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DC Guard commander says Pentagon restricted his authority before Capitol riot

The commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, Army Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, briefs the media at the Pentagon, Jan. 25, 2021.

LISA FERDINANDO/DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

By PAUL SONNE | The Washington Post | Published: January 26, 2021

WASHINGTON — The commander of the District of Columbia National Guard said the Pentagon restricted his authority ahead of the riot at the U.S. Capitol, requiring higher-level sign-off to respond that cost time as the events that day spiraled out of control.

Local commanders typically have the power to take military action on their own to save lives or prevent significant property damage in an urgent situation when there isn't enough time to obtain approval from headquarters.

But Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, said the Pentagon essentially took that power and other authorities away from him ahead of a pro-Trump protest on Jan. 6. That meant he couldn't immediately roll out troops when he received a panicked phone call from the Capitol Police chief warning that rioters were about to enter the U.S. Capitol.

"All military commanders normally have immediate response authority to protect property, life, and in my case, federal functions — federal property and life," Walker said in an interview. "But in this instance I did not have that authority."

Walker and former Army secretary Ryan McCarthy, along with other top officials, briefed the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday behind closed doors about the events, the beginning of what is likely to become a robust congressional inquiry into the preparations for a rally that devolved into a riot at the Capitol, leaving five people dead and representing a significant security failure.

The military, which isn't structured to be a first responder like law enforcement, took hours to arrive at the scene primarily because the Capitol Police and the District government hadn't asked the District Guard to prepare a contingency force for a riot. The Capitol Police chief also didn't call Walker to tell him a request for Guard backup was imminent until about 25 minutes before rioters breached the Capitol.

But the restrictions the Pentagon placed on Walker also contributed to the delay. He needed to wait for approval from McCarthy and acting defense secretary Christopher Miller before dispatching troops, even though some 40 soldiers were on standby as a quick reaction force. That standby force had been assembled in case the few hundred Guard members deployed that day on the District's streets to assist police with traffic control and crowd management needed help, Walker said.

The Pentagon required the highest-level approval for any moves beyond that narrow mission, in part because its leaders had been lambasted for actions the District Guard took during last June's racial justice protests, including helicopters that flew low over demonstrators in the District. Top officials concluded those maneuvers resulted from "fragmentary orders" that hadn't received high-level approval and were looking to prevent a repeat of that situation.

"After June, the authorities were pulled back up to the secretary of defense's office," McCarthy said in comments to The Post. "Any time we would employ troops and guardsmen in the city, you had to go through a rigorous process. As you recall, there were events in the summer that got a lot of attention, and that was part of this."

McCarthy said he worked hard to ensure authority was pushed back down the chain of command to Walker ahead of the inauguration, during which Walker oversaw the 25,600 troops that came to the District. As for the preparations ahead of Jan. 6, McCarthy said, "It was everyone just being very careful. When you go back to times when we've done this, like June, we wanted to make sure we were very careful about the employment — careful about fragmentary orders."

Had he not been restricted, Walker said he could have dispatched members of the District Guard sooner. Asked how quickly troops could have reached the Capitol, which is two miles from the District Guard headquarters at the Armory, Walker said, "With all deliberate speed — I mean, they're right down the street."

Still, even if Walker had been able to send the troops on standby to the Capitol immediately, and round up others in the District, it's unclear how much that would have affected the situation, given the large size of the mob and the last-minute nature of the call for help.

Walker recalled how Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who has since resigned, asked him on a call in the run-up to Jan. 6 to have National Guard troops at the ready.

"All he said was, 'If I call you, will you be able to help?' " Walker said. "And I said, 'Yes, but I need permission. So send a formal request,' and I never got it, until after the fact."

The request came, but only at 1:49 p.m. the day of the attempted insurrection. Sund called Walker to say rioters were about to breach the building and the Capitol Police would soon request urgent backup.

"I told him I had to get permission from the secretary of the Army and I would send him all available guardsmen but as soon as I got permission to do so," Walker said. "I sent a message to the leadership of the Army, letting them know the request that I had received from Chief Sund."

Permission from the Pentagon to activate the full District Guard wouldn't come for another hour and fifteen minutes, according to a Defense Department timeline of events, as members of Congress barricaded themselves in their offices and hid from a marauding horde trying to undo the Nov. 3 election. It would take nearly three hours before the acting defense secretary authorized the District Guard to "re-mission" and help the Capitol Police establish a perimeter around the Capitol.

In the meantime, Sund dialed into a phone call with the Pentagon.

In an interview with The Post, Sund recalled Army staff director, Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, saying, "I don't like the visual of the National Guard standing a police line with the Capitol in the background."

Piatt, in a statement, initially said he didn't make those remarks or any comments similar to them. Later, he backtracked, saying he didn't recall citing such concerns but note-takers in the room told him he may have said that. Piatt, who wasn't in the chain of command, was leading the call while waiting for the Army secretary to receive approval for the full activation of the District Guard from the defense secretary.

Walker said a lot of people were on the chaotic call.

"There was some talk about optics, but I can't assign that to one person," Walker said. "From the Army leadership, there were quite a few people on the call. . . . It's clear that somebody talked about the optics. Who said that? I'm not sure."

Asked if the District Guard leadership kept a record of the call, Walker said it wasn't recorded but Guard officials memorialized the conversation in notes known as a memorandum for record.

In the days before the protest, all the living former defense secretaries warned the Pentagon not to get involved in the peaceful transition of power, after reports that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had raised the possibility with President Donald Trump of declaring martial law to "rerun" the election.

The day before the Jan. 6 event, a senior U.S. official told The Post the military had "learned its lesson" after being rebuked over Trump's heavy-handed response to racial justice protests last year. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the details of the preparations, said the military would be "absolutely nowhere near the Capitol building" because "we don't want to send the wrong message."

Pentagon officials were also concerned that sending Guard troops who answered to the president into the Capitol during the riot could give the impression that the military was aiding Trump's supporters in a coup. Senior defense officials said federal law enforcement should always be in the lead clearing buildings, rather than soldiers, who shouldn't be the tip of the spear on U.S. soil.

Members of the District Guard ultimately arrived at the Capitol around 5:30 p.m. and helped establish a perimeter around the grounds. District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, first called McCarthy, the Army secretary, to request an unspecified number of troops at the scene four hours earlier.

"Do I wish I could have got there sooner?" Walker said. "Of course. I mean, I think everybody does. I absolutely wish I could have got there sooner. But, you know, I follow orders, and those making the decision went through a decision-making process."

Whether the Guard could have arrived sooner at this point is "probably axiomatic," Walker said. "Here's what I want you to know: We got there and we made a difference upon arrival."

Because the District is not a state, the president technically controls the District Guard but defers his power to the defense secretary and Army secretary.

Memos obtained by The Post show how tightly the Pentagon restricted Walker ahead of the events.

In a Jan. 5 memo, the Army secretary, who is Walker's direct superior in the chain of command, prohibited him from deploying the quick reaction force composed of 40 soldiers on his own and said any rollout of that standby group would first require a "concept of operation," an exceptional requirement given that the force is supposed to respond to emergencies.

McCarthy, the Army secretary, was also restricted by his superior, the acting defense secretary. In a Jan. 4 memo, McCarthy was prohibited from deploying D.C. Guard members with weapons, helmets, body armor or riot control agents without defense secretary approval. McCarthy retained the power to deploy the quick reaction force "only as a last resort."

Miller, in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, dismissed accusations that the Defense Department dragged its feet in rolling out the Guard. "Oh, that is complete horse----," Miller said, contending the Pentagon leadership "had their game together."

Top Pentagon officials said they didn't deploy the quick reaction force during the riot because they hadn't approved a "concept of operations" ahead of time with the Capitol Police.

Walker said one takeaway from the Jan. 6 riot should be that when in doubt, city and federal authorities should always err on the side of requesting a contingency of National Guard troops to be at the ready in advance, even if they don't end up being used.

Ahead of the event, Bowser made a narrow request for a District Guard presence, resulting in about 340 personnel to help with traffic and crowd management and another 40 in the quick reaction force. In a letter, she cited the administration's problematic deployment of federal agents without insignia on the streets last year and said the District wasn't requesting any additional support.

Days after the violence, Walker was tasked with overseeing the Guard members who filtered into the capital from across the nation to secure the inauguration. Walker said the Capitol Police have requested a contingent of about 7,000 of the 25,600 troops to stay until at least March 12.

Walker expressed gratitude to the soldiers who showed up, and thanked their families and their employers for contributing to a successful and secure event.

"People have jobs that they walked away from at a moment's notice. They have families that they walked away from at a moment's notice," Walker said. "This is what the Guard has done since 1636."