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Guard troops sat for hours awaiting Pentagon approval to defend Capitol

WASHINGTON – The commander of the Washington, D.C., National Guard said a force equipped with riot gear sat for hours as he awaited approval to help control and disperse insurrectionists who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Maj. Gen. William Walker told a joint Senate hearing Wednesday that given permission, he could have gotten 150 soldiers to the Capitol in “20 minutes.”

Instead, troops sat in buses at the National Guard Armory a few miles from the Capitol as thousands of Donald Trump supporters stormed the seat of government trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

As the National Guard reinforcements waited for permission to help control and disperse the mob, an outnumbered Capitol Police force suffered dozens of injuries and the death of one officer.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who co-chaired the hearing of the Senate Rules and Homeland Security committees, pointed out that the delay occurred as the whole country witnessed what was happening on live television.

“We need to understand how, with all the information that was available [about potential violence], the decision to reinforce local police with the National Guard was not made ahead of time,” Klobuchar said. “We must get to the very bottom of why it took the Defense Department so long to deploy the National Guard once the need for reinforcements became patently clear on every TV screen in America.”

Commanding General District of Columbia National Guard Maj. Gen. William J. Walker testifies on March 3, 2021, at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs/Rules and Administration hearing to examine the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Shawn Thew/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

Like Klobuchar, Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio questioned how it could take so long for top military officials to call in the National Guard during such an obvious crisis.

Walker said his marching orders were so constrained that day that he needed to inform senior Pentagon staff in order to move unarmed troops helping the Washington, D.C., police with traffic control from one intersection to another. The general said he was not supposed to equip his troops for riot control without an action plan and approval of the secretary of defense, but the secretary of the Army finally allowed him to distribute some protective gear to his men and women as long as they put it in their vehicles and did not put it on.

All of this happened against a backdrop in which a Jan. 5 FBI memo described internet chatter among white supremacists and other extremists talking about “war” to keep “our president” in office. The memo, which the FBI said was distributed by e-mail, then mentioned in a group phone call, and finally, distributed on a nationwide law enforcement website went undistributed to top law enforcement officials.

As she did last week in a similar hearing, Klobuchar tried to drive home the point that white supremacists and extremists planned and executed the attack. They came for a White House rally called by President Donald Trump to encourage them and his other loyalists to “stop the steal.” Incited by the president to march from the White House to the Capitol, Klobuchar said some people arrived with “climbing gear and radios.” They also brought bear spray and clubs. Some wore body armor.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a Trump supporter, continued reading into the record an article from the conservative website the Federalist. At last week’s hearing, Johnson read J. Michael Waller’s first-person description of the crowd gathered at the Capitol as generally peaceful. Waller, an analyst at the Center for Security Policy, said people pretending to be Trump supporters appeared to be the provocateurs of the attack. On Wednesday, Johnson read briefly from Waller’s description of people being encouraged to go into the Capitol even if they seemed reluctant.

In response, Klobuchar asked Jill Sanborn, the assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, if she would describe anything that happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 as “festive,” another of Waller’s descriptions.

Sanborn answered no.

The hearing also noted an FBI and Homeland Security warning of chatter about a possible extremist attack on the Capitol on Thursday. March 4 is the date of U.S. presidential inaugurations prior to 1933. Intelligence officials said talk of a possible attack may stem from the conspiracy group QAnon, whose supporters believe Trump will reclaim power March 4.

“We must look back so we can do better going forward,” Klobuchar said.

Walker testified that as insurrectionists overwhelmed police and broke windows and doors to enter the Capitol, a desperate police commander asked one of his colonels, “Where is the National Guard? Why aren’t they here?”

Walker said the pace of decisionmaking by the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Army on Jan. 6 differed radically from the minutes-long process that approved deployment of the National Guard at last summer’s Black Lives Matter rallies in D.C. following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

Walker said he alerted senior Army leaders of a “frantic” request for Guard assistance from Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund at 1:49 p.m. as rioters breached the building. He received permission from the secretary of defense to deploy his men and women three hours and 19 minutes later — hours after members of Congress were forced to adjourn and seek shelter from the rioters, and dozens of police officers from the Capitol Police and D.C. Metropolitan Police had been injured.

In addition to discussing the chain of command for deploying the National Guard, another prominent theme of the hearing was a plea for intelligence officials to take domestic terrorist groups as seriously as they do foreign terrorist organizations.

Representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI said they already do. Melissa Smislova of Homeland Security’s office of intelligence and analysis said that during the 2020 election and the presidential transition, the department issued 15 “warnings about … potential for domestic violent extremists to mobilize quickly with little to no warning.”

The FBI’s Sanborn pointed to a dozen “intelligence products” the bureau authored and shared in 2020.

Looking ahead, Sanborn also issued a sober warning.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Committee on Rules and Administration joint hearing Wednesday, March 3, 2021, examining the January 6, attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

“We expect racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, and other domestic violent extremists citing partisan political grievances will very likely pose the greatest domestic terrorism threats in 2021 and likely into 2022.”

Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432

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