As the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump for inciting the deadly insurrectional riot on January 6th, questions are still being asked about how “Fortress DC” responded to a violent mob attacking the U.S. Capitol Building with a joint session of Congress occurring.
Washington, DC is uniquely complicated in terms of how many public safety agencies have some jurisdiction inside the District. City authorities such as the Metropolitan Police Department and DC’s own Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) cover non-federal areas of the city, but must maintain a close working relationship with federal authorities including the U.S. Park Police (responsible for the National Mall and monuments), the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Federal Protective Service and Office of National Capital Region Coordination (ONCRC), the Secret Service, FBI, and of course the Capitol Police who cover the Capitol Building and congressional offices.
There are also a myriad of agencies that can be called in critical situations, as evidenced over the summer by unmarked federal law enforcement officers from the Department of Justice sweeping the streets of Washington in response to civil unrest. To add one more layer of confusion, due to the District’s unique governance structure, the DC National Guard does not respond to the Mayor like other Guards respond to their Governor. The Mayor can only request activation of the Guard from the Secretary of the Army, and those requests are only supposed to be for non-federal city territory.
Mutual aid is a well-established concept in the emergency management world. Neighboring jurisdictions are supposed to share resources, including personnel, during critical incidents through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a pre-9/11 federal law. While jurisdictionally complicated for all the reasons mentioned above, the agencies in and around DC have used mutual aid and joint incident commands countless times - for presidential inaugurations, large crowd events like the 4th of July, protests including Black Lives Matter, or events like the Navy Yard shooting in 2013.
The U.S. Secret Service was on-site at the Capitol as the security detail assigned to Vice President Mike Pence and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who is still a U.S. Senator. As the sitting Vice President and number one in the presidential line of succession, keeping Pence safe is a major national security priority. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Grassley (as the president pro tempore of the Senate) are second and third in the line of presidential succession. To allow those three and the Vice President-elect to be endangered in the same building at the same time is a stunning failure of the “continuity of government” principles that have been in place since the Cold War.
Despite some initial statements to the contrary, there was ample intelligence ahead of January 6th suggesting that the event was intended to be violent. Open source investigations by journalists and extremism watchdogs found thousands of postings indicating intent to “Occupy the Capitol.” The New York Police Department, which has the most robust intelligence arm of any local police department in the country, sent intelligence to the Capitol Police that included posts with specific language about the violent intent of those traveling to Washington for the 6th.
FBI’s Norfolk field office issued a bulletin quoting statements discovered on an online thread: “Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”
Despite these intelligence reports, and in a misguided reaction to valid criticism of over-aggressive federal policing and military deployments this past summer in DC and Portland, Oregon, Mayor Muriel Bowser and (now former) U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund established light security around the Capitol. 340 members of the DC National Guard were deployed in advance, unarmed, and strictly limited to backfilling for Metro PD traffic control throughout the city. Chief Sund denied offers from the Pentagon for additional support in the days leading up to the 6th. Justice Department officials offered support from FBI agents as the crowd invaded the Capitol, only to be rebuffed.
Few federal resources were activated or placed on standby. Reports suggest the few Homeland Security officers and agents on standby weren’t deployed until the riot was nearly over. DHS opened its virtual situation room on the 5th, a mere day before the attempted coup. As Americans watched live online and on TV, the Capitol Police were quickly overwhelmed and the building was breached and ransacked.
No one can deny that there are many cases of individual Capitol Police officers acting heroically. Their bravery is even more impressive given the utter failure of their leadership to plan for or respond to this situation. Why were some officers engaged in physical combat with insurrectionists while others were standing aside at open doors to let unsearched (and in some cases armed) rioters enter a building in lockdown? Officer Brian Sicknick was fatally bludgeoned in the head with a fire extinguisher. One Capitol Police officer allegedly put on a MAGA hat and a fellow officer took selfies with the insurrectionists. What was the message from leadership? Were officers ordered to keep rioters out of the building or stand down when faced with resistance?
The timeline released by the Department of Defense reveals a 75 minute lapse from Chief Sund’s request for more resources to full activation of the DC National Guard. A Senate staffer resorted to calling a social connection at the Department of Justice who was able to get in touch with FBI senior leadership and request help. Does this sound like a well-designed emergency response plan for the United States Congress?
According to reports, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s and Mayor Bowser’s offices reached out to Virginia state officials and asked for emergency assistance. Let’s be plainly clear about this: the Mayor and Speaker bypassed federal law enforcement and resources to ask the Governors of Virginia and Maryland to send armed personnel to secure federal property, property that the United States government appeared incapable, or unwilling, to secure. This was a complete failure of trust in the federal government’s ability to save lives in immediate danger. The executive branch could not be trusted to protect a co-equal branch of government performing its constitutional duty while being mortally threatened by supporters of the sitting President.
The National Guard is not designed or advertised as a fast response force unless they are activated in advance of an event. Guardsmen (and women) can receive their activation notice while at their full time jobs, and may have to handle important matters like child care before being able to start heading to their barracks to get orders and equipment.
Virginia Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Brian Moran immediately deployed Virginia State Police units out of Northern Virginia to head to the Capitol, followed by Governor Northam activating the Virginia National Guard. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan similarly sent Maryland State Police Troopers, and the Maryland National Guard after hours of back-and-forth delays for approval from the Pentagon.
The concepts of emergency management and continuity of government have been huge priorities for decades, with trillions of dollars spent on national security and homeland defense in the years since the 9/11 attacks. It is indeed shocking that we entered the 20th anniversary year of the most deadly terror attack on American soil with another terrorist attack planned not in the Middle East or Southeast Asia, but right here at home, in plain view, with little effort of avoiding detection.
Quite frankly, this was not a major attack. This was not an invasion planned by one of our international rivals. These were not highly coordinated special forces operatives with a specific tactical plan. If we are supposed to credibly claim that we are prepared for “the real deal,” then we have a lot of explaining to do.
A full 9/11 Commission-style inquiry must be undertaken by the new Administration and Congress to memorialize events, find out what exactly went wrong, and make sure it never happens again. The Trump Administration previously suppressed intelligence warnings about the threat from white supremacists. Incoming intelligence leaders need to restore the intelligence community’s reputation as apolitical actors who provide credible information and analysis. Suggested reforms to DHS include the need to pull back on its current over-focus on immigration enforcement and step up on domestic emergency management and counterterrorism.
The recently-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) banned the practice of unidentified federal agents during a civil disturbance, which led to the backlash that contributed to the scaled-down security presence on January 6th. Restoring Americans’ faith in their federal law enforcement officers is an important step towards re-establishing the notion that our government is capable and invested in protecting all American institutions, including constitutional democracy.
Last week we nearly saw the legislative branch decapitated because of a lack of intelligence-based planning, bureaucratic holdups, and decisions made with optics over security in mind. Alarms are currently blaring about potential violence across the nation and in DC as we approach the Inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on January 20th, 2021. American democracy will survive this challenge, but many Americans could be killed in the coming weeks and months unless our national security leadership accepts that we have a ethno-nationalist insurgency brewing across the country. We will suffer extraordinary violence unless we prepare, mitigate, and respond effectively at all levels.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.