Congress finally gets first chance for answers about the Jan. 6 insurrection

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The officials in charge of securing the Capitol on Jan. 6 largely deflected blame on Tuesday for the lapses that enabled a violent mob of Donald Trump’s supporters to storm the building.

The quartet of top officials responsible for security during last month’s insurrection instead blamed “intelligence failures” and senior Pentagon officials for leaving them unprepared for the “coordinated, military-style” attack on Congress. Their Senate testimony revealed a tangled mess of conflicting orders, missed calls and bureaucratic delays. But they all agreed on two critical points — that the Pentagon slow-walked National Guard backup and federal intelligence authorities did not provide sufficient warnings of the attack.

Appearing before two Senate committees, former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said the Pentagon dragged its feet for hours on Jan. 6 — even after law enforcement officials pleaded for additional aid. Already, rioters had planted two explosives nearby, breached the Capitol and battered police officers with clubs, mace and other weapons.

Sund and acting D.C. police chief Robert Contee described to senators a conference call that afternoon with senior security personnel during which a top Pentagon official, Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, said he would recommend against deploying the National Guard for fear of the “optics” of armed troops in front of the Capitol. Sund and Contee said they informed Piatt that their officers, already beleaguered and beaten by the mob, were desperate for help.

“Lt. Gen. Piatt then indicated that he was going to run the request up the chain of command at the Pentagon,” recalled Sund, who resigned after the riots. “Almost two hours later, we had still not received authorization from the Pentagon to activate the National Guard.”

Contee told lawmakers that he was “literally stunned” by Army officials’ nonchalant responses.

“Chief Sund was pleading for the deployment of the National Guard and in response to that, there was not an immediate ‘Yes, the National Guard is responding’,” Contee said.

The revelations prompted Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Homeland Security Committee, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Rules Committee, to call for testimony from officials who served in the Pentagon at the time. The senators said those officials, whom they declined to name, would be appearing on the Hill next week to take questions about allegations that they slow-walked approval of a National Guard deployment.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) indicated she expected to receive testimony from former Department of Homeland Security officials, too.

The Pentagon has contested the timeline Sund offered. His call with the commanding general of the National Guard, Maj. Gen. William Walker, requesting assistance occurred at 1:49 pm and lasted less than 30 minutes, according to defense officials and a detailed timeline of the day the Pentagon released in January.

D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, had requested only limited Guard support ahead of the riot, primarily for street closures and crowd control, an Army spokesperson noted in a statement to POLITICO.

Both the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security were headed at the time of the riot by acting officials installed in the waning weeks of Trump’s administration without explanation.

Tuesday’s hearing, a joint effort by both Peters’ and Klobuchar’s committees, was lawmakers’ first chance to expose the security failures that allowed rioters to overtake the Capitol.

Sund used his testimony to defend his former force’s handling of Jan. 6, describing that day’s collapse of the Capitol defenses as “not the result of poor planning or failure to contain a demonstration gone wrong.”

“No single civilian law enforcement agency — and certainly not the USCP — is trained and equipped to repel, without significant military or other law enforcement assistance, an insurrection of thousands of armed, violent, and coordinated individuals focused on breaching a building at all costs,” he told senators.

According to Contee, “available intelligence pointed to a large presence of” some extremist groups that had stirred violence at protests in the nation’s capital late last year. However, Contee said, D.C. “did not have intelligence pointing to a coordinated assault on the Capitol.”

In addition to Sund and Contee, the Senate heard from the former House and Senate sergeants-at-arms. But key details of their stories conflicted.

For example, Sund claimed he called then-House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving early on in the assault — at 1:09 p.m. to request more help. But Irving said he has no memory or record of that call and was on the House floor at that time. He told lawmakers he did not receive a formal request from Sund until after 2 p.m.

Lawmakers pressed Sund and Irving on that discrepancy and asked them to share phone records.

Sund also told senators that the Capitol Police’s intelligence unit received a report from the FBI on the evening before the insurrection that warned of extremist groups preparing for “war.” But Sund said that report never made it up the chain to him.

Irving and Michael Stenger, the then-Senate sergeant-at-arms, said they also never saw it.

Although the story of Jan. 6 has become clearer as hundreds of rioters have faced charges, high-level decision-making by top congressional security officials has so far remained shrouded in secrecy. That lack of transparency has clouded congressional efforts to ensure that lawmakers learn from the insurrection chaos.

All of the security officials said in their Tuesday testimony that the intelligence about the protests that day — billed by Trump as a “wild” effort to “stop the steal,” part of a months-long campaign to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory — pointed to a degree of lawlessness but not a concerted assault on the Capitol.

Had other security officials concluded that military backup could be necessary on Jan. 6, “I would not have hesitated to ensure the National Guard’s presence or to make any other changes necessary,” said Irving.

Another question hovering over the discussion was the roles Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had in orchestrating the security response. Some details have begun to spill out, suggesting both leaders were perplexed by the failure of their chambers’ sergeants-at-arms to immediately seek National Guard help — as well as the failure to have Guardsmen at the ready in advance — once the riot became a clear threat to lawmakers’ safety.

Leadership staff in both parties agreed during the crisis that Capitol Police leaders “should have asked for the National Guard’s physical deployment to protect the U.S. Capitol complex well in advance of January 6th,” said Drew Hammill, a Pelosi aide.

Later this week, the House Appropriations Committee will hear testimony from Sund’s successor, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman, as well as Irving’s successor, acting House sergeant-at-arms Timothy Blodgett.

The Department of Defense Inspector General is currently reviewing the details of the preparation for and response to the riot, according to a spokesperson.

Tuesday’s hearing comes amid a nationwide push by law enforcement officials at all levels to track down and prosecute the worst actors of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

More than 200 participants in the riots have been arrested — some for simply trespassing, others for assaulting police. Still, prosecutions are likely to intensify. Biden’s attorney general nominee Merrick Garland told lawmakers Monday that he intends to make the investigation a top priority in the early days of his tenure.

The Capitol Police Department has opened investigations into three dozen Capitol Police officers, part of a force of about 2,000, whose actions during the protests raised questions. Six of them remain suspended during these reviews, officials have confirmed. Lawmakers have also asked questions about whether any of their colleagues led unauthorized tours earlier that week for people who may have participated in the Jan. 6 attacks.

Democratic leaders have called for an investigative panel, modeled on the 9/11 Commission that probed the 2001 terror attacks, to examine disparate threads that contributed to the assault, and many Republicans have signaled openness to that push. But the contours of that commission has already provoked disagreement between the parties.

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

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