140 Former NatSec Officials Demand 9/11-Style Commission on Capitol Riots

Protesters interact with Capitol Police inside the U.S. Capitol Building.
Protesters interact with Capitol Police inside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

About 140 former national security, military and elected officials, including three former defense secretaries, are urging Congress to establish a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate January's attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In an open letter addressed to lawmakers and published Tuesday, the group said the Jan. 6 riot was a sign of an "exigent and growing threat," making such a commission even more important. And failing to use the entire slate of tools available to understand the attack and address its causes would leave the nation vulnerable to attack again, they said.

"The events of January 6th exposed severe vulnerabilities in the nation's preparedness for preventing and responding to domestic terrorist attacks," the letter said. "The immediate security failings that permitted a lethal breach of the Capitol complex by armed extremists raise serious questions and demand immediate solutions."

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The attack, they said, was "also the result of complex national security threats," including coordinated disinformation campaigns, opaque financing of extremist networks, possible foreign influence and white supremacist violent extremism.

"Understanding how these forces culminated in an attack on the infrastructure of our democracy is critical to preventing future attacks," the letter said.

The signers include former defense secretaries William Perry and William Cohen, of the Clinton administration, and Chuck Hagel of the Obama administration. Former Homeland Security secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, of the George W. Bush administration, and Obama-era secretaries Jeh Johnson and Janet Napolitano also signed it.

Former Coast Guard commandants Thad Allen and James Loy; retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli; and retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who formerly led the CIA and NSA, also signed the letter.

The officials want the independent commission to investigate the attack and its direct causes, and make recommendations to prevent such attacks in the future and strengthen democratic institutions to make them more resilient.

In the letter, the officials noted that the independent 9/11 Commission worked alongside and complemented parallel investigations by Congress and law enforcement. A new commission on the Capitol attack could play a similar role, supporting the work of the legislative and executive branches.

"Commissions -- properly empowered, resourced, and led -- can establish a full picture of events and an analysis of their causes, from which nonpartisan recommendations can authoritatively flow," the letter said.

According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, updated two weeks after the January attack, commissions of this kind are typically established by congressional statute, or by the president or departmental heads under their own authorities. Congress has formed more than 150 commissions since 1989, tackling subjects such as government contracting during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, and opioid trafficking.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called for a commission on the Capitol attack, but disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over its potential scope and structure have stymied its creation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in February objected to Pelosi’s proposal to give Democrats more seats than Republicans, and objected to its scope, ABC News reported. McConnell said a commission could either keep a tight focus on the Capitol attack, or examine the full scope of political violence in America, but that Pelosi’s plan for the commission would “land at some artificial politicized halfway point.”

Pelosi accused McConnell of minimizing the attacks and trying to water down the commission's focus.

The letter was organized and released by the group Protect Democracy, which was formed in 2017 "to prevent American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government," according to its website.

The attack on the Capitol, launched in an attempt to disrupt Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s election as the nation’s 46th president, resulted in the deaths of five people, including one Capitol Police officer who authorities said was sprayed by a chemical substance that may have been bear spray, and four rioters.

Since then, the National Guard has remained in Washington to protect the complex, and security on Capitol Hill has dramatically increased. The relatively high representation of people with military service among the rioters also alarmed Pentagon leaders, who have increased their focus on rooting out political extremists from the ranks.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

Related: DC, Capitol Police 'Stunned' at Slow National Guard Response During Jan. 6 Riot

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