'It can never happen again': Peters to probe Capitol attack as Homeland Security chair

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters said Friday he intends to probe the security and intelligence failures behind Wednesday's violent storming of the U.S. Capitol as the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. 

"It can never happen again," he said. 

Peters, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, was at his desk on the Senate floor listening to debate Wednesday afternoon when insurgents breached the Capitol and began to ransack the building.

Peters and other lawmakers were rushed to safety, but five people died, including a 42-year-old Capitol Police officer after a rioter reportedly bashed him in the head with a fire extinguisher. 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., gives an opening statement during a Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to discuss election security and the 2020 election process on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"We have very broad jurisdiction to investigate anything that the federal government touches, and we're going to need to have that kind of comprehensive investigation," Peters said in an interview. 

"We need to know exactly what happened and why the Capitol Police were not adequately prepared to deal with a situation that they were confronted with." 

Peters praised the front-line officers who put themselves in harm's way in trying to control an "incredibly difficult" situation, but he said the leadership of the Capitol Police failed. 

"We've got to find out why they failed and make sure that we make whatever corrections necessary to prevent this from ever happening again," Peters said. 

"One thing is clear is that they were understaffed, so they did not have the manpower necessary to deal with the violent rush of the mob and were not in proper gear, as well," he added.

"And it's surprising to me because there was no shortage of indicators that this could be a very big and perhaps violent group that was going to descend on the Capitol."

One area Peters said he intends to examine is the intelligence-gathering operations at the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant federal agencies after so many groups were encouraging supporters of President Donald Trump to descend on Washington to disrupt the counting of the Electoral College votes. 

"You had the president of the United States himself tweeting to come to Washington, 'it's going to be wild,' and the kinds of comments that he made, it was clear that an awful lot of folks were stoking anger," Peters said. 

"The fact that all of that was happening should not have escaped the attention of the Capitol Police or other folks entrusted with the security of folks at the Capitol and, given that, there should have been preparations for it, and certainly also protocols to bring in reinforcements if necessary." 

The top Republican on the panel, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, on Friday indicated his intent to work with Peters and the leaders of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which oversees Capitol Operations, to investigate Wednesday's incident. 

The senators in a joint statement said the attack "will forever be a stain on our nation’s history."

“Let us be clear: An attack on the Capitol Building is an attack on every American," the lawmakers said.

"We plan to conduct oversight and hold bipartisan hearings on these horrific events, and work together to make the necessary reforms to ensure this never happens again.”

This Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, file photo shows Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speaking during a news conference in Washington.

Portman will chair the Homeland Security panel until the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20 when Peters takes over.

That's because Republicans control the Senate and committee leadership until Democrat Kamala Harris becomes vice president and, as president of the Senate, would tip control of the chamber — now split 50-50 between the parties — to the Democrats. 

Domestic terrorism has been a priority of Peters during his time on the panel, and it's an issue on which he's previously worked with Portman in terms of security grants for houses of worship, among other legislation.

"I have been dismayed and frustrated by the lack of focus from the Trump administration on domestic terrorism, and I will make it a priority as the incoming chair that we address what is a growing threat," Peters said.

"Certainly, we know it firsthand here in Michigan with the plot by individuals to kidnap our own governor, that domestic terrorism is very real. We have to be prepared to deal with it." 

Had Wednesday's attack been a more sophisticated operation by a more determined domestic terrorist group, more people would have been killed, Peters said. 

His other priorities as chairman will include oversight of the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as cybersecurity in the wake of the alleged attack last year by Russia on the networks of the U.S. government and private companies. 

Peters said he has a good working relationship with Portman and that he's hoping to restore the "bipartisan and nonpartisan record" that the committee has traditionally enjoyed. 

"That was strained in the last few months under under Chairman Johnson, who was focused on other issues," said Peters, referring to his recently clashes with Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson over his questioning of the Nov. 3 election results.

"We're gonna return the focus of the committee back to where it needs to be, which is making sure the homeland is secure."