As a mob of Trump supporters invaded the Capitol in Washington and breached the American legislature for the first time since 1814, efforts to mobilize the National Guard in an unprecedented crisis were hamstrung by bureaucracy and confusion between Pentagon, DC government and Capitol police officials.
An official familiar with conversations in the DC government said the Pentagon was too hesitant to deploy troops ahead of the protest and once the situation deteriorated rapidly they said defense officials took too long to approve the deployment of additional troops.
Facing increased scrutiny about the timeline, the Pentagon has pushed back, outright rejecting accusations that defense officials denied any requests for help. When the first calls for aid came shortly before 2 p.m., “The request was amorphous,” a senior defense official said, adding it was a nonspecific “We need help” request.
Hamstrung by the bureaucracy surrounding the deployment of soldiers within the national capital, it took 90 minutes to approve Mayor Muriel Bowser’s call for more troops, much of that time consumed by phone calls with the mayor and others to determine exactly what forces to send and how they were to be equipped, according to the defense official and a timeline of the evening released by the office of Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller on Friday.
At the same DC and Pentagon officials point fingers, they are preparing for the next major event to be held around the Capitol on January 20 with the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Concerns there may be more unrest were underlined on Friday when Twitter announced that users on its platform are plotting additional violence against the Capitol and across the country.
In a sign of the level of concern, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy is currently reviewing whether National Guardsmen should be armed for the inauguration with lethal or nonlethal weapons. If approved, the standard weapons the soldiers would carry would likely be M4 rifles or 9mm Berettas.
Underprepared for mayhem at the Capitol
Only 31% of the total force of the DC National Guard was in place before the planned protests and they were assigned to control traffic and monitor metro stations. They served as a backup to an alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies, strictly limited in their numbers and restricted in the tasks they could carry out because of the rules governing their deployment and the complexity of their operation
“The Capitol Hill Police has the responsibility and the jurisdiction. They are a separate branch of government. They have to ask and request the support,” McCarthy said Friday. “Whether that’s forces on the Capitol complex, contingency planning for quick reaction forces – anything to which Sunday before they said they didn’t need any support.”
Before Wednesday, the crowd estimates of how many would show up to protest were all over the place. From as few as 2,000 people to as many as 80,000. But the law enforcement agencies were in agreement following days of planning meetings and several interagency calls. There was no expectation of significant violence, despite law enforcement being aware of what was spreading on far-right social media and conspiracy sites.
“There were some mentions of that, but overall, the assessment that we got repeatedly was no indication of significant violent protests,” Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, said Thursday.
In the days leading up the riot, top defense officials were in constant communication with law enforcement agencies led by the Department of Justice and Bowser.
The final decision Monday was to mobilize 340 soldiers from the DC National Guard. A chemical-biological hazardous materials team was on standby to support law enforcement, while a 40-person quick response force (QRF) was located at Andrews Air Force Base some 20 miles away.
Prior to Wednesday, Capitol Police said it did not need military support
No other requests came in from the city and Capitol Police turned down offers for more help. As late as Monday, the Department of Defense offered more soldiers from the DC National Guard to support law enforcement. The answer never changed: Capitol Police did not need more assistance. A timeline of events provided by the Office of the Secretary of Defense indicates that Bowser sent a letter to the acting secretary of defense and the secretary of the army confirming there was no additional need for support.
“We engaged with the Capitol Police last week and into the weekend,” Rapuano said on a call with reporters. “We asked more than once. And the final return we got on Sunday the 3rd is that they would not be asking DOD for assistance.”
The Department of Defense relied exclusively on the assessments of Capitol Police and law enforcement authorities as the military is strictly prohibited under federal law from conducting its own surveillance in the United States.
“We rely on Capitol Police and federal law enforcement authorities to provide an assessment of the situation they foresaw,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, who was also on the call. “Based on that assessment, they believed they had sufficient personnel and did not make a request. I can’t speak to those assessments and I can’t speak to whether we would’ve have taken a different view and would have done more.”
McCarthy had not met Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund in person ahead of the planned protests. The first time they met was after midnight Wednesday, McCarthy said.
By Wednesday at 2 p.m., as the Capitol building was placed on lockdown and a congressional offices building was being evacuated, it was obvious to everyone that the Capitol needed more National Guardsmen. And fast.
Request held up by bureaucracy
But the deployment of additional National Guard soldiers took time, bogged down by the complex bureaucracy surrounding law enforcement in the national capital and the command structure of the Guard itself.
Each state, as well as the District of Columbia, has its own National Guard unit. But the DC National Guard operates unlike any other in the country. In an emergency, any governor can call up his or her National Guard unit for assistance. Just as the president is commander in chief of the military, a governor is the commander in chief of a state’s National Guard. But because Washington, DC, is not a state and has no governor, the president acts as the commander. He delegates his authority to the secretary of defense, who then delegates his authority to the secretary of the army. But deploying the National Guard requires an explicit request or order.
That request came in at 1:34 p.m., when Bowser requested more help. Five minutes later, Capitol Police Chief Steve Sund put in the same request. A first call with the Mayor lasted more than 30 minutes, a senior defense official said. A second with the mayor and other city and law enforcement officials occurred at 2:22 p.m.
Even then, the process for deploying National Guard units to support law enforcement on Capitol grounds was not instantaneous. Under an agreement with the city, the DC National Guard had a set of specific tasks, and they would be stationed mostly at traffic control points and metro stations. They were unarmed and were not equipped for crowd control. A new set of tasks had to be agreed between the Department of Defense and the city, a process which burned precious minutes as the Capitol building was under siege.
The guardsmen on the street had to return to the armory to put on protective equipment and riot gear, but they remained unarmed. At approximately the same time, the entire 1,100-member DC National Guard was activated. The goal was to have all available soldiers in the armory within four hours. The entire Guard is expected to arrive over the weekend, since some have to travel from outside the region.
“When we got the call around 2 p.m., we had mobilized our entire guard, moved our personnel off of their traffic control points, back to the armory, put on riot gear and were in position in less than two hours to then go and help support the clearing of the Capitol,” McCarthy said Thursday.
There was also huge sensitivity within the Pentagon about the role National Guard troops played in Washington and around the country in the protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd. In June, members of the Guard stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in body armor and camouflage as law enforcement operated throughout the city, including the forceful police clearing of peaceful protesters for a presidential photo-op. At the time, Mayor Bowser said the presence of additional law enforcement was “inflaming” the city.
The official familiar with conversations in the DC government accused the Pentagon of not sending additional forces fast enough and hesitating to deploy troops against rioters looting the Capitol.
But defense officials point to the role of the National Guard as a last line of enforcement in the Capitol, backing up all of the law enforcement agencies that already have the authority and the jurisdiction to operate in DC.
“We don’t believe there was a failure in the response. You look at the jurisdiction issues that exist in DC between Capitol Police and (DC Metropolitan) Police. You look at the planning that goes into those operations,” the official said. “The fact that we were able to have forces basically taken either from the armory or other points in the city, re-kitted out and deployed to the Capitol in around two hours – we believe that is a timeframe that we were doing good work there.”
McCarthy said the decision to deploy without body armor was based on the situational assessment from law enforcement agencies in Washington. In contrast, he said, the decision to the armor over the summer came after days of nationwide protests that built in intensity.
“We had six soldiers hit in the head with bricks and they got concussions and stitches,” McCarthy said, referring to the summer protests. “So it’s an escalation measure for your force protection. But if people are down in Freedom Plaza and they are selling T-shirts and eating hot dogs, we don’t need to be in body armor. But if they are throwing bricks, we’ve got to match it.”
National Guard arrives at 4:30 PM
By Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m., most of the original 340 soldiers from the DC National Guard were all near the Capitol, supporting law enforcement there and helping to establish and secure a perimeter around the building. McCarthy was with Bowser and Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee in the city.
Thirty minutes later, as US Marshals, ATF, and US Park Police joined the efforts to secure the Capitol, the Department of Defense recognized the need for a solid perimeter and put in a request for secure fences from the Department of Homeland Security. The 7-foot fences, made to be impossible to scale, had to be brought in from Maryland. By Thursday afternoon, 95% of the fence was complete.
At 4:40 p.m., McCarthy spoke with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who offered his National Guard’s assistance, which McCarthy accepted. Hogan had already activated his Guard, which was in touch with Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. One hundred service members from the Maryland National Guard would be in DC within eight to 10 hours, with another 150 to 200 available later.
As the evening wore on, McCarthy spoke with the governors of Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to bring in their National Guard units. The Department of Defense also approved New York and Delaware requests to bring in soldiers from their National Guards. The structure of the Department of Defense requires permission from the secretary of defense for an out-of-state Guard unit to enter the national capital region.
The first soldiers from the Maryland National Guard arrived in the capital at 10 a.m. Thursday morning, with Virginia National Guardsmen arriving a short time later.
By 6 p.m., Miller authorized the call up of 6,200 National Guardsmen from those six states. They will deploy to DC for a minimum of 30 days, working in 12-hour shifts of 850 people on the Capitol grounds and helping other law enforcement agencies.
At 7:15 p.m., both chambers of Congress and the leadership office were clear, and members of Congress were able to return by 8 p.m. to continue the process of certifying the Electoral College votes. Planning for the days ahead began soon after.
“We are singularly focused on putting a plan in place that we have the adequate level of capability to support this next extraordinary milestone of the transfer of power on the 20th of January,” McCarthy said.
But concerns remain and the fact McCarthy has made clear he is considering arming the National Guard for the next 30 days underlines the urgency of the situation as federal and local authorities seek to avoid a repeat of the violence that shocked the world when Joe Biden becomes the country’s 46th president.
CNN’s Barbara Starr and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.