US Capitol Police with guns drawn stand near a barricaded door as rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.(AP File)
US Capitol Police with guns drawn stand near a barricaded door as rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.(AP File)

US Capitol security chiefs give differing accounts of January 6 riot

Any disagreement between the officials testifying Tuesday could feed into partisan narratives about who is to blame.
Bloomberg
UPDATED ON FEB 23, 2021 08:54 PM IST

The former US Capitol Police chief said the principal security officials for the House and Senate resisted calling in help from the National Guard before the Jan. 6 protests that turned into a mob assault on the building.

Steven Sund, who resigned from his role as Capitol Police chief after the attack, plans to tell two Senate committees that the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who are also testifying in the same Senate hearing, didn’t adequately prepare for the planned rally by Donald Trump’s supporters. Sund also blames the other authorities for delaying a request for backup from the National Guard once the attack was underway.

The joint hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Rules and Administration Committees on Tuesday is the first in a series of lawmaker inquiries into the origins of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the failure of the Capitol’s security forces to anticipate and then quell the riot, which left five people dead.

Sund will testify along with former Senate Sergeant-At-Arms Michael Stenger and former House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, offering conflicting and contentious recollections of how things went wrong.

“We have a lot of questions,” Senator Gary Peters, the chairman of the Homeland Security panel, told reporters before the hearing. “What did they know and what did they expect? Why were they not really fully prepared to deal with what was a very large violent attack on the Capitol?”

The assault on the Capitol was replayed in vivid detail at Trump’s Senate trial after he was impeached on a charge that he incited the mob. The Senate voted Feb. 13 to acquit the former president, but the bitter partisanship of the moment hasn’t dissipated, even as members of both parties are calling for a thorough examination of the riot.

Two House hearings related to the riot also are scheduled this week, and retired Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré is conducting an independent security review commissioned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi also is proposing an independent commission, modeled on the panel that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to review the causes of the Capitol assault and the security failures surrounding it.

Differing Versions

Tuesday’s hearing isn’t the first time Sund has sought to shift blame to other officials.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Pelosi other top House and Senate leaders, Sund also asserted that violence or threat assessments from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service and District of Columbia police were incomplete. And he said that Irving during the attack insisted on going through his chain of command, which technically includes Pelosi, to get approval to seek National Guard support, resulting in a nearly hour-long delay.

Irving, the former House sergeant-at-arms, plans to offer a different version than Sund’s characterization of the events of Jan. 6. In his prepared testimony for Tuesday’s hearing, Irving says he doesn’t have any record of Sund’s call and request to call in help from the National Guard that afternoon.

However, Irving does plan to day he agrees with Sund’s assessment that Capitol officials didn’t have all the information they needed to prepare.

“The intelligence was not that there would be a coordinated assault on the Capitol, nor was that contemplated in any of the inter-agency discussions that I attended in the days before the attack,” Irving plans to tell the committees, according to his written remarks.

Jan. 6 Commission

Any disagreement between the officials testifying Tuesday could feed into partisan narratives about who is to blame.

Democrats and Republicans are haggling over the composition of the independent commission that Pelosi has proposed. Republicans have objected to a Democratic proposals for 11-seat panel that would give seven seats to Democratic appointees -- including three to be named by President Joe Biden -- and four to Republicans. GOP leaders want the panel evenly divided.

Separately, some House Republicans have seized on Sund’s Feb. 1 letter to demand answers from Pelosi on her role in planning for Jan. 6 and the responses to the violence that day. Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, has dismissed that as a “transparently partisan attempt“ to lay blame on the speaker while ignoring the role of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who appointed Stenger.

This week, there are two more House hearings related to the Jan. 6 riot -- including one involving testimony from the acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman and House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett on Thursday. Both of them already have testified in a closed hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.

Capitol Police officers are still reeling from the attack that left one officer dead and 140 Capitol and Metropolitan Police officers injured. A member of the Capitol force and a D.C. police officer committed suicide after the assault.

D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee is a fourth witnesses invited to answer questions at the hearing Tuesday.

David Schanzer, a terrorism and homeland security expert at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said politically divisive hearings in Congress could get in the way of any independent attempt at fact-finding.

“Sometimes public hearings that are held very close to an event without a lot of time and effort putting into the foundations of an investigation beforehand -- collecting documents, document review, interviewing lots of witnesses -- can tend to be more about political theater than getting to the ground truth,” he said.

He said a bipartisan independent commission can have more credibility and “can take more time outside the cauldron of open, televised hearing to do the ground truth.”

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