at Arms, and Sund all said they needed help from the National Guard. But the three, though united in blaming the Pentagon for delaying help, disagreed on when they knew they needed that help and seemed unaware of the process or the chain of command for requesting and activating the National Guard.

Sund said he first flagged the need for more help on January 4, two days before the riot. But former House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving said he didn’t interpret the call from Sund as a request, and that Sund, Irving and former Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger agreed the intelligence did not support calling up more troops.

The final decision was to mobilize 340 soldiers from the DC National Guard, along with a 40-person quick response force and a chemical-biological hazardous materials team. The Guardsmen had the specific task, agreed upon between the Pentagon, Washington officials, and others, to assist with traffic control.

The Guardsmen were intentionally unarmed, a result of the sensitivity of putting armed soldiers on the street after the blowback from the racial justice protests in June.

A crucial phone call

Sund told the hearing last week that he had 125 National Guardsmen on standby from Walker, the commanding officer of the DC National Guard.

“If we needed a response, a quick response, [Walker] could, what he called, re-purpose them and get them to the armory,” testified Sund, “at which point we could get somebody over there to swear them in and try to get them to us as quick as possible.”

But Walker didn’t have the authority to change the mission of the National Guard, nor could he activate more Guardsmen on his own.

Sund was apparently unaware of the process of activating the DC National Guard, which runs through the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Army. Because DC is not a state, the process does not run through the mayor’s office or the DC National Guard.

During his testimony last week, Sund said he reached out to Walker at the DC Guard at 1:49 pm, only to learn that Walker could not activate the Guard on his own.

Nearly 30 minutes later, at 2:22 pm, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and others joined former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy on a phone call to request the National Guard. Much of the friction between officials in DC and Pentagon leaders focuses on this call. Those officials expected immediate help. Instead, they say they heard hesitation and worse.

“I was very surprised at the amount of time and the pushback I was receiving when I was making an urgent request for their systems,” said Sund.

Not a first responder unit

In the weeks after the riot, defense officials have come back to the purpose of the Guard: it is not a first responder organization designed to quickly hit the streets armed with full riot gear, but a last resort in an emergency, and one that requires close coordination and specific tasks to deploy. Moving the Guardsmen from traffic control to security support required re-tasking the mission, part of a bureaucratic process that took time.

Echoing their DC counterparts, defense officials have also pointed to the intelligence failure ahead of the riot.

Officials in DC have already begun working on improving the flow and sharing of information. Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman, who replaced Sund after his resignation, said at Thursday’s House hearing that Capitol Police now have “routine intelligence calls” with the FBI and the National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium. These intelligence updates are shared with Congress.

Pittman insisted that the Capitol Police succeeded in their mission in protecting Congressional leaders and members. It was a point Sund hit as well, insisting that the failure to secure the building at the heart of American democracy lay elsewhere.

CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.

2021-03-02 20:29:32

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