The commander of the District of Columbia National Guard testified Wednesday that unusual restrictions by Pentagon leaders delayed him from deploying additional Guard members to halt the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol by hours.
Maj. Gen. William Walker told members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs that he could have begun sending Guard members to support D.C. law enforcement, under siege by a rioting crowd, hours earlier but was hampered by a strict Pentagon approval process, indecisive leadership and sluggish communication.
"At 1:49 p.m., I received a frantic call from then-chief of United States Capitol Police Steven Sund where he informed me that the security perimeter of the United States Capitol had been breached by hostile rioters," Walker said. "Chief Sund, his voice cracking with emotion, indicated that there was a dire emergency at the Capitol, and he requested the immediate assistance of as many available National Guardsmen as I could muster."
Walker immediately alerted U.S. Army senior leadership.
"The approval for Chief Sund's request would eventually come from the Acting Secretary of Defense [Christopher Miller] and be relayed to me by Army senior leaders at 5:08 p.m.," he added.
Walker had been authorized to provide 320 Guard members to support police at 30 traffic control points and six metro stations.
Miller and then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy had also authorized Walker to have a 40-member quick-reaction force, or QRF, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, but McCarthy imposed guidelines that delayed its deployment, Walker said.
In a Jan. 5 memo, McCarthy told Walker that only he could authorize the release of the QRF but not without the general first submitting a concept of operations plan, Walker said.
"I withhold authority to approve employment of the District of Columbia National Guard quick reaction force and will do so only as a last resort in response to a requirement from an appropriate civil authority," Walker said, reading directly from McCarthy's memo. "I will require a concept of operations prior to authorizing employment of a quick reaction force."
Walker said he found the requirement to be "unusual, as was the requirement to seek approval to move Guardsmen supporting the Metropolitan Police Department ... from one traffic control to another."
McCarthy met with Miller at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 6 to discuss options for the D.C. Guard's deployment, Robert Salesses, the senior official performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, told lawmakers.
"After this meeting, the acting secretary of defense determined that all available forces of the D.C. National Guard were required to reinforce the D.C. Metropolitan Police and the U.S. Capitol Police and ordered the full mobilization of the D.C. National Guard at 3:04 pm," Salesses said.
But that was only an order for Guard members to report to the D.C. Armory, not to the Capitol, he added.
At about the same time, Walker ordered the QRF to move from Andrews to the armory.
"At 3 p.m., I directed that the QRF that was based at Andrews to leave the base and get to the armory at all deliberate speed," Walker said, adding that a police escort got them to the armory about 20 minutes later.
Walker said he ordered the 155 Guard members at the armory to draw civil disturbance gear such as helmets and body armor, despite a previous directive from Miller that he would have to authorize that equipment.
McCarthy "to his credit did tell me that I could have force protection equipment with the Guardsmen, so we did have helmets, shin guards, vests," Walker said.
"In anticipation of a green light, a go, we had Guardsmen on buses," he said. "We brought them inside the armory, so nobody would see them putting on the equipment, and then we just waited to get the approval."
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, asked Walker, "What would have been the impact of sending those 155 right at 2 p.m.?"
Walker answered, "I believe that number could have made a difference. We could have helped extend the perimeter and helped push back the crowd."
Part of the delay seemed to come from the reluctance of Army senior leaders to have uniformed Guard members quelling a riot after public confusion over the Guard's presence in D.C. last summer when demonstrators protested the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in the custody of Minneapolis Police.
This became apparent during a phone call between D.C. officials, Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn, Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt and other Army generals, Walker said.
Flynn, who serves as the deputy chief of staff for Army operations, plans and training, and Piatt, who is the director of Army staff, "did not think it would look good, that it would be a good optic. They further stated that it could incite the crowd," Walker said.
"During the phone call with the District of Columbia leaders ... they both said it wouldn't be in their best military advice to advise the secretary of the Army to have uniformed Guard members at the Capitol during the election confirmation," he added.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Salesses to "explain why they would say such a thing. ... Do you have any idea why this delay occurred?"
Salesses said he talked with all the Army leaders who were on that call, adding that "[Maj. Gen.] Piatt told me yesterday that he did not use the word 'optics.'"
"Piatt is not a decision maker," Salesses said. "The only decision makers on the 6th of January were the secretary of defense and Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy."
Walker stuck to his statement.
"There were people in the room with me on that call that heard what they heard," he said.
Military.com reached out to the Army for comment on Walker's allegation but did not receive a response by publication time.
Salesses conceded to senators that criticism the military faced over its response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests influenced the response to the Jan. 6 attack.
More than 5,000 Guard members from 11 states flooded into Washington last June after protests erupted across the country. An image of Guard members wearing body armor and lined up on steps of the Lincoln Memorial went viral. Criticism mounted when military helicopters flew dangerously low over protesters -- a tactic used in war zones -- resulting in some being hit by debris.
Salesses said Miller, who'd taken over as acting defense secretary after the November election when Mark Esper was ousted from the job, was mindful of the criticism over having so many troops in Washington last summer.
"[Miller] wanted to make the decisions at his level," Salesses said.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., wanted to know why Walker wasn't notified of Miller's 4:32 p.m. decision to support D.C. law enforcement until 5:08 p.m.
"How is that possible?" Blunt asked. "The decision in the moment that we were in and the person that had to be told wasn't told for more than a half an hour after the decision was made?"
Salesses told Blunt that the delay "is an issue" that hampered the response.
"There were decisions that were being made, there were communications that needed to take place and there were actions that had to be taken -- all of that was happening at simultaneous times by different individuals, and I think that part of the challenge is that some of the delayed communications probably [created] some other challenges that we had that day," Salesses said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.