6 Highlights From Congress’ First Hearing on Capitol Riot

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Former and current officials responsible for securing the U.S. Capitol fielded questions Tuesday from senators about how the Jan. 6 rioters could have breached the building. 

Two Senate committees held the first such oversight hearing about a mob’s ability to storm the Capitol, apparently to prevent a joint session of Congress from counting and certifying the Electoral College votes sealing Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump. 

Here are key highlights from the hearing, likely to be followed  by many more on the topic. 

1. ‘Coordinated’ Attack

Officials said the attack on the Capitol clearly was planned in advance. 

“These people came specifically with equipment. You’re bringing climbing gear to a demonstration, explosives, chemical spray–you’re coming prepared,” former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who resigned under pressure after the riot, told senators during the hearing.

Rioters began their assault on the Capitol while Trump was addressing a rally on the Ellipse, a park south of the White House.

“The fact that the group attacked our West Front 20 minutes before the event at the Ellipse ended–they were planning on our agency not being at full strength at that time,” Sund testified, referring to Capitol Police.

In his testimony to senators, acting Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee said of the attack, “I certainly believe it was coordinated.”

Contee pointed to the “placement of pipe bombs in the area,” among other evidence “adding to what we know in hindsight now as a result of the ongoing investigation of the FBI.”

The Washington Post first reported on an FBI document based on a digital communication thread that said groups were “preparing for war” Jan. 6. The information regarding a thread from an online message board came from the FBI’s office in Norfolk, Virginia, the Post reported. 

One person wrote on the message board: 

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.

“Pantifa” reportedly is an insulting term for Antifa, a loose organized, far-left organization involved in violence across the nation.  BLM is an acronym for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

2. Lack of Intelligence Sharing

However, Contee said, “The District did not have intelligence pointing to a coordinated assault on the Capitol.”

Other officials complained in testimony that they were unaware of the FBI information on individuals planning an attack. 

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., said lawmakers would conduct a broad investigation, beyond this initial hearing, into what he called the “colossal breakdown” in security that allowed the Capitol to be breached.

“We will continue to seek testimony from a range of agencies and officials who were involved in preparing for and responding to the events of the day for the U.S. Capitol and for the entire region,” Peters said. “The attack on Jan. 6 was an extraordinary event that requires exhaustive consideration. The American people deserve answers on why their Capitol was breached.”  

The FBI’s Norfolk office forwarded intelligence to the bureau’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which in  turn forwarded it on the evening of Jan. 5 to the intelligence division of U.S. Capitol Police. 

Officials and several senators referred to the possibility that the information about a security threat may have been emailed without follow-up. 

“I actually just in the last 24 hours was informed by the [Capitol Police] department that they actually had received that report,” Sund said. 

During his testimony, he defended the heavily criticized Capitol Police leadership and said a lack of intelligence sharing contributed to the situation. 

“A clear lack of accurate and complete intelligence across several federal agencies contributed to this event, and not poor planning by the United States Capitol Police,” Sund said. 

“No entity, including the FBI, provided any new intelligence regarding Jan. 6,”  he said, adding:

Based on the intelligence that we received, we planned for an increased level of violence at the Capitol, and that some participants may be armed, but none of the intelligence we received predicted what actually occurred.

Although some of the officials who testified had differing assessments of specifics, all agreed they were not privy to intelligence that might have helped stop the attack. 

Paul Irving, who quit under pressure as the House’s sergeant-at-arms, said information from other federal law enforcement did not “forecast a coordinated assault” on the Capitol.  

“The intelligence was not that there would be a coordinated assault on the Capitol, nor was that contemplated in any of the interagency discussions that I attended in the days before the attack,” Irving said, later adding:

Every Capitol Police daily intelligence report between Jan. 4 and Jan. 6, including on Jan. 6, forecast the chance of civil disobedience or arrests during the protests as ‘remote to improbable.’

3. Rejecting ‘Complicit’ Charge

Each of the law enforcement officials who testified seemed to take offense to quoted comments by Russel Honoré, a retired Army lieutenant general who said in an MSNBC interview: “I think once this all gets uncovered, it was complicit actions by Capitol Police.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has appointed Honoré to lead an investigation of the Capitol attack. 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked: “Were you complicit in this attack on Jan. 6?”

Sund answered first, saying, “Absolutely not, and I think it is disrespectful to myself and members of the Capitol Police Department.”

Irving responded:  “Absolutely not, Senator.”

“Of course none of you were,” Hawley said. “There is absolutely no evidence to that effect. Mr. Sund, I think your comments are appropriately taken. To allege that any of you were complicit in this violent mob attack on this building is not only extremely disrespectful, it’s really quite shocking. And this person has really no business leading any security review related to the events of Jan. 6.”

4. National Guard and ‘Optics’

Hawley also grilled the officials on why they determined the National Guard would not be needed. 

“You do say that Mr. Irving advised you he needed to run it–namely the request for the National Guard–up the chain of command,” Hawley said to Sund, who affirmed this.

Hawley then asked Irving who he was referring to in the chain of command. Irving said he didn’t recall. 

“I have no recollection of that call, neither do I have a record of it,” Irving said, seeming to contradict Sund’s recollection of calling Irving on the phone at 1:09 p.m. Jan. 6.  

Irving said he got a call from Sund at 1:30 p.m. in which the Capitol Police chief said conditions were deteriorating, but said he didn’t tell Sund that he would run a request for National Guard troops up the chain of command. 

Irving said he made the decision with then-Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger, who also testified to calling up the National Guard. Irving added that he didn’t wait for a go-ahead from House and Senate leaders. 

“There seems to be confusion about the basic facts and who asked for what when,” Hawley said. 

The Missouri Republican later referred to Sund’s statement that Irving had said he “was concerned about the optics of having the guard deployed.”

Sund said: “On the 4th, it wasn’t a phone call, it was an in-person visit over to [Irving’s] office where I went in and requested the National Guard.”

Hawley asked Irving to elaborate on what he meant by concern for “optics” on Jan. 4. 

“Safety was always the deciding factor in making security plans. The issue on the table was whether intelligence warranted troops at the Capitol,” Irving said, adding: 

The conversation with Mr. Sund, I did not take it as a request [for troops]. He was merely informing me that he had received an offer from the National Guard, and that when we included Mr. Stenger, we discussed the specific issue whether the intelligence warranted the troops. And the answer was no. The collective answer was no. And then Mr. Stenger put forth his recommendation to have them on stand-by, and my recollection is that Mr. Sund was very satisfied with that.

5. Lack of Training

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he was puzzled about what officials called a lack of training to deal with such a situation. 

“There wasn’t training for what to do if a mass group actually comes through the door and tries to burst through, whether it’s an insurrection type of event, whether it’s just a mob that’s gone crazy, whether a protest just gets out of hand, to be able to burst through the door,” Lankford said. “There was no clarity for the officers inside the building on their rules of engagement once [rioters] actually came through the building.” 

The Oklahoma Republican later asked: “Is there a need for much greater, less-than-lethal-force capability on [the part of] officers at the time or available to officers and clearer rules of engagement if you have a group of people trying to get into the building unauthorized?”

Sund, the former Capitol Police chief,  responded: 

We do train for people trying to get into the building. We don’t train for an insurrection of thousands of people. Our officers do have less-than-lethal capability that they do carry with them. With hindsight being what it is,  I think there needs to be additional training, additional equipment to consider [for] this type of attack in the future.

Earlier in the hearing, Capitol Police Capt. Carneysha Mendoza, who assisted in the recovery efforts after the 9/11 attack at the Pentagon, said the Capitol riot was beyond what she and colleagues were prepared for. 

“There are certain lessons that always stuck with me after 9/11. One of those lessons is knowing the unthinkable is always possible—so be ready,” Mendoza said, adding: “Of the multitude of events I’ve worked in my nearly 19-year career in the department, this was by far the worst of the worst.”

“As an American and as an Army veteran,” she said, “it’s sad to see us attacked by fellow citizens.”

6. Questions About ‘Provocateurs’

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., read aloud from, and entered into the Senate record, an article by J. Michael Waller, a senior analyst at the Center for Security Policy, a national security think tank.

In it, Walker writes that “provocateurs” infiltrated a pro-Trump march with peaceful protesters and whipped up a normally law-abiding crowd to turn against law enforcement. Walker was an eyewitness to the Trump rally Jan. 6 before it turned into a riot.

“I would really recommend everyone on the committee read this account,” Johnson said. 

During Trump’s Senate impeachment trial on a charge of inciting insurrection, House Democrats asserted that the riot was foreseeable because of the 45th president’s rhetoric in disputing the outcome of the November election. 

“The House [impeachment] managers made a big deal that this was predictable, this was foreseeable, which I don’t believe. Do you believe the breach of the Capitol, do you believe that was foreseeable and predictable?” Johnson asked the former Capitol Police chief.

Sund said neither he nor leaders of other federal agencies were aware of such a threat, and referred to the D.C. police chief’s earlier comment. 

“The breach of the Capitol was not something anybody anticipated,” Sund said. “Nor do I think some of our federal partners expected. I don’t think the Secret Service would have brought up the vice president if they expected it.”

Then-Vice President Mike Pence presided over the joint session of Congress that convened to count the electoral votes for president. 

Johnson then pressed on what police expected from Trump supporters, which gained a less clear response from the former Capitol Police chief. 

“Is part of that because of what you had experienced in the past, with what Mr. Waller experienced, that the vast majority of Trump supporters are pro-law enforcement and the last thing they would do is violate the law?”

Sund responded: “I will say that information I received from some of my officers [was that] they were trying to prevent people from coming into the building and people were showing up saying, ‘We’re police, let us through,’ and still wanted to violate the law to get inside the building.”

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