Former Capitol security officials surprised by military-style Jan. 6 attack

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Washington — Top law enforcement officials on Tuesday blamed intelligence failures for the delayed response to the Jan. 6 rioting at the U.S. Capitol building that left five people dead, including a police officer.

On the eve of the attack, the FBI forwarded to the U.S. Capitol Police a warning about extremists planning for violence the next day, but former top security officials told lawmakers Tuesday at a joint Senate hearing that they did not read it. 

Former Capitol police chief Steven Sund said the report was received by an official with the department's Intelligence Division, but "it did not go any further than that," he told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. 

Sund later added receiving intelligence that indicated evidence of a potential coordinated plot "could have given us sufficient advance warning to prepare for the kind of attack we saw." 

Instead, Sund and other former Capitol security officials at the hearing described their surprise at the scale of the coordination by those who came equipped with climbing gear, explosives and chemical sprays, and used hand signals and radios to communicate.

The conspirators also knew to descend at a moment when police were distracted by other incidents, such as pipe bombs planted just beyond the campus perimeter, Sund said.  

The former Capitol officials acknowledged their officers were not trained on how to respond to an infiltration of the Capitol building, with many not outfitted with riot gear. 

"We had planned for the possibility of violence, the possibility of some people being armed — not the possibility of a coordinated military-style attack involving thousands against the Capitol," Sund said. 

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee that convened the hearing, questioned how "vital" intelligence like the FBI's warning would not get into the hands of operational commanders. 

"How can that happen?" asked Peters, a Bloomfield Township Democrat. 

Sund replied: "That's something that's going to be looked at. I think that information would have been helpful to be aware of."

'Number of systems broke down'

Tuesday's proceeding was the first time the former Capitol security officers have spoken at a forum publicly since Jan. 6 and the first congressional hearing into the security failures that led to the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol.

The hearing was before both the Homeland Security panel and the Senate Rulescommittee, which oversees Capitol operations. 

Sund, former House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving and former Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger were the three top Capitol security officials at the time of the insurrection. All three resigned under pressure in the wake of the deadly riot.

The officials and lawmakers both praised the "heroic" response of officers who, "outnumbered and against the odds," successfully protected members of Congress and others in the building on Jan. 6 when a crush of insurgents broke in.

"The United States Capitol Police did everything we could, based on the intelligence and available resources, to prepare for this event," Sund said. "I acknowledge that under the pressure of an unprecedented attack, a number of systems broke down," including a lack of clear communications and directions from officials. 

Irving said based on the intelligence they had on hand going into Jan. 6, "we all believed that the plan met the threat and that we were prepared."

"We now know that we had the wrong plan, and as one of the senior security leaders responsible for the event, I am accountable for that," he said. "I accept that responsibility and, as you know, I have resigned my position."

Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert Contee, who is still on the job, oversees the agency that polices the city of the District of Columbia outside the Capitol campus.

Contee's officers responded immediately to the call for help when it came on Jan. 6 and, by 2:30 p.m., city police had requested additional officers from as far away as New Jersey to help. 

“From that point, it took another three and a half hours until all rioters were removed from the Capitol,” he said.

Contee said he was “surprised” at the reluctance to immediately send the National Guard to help at the Capitol grounds as violence was escalating.Instead, he heard concerns about the “optics” of having National Guard troops patrolling the Capitol.

The first troops didn't arrive on the scene for over three hours, at about 5:40 p.m.

“I was just stunned that, you know, I have officers that were out there literally fighting for their lives, and we're kind of going through what seemed like an exercise to really check the boxes,” Contee said.

Irving responded he "was not concerned about appearance whatsoever. It was all about safety and security" and determining what was the appropriate use of force.

Use of National Guard debated

The timing of a request to deploy National Guard troops was a matter of contention throughout the hearing, with Sund and Irving offering conflicting timelines. 

Sund said he had no authority to request the assistance of the National Guard without an emergency declaration of the three-member Capitol Police Board, which is a standing rule that constrains his agency.

"I cannot request the National Guard without a declaration of emergency from the Capitol Police Board," Sund said. "I can't even get my men and women cold water on an excessively hot day without a declaration of emergency. It's just a process that's in place."

Irving, a member of the Capitol Police Board, claimed that when he was asked for authorization to request National Guard assistance on Jan. 6, he approved it. 

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, pressed Irving on why it took over an hour for him to approve the request for National Guard help that Sund said he made at 1:09 p.m. Jan. 6. Irving testified he didn't get such a request until after 2 p.m. 

"I did not have a request at 1:09 that I can remember," said Irving, noting he did not have a phone record of a call at that time from Sund. 

Irving said he was on the House floor at 1:09 p.m. and could have immediately deployed the guard if he had received the call, because everyone necessary to approve such a request was with him. 

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the panel's top Republican, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked both Sund and Irving to submit phone records from that day.

Klobuchar asked Sund if part of the holdup in deploying the National Guard was tied to issues at the Pentagon, noting that by the time troops arrived, it was 5:40 p.m., and most of the violence had subsided.

"I don't know what issues there were at the Pentagon, but I was certainly surprised at the delays I was hearing and I was seeing," Sund said.

Limited powers lamented

Contee lamented the limited power of D.C. officials in emergencies such as the Jan. 6 riot. During emergencies in states, governors can call in the National Guard on their own. 

But District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser is not able to activate the National Guard without approval from “the highest level of the federal government,” which is “a real hindrance” to responding to crises, Contee said.

Capitol Police Capt. Carneysha Mendoza gave senators a harrowing account of officers'hours-long battle with rioters, during which she took command of the scene in the Rotunda as a leader within the department's special operations division. 

The Missouri native said she still had chemical burns on her face Tuesday that had not healed from gas deployed by insurgents. She recounted that, at one point, her right arm got wedged between the rioters and a railing along a wall and would have been broken had a sergeant not pulled her free.

She expressed pride in the officers she fought with that day, noting that, while some have said the battle lasted three hours, her Fitbit reported she was in the "exercise zone" for four hours and nine minutes, "and many officers were in the fight before I even arrived."

"We could have had 10 times the amount of people working with us, and I still believe the battle would have been just as devastating," Mendoza said. "As an American and U.S. Army veteran, it's sad to see us attacked by our fellow citizens. I'm sad to see the unnecessary loss of life."

Dozens of police officers were injured in the battle with insurgents who breached the building, ransacked offices and forced lawmakers into hiding for hours. Two police officers died by suicide in the days after the attack.

The Capitol Police said last week that the department suspended six officers with pay in the wake of the riot and is investigating the actions of 35 officers for their actions that day.

Portman lamented that officers didn't have the equipment necessary to push back against their attackers and "most importantly, to protect themselves."

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington.

"I think the bottom line here is that, unfortunately, our officers were not given the proper training, with regard to infiltration of the building or the complex with regard to dealing with civil disturbance," Portman said. 

Lawmakers vowed to uncover further how those in charge of federal intelligence and Capitol security failed to prepare for the potential threat, especially when intelligence suggested that extremists planned violent acts that day. 

"The attack on Jan. 6 was an extraordinary event that requires exhaustive consideration," Peters said. "The American people deserve answers on why their Capitol was breached."

Another joint hearing is set for next week to hear from witnesses from federal agencies including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, Klobuchar said. 

The committees' joint investigation is separate from the 9/11 Commission-style panel that, once appointed, is expected to complete an independent report on the Jan. 6 attack.

More than 200 people have been arrested and charged in connection with the attack; the most serious charges have included conspiracy.  

mburke@detroitnews.com

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

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