Capitol Riots

D.C. Guard chief says ‘unusual’ restrictions slowed deployment of backup

The commanding general of the D.C. National Guard told lawmakers how restrictions the Pentagon placed on him in the run-up to the Capitol riot prevented him from more quickly sending forces to help quell the violence

Maj. Gen. William J. Walker said he did not receive approval to change the D.C. Guard’s mission and send his forces to the Capitol on Jan. 6 until three hours and 19 minutes after he first received an emotional call from the Capitol Police chief requesting urgent backup

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Maj. Gen. William J. Walker said he did not receive approval to change the D.C. Guard’s mission and send his forces to the Capitol on Jan. 6 until three hours and 19 minutes after he first received an emotional call from the Capitol Police chief requesting urgent backup. Walker described the Pentagon’s restrictions as “unusual,” noting that he did not have such limitations last summer, when the D.C. Guard was tasked with responding to local racial-justice protests after the killing of George Floyd.

Walker, who previously detailed the restrictions placed on him ahead of Jan. 6 in an interview with The Washington Post, told lawmakers that had he not been operating under those limitations, he could have sent about 150 soldiers to the Capitol hours earlier — and got them there within 20 minutes of being asked.

“I believe that number could have made a difference,” Walker said during Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate’s Rules Committee and its Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We could have helped extend the perimeter and helped push back the crowd.”

In addition to Walker, city officials and Capitol Police leaders have asserted that they were frustrated by a slow Defense Department response as the Capitol was breached. Defense officials have countered that the city requested only minimal assistance from the Guard in the run-up to the Jan. 6 riot event and tried to limit the military presence in the city, while the Capitol Police requested no military assistance ahead of the event, even though the Pentagon specifically asked whether it was necessary.

Robert G. Salesses, the Pentagon’s acting assistant secretary for homeland defense and global security, testified that defense officials’ tight control over the response to the Capitol — and reluctance to issue quick approvals — was shaped by controversy they faced in responding to civil unrest surrounding racial-justice protests last year.

“There was a lot of things that happened in the spring that the department was criticized for,” he said.

Much of the hearing focused on how long it took the Pentagon to give the members of the D.C. Guard who were already deployed that day a new mission and send them to the Capitol.

Though the acting defense secretary called up the full D.C. Guard shortly after 3 p.m. in response to the riot, he did not give the members of the D.C. Guard who were already deployed that day a new mission and send them to the Capitol until 4:32 p.m., Salesses said. He acknowledged, however, that the D.C. Guard did not receive that change in assignment until 5:08 p.m., more than half an hour later.

“How is that possible?” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asked incredulously, noting the time gap.

“I think that’s an issue,” Salesses said, offering no explanation.

The Guard arrived at the premises at 5:20 p.m.

The absence of Pentagon officials responsible for making decisions on Jan. 6 at Wednesday’s hearing irritated committee members, including some who expressed concern that the Department of Defense sent Salesses to testify even though he was not one of the key decision-makers that day.

“I’m disappointed we don’t have someone from DOD who was actually there at the time,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said during the hearing.

The officials involved in the Pentagon’s response that day include Christopher C. Miller, acting defense secretary at the time; then-Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy; top Army generals Walter E. Piatt and Charles A. Flynn; and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. None have given public testimony in Congress about the Pentagon’s response to the riot.

In comments to reporters this week, Milley defended the Pentagon’s response, noting that for a military force to arrive on the scene within a matter of hours from a cold start is “sprint speed.”

“If you were down there and you’re in the Capitol being attacked, an hour is a lifetime. So I can clearly understand their feelings that that was a very slow response,” Milley said. “But from a technical military standpoint, from the receipt of the phone call, to alerting National Guard forces from a cold start to them being on the scene was very fast.”

During the hearing, however, Walker said the Guard could have gotten there faster and blamed the restrictions the Pentagon placed on him in a memo ahead of the event for slowing his response.

“The memo was unusual in that . . . it required me to seek authorization from the secretary of the Army and the secretary of defense to essentially even protect my Guardsmen,” Walker said.

Walker also addressed a phone call on the afternoon of Jan. 6, during which top Pentagon officials expressed reluctance to deploy the National Guard to the Capitol as the riot unfolded. Asked who made those comments, Walker pointed to Piatt, the director of the Army staff, and Flynn, the deputy chief of staff for operations and the brother of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“They both said it wouldn’t be in their best military advice to advise the secretary of the Army to have uniformed Guardsmembers at the Capitol during the election confirmation,” Walker said, describing the comments as frustrating to him and the other officials on the call.

Piatt initially denied making those comments but later told reporters he “may have said that” but did not recall using the word “optics.” Charles Flynn has said he does not remember whether he said anything during the call. He has said his relationship with his brother, who had been floating martial law and calling for the military to “rerun” the election ahead of the riot, had no impact on his actions.

Neither Piatt nor Flynn was in the chain of command, and therefore they were not empowered to deploy the Guard to the Capitol or deny the deployment.

The Senate panels are taking testimony from several U.S. defense and law enforcement officials as Congress continues to investigate failures in intelligence and other areas that precipitated the attack. The hearing is expected to shed more light on the discussions between defense and law enforcement agencies, before the riot and during it.

Last week, current and former officials responsible for security that day — including former Capitol Police chief Steven Sund, acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III, former House sergeant-at-arms Paul D. Irving and former Senate sergeant-at-arms Michael C. Stenger — sought to explain why they did not respond more aggressively to intelligence that anticipated possible violence, such as a Jan. 5 FBI report warning of “war” at the Capitol.

During the hearing, Melissa Smislova, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, candidly conceded that DHS was “completely dissatisfied with the result of our efforts leading up to January 6th.”

On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray defended the bureau’s response, saying it had distributed the report three ways — in an email to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes the D.C. and Capitol police; in a posting on a law enforcement portal; and in a verbal briefing at a command center in D.C.

“The whole idea is they’re supposed to go back and pass it up their chain of command,” Wray said, later adding: “I do not consider what happened on January 6th to be an acceptable result. And that’s why we’re looking so hard at figuring out how can the process be improved.”

At the hearing Wednesday, Jill Sanborn, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, sought to downplay the Jan. 5 report from the Norfolk field office warning of violence at the Capitol.

Sanborn said the report detailed “raw” and “unvetted” information and was shared quickly with the FBI’s Washington field office only because the bureau had made it a priority to collect intelligence having to do with possible violence surrounding the planned congressional action on Jan. 6. Sanborn said she was not briefed on the report, adding: “Thousands and thousands of tips come in just like this on every day. And not all of those get elevated to senior leadership.”

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