Show of force on US streets and crisis at Fort Hood tested Army secretary this year
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: December 23, 2020
WASHINGTON — On June 1, federal police backed by National Guard troops fired tear gas at demonstrators near the White House, sending them running for cover in a barrage of pepper balls and flash grenades.
By nightfall, as the protesters snaked their way downtown, two Army helicopters roared low overhead in an apparent effort to disperse the crowds. The mission, authorized by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, stunned lawmakers and military law experts, prompting an investigation within the D.C. National Guard.
That incident is one of several tumultuous moments that have tested McCarthy, the top civilian official in charge of the military's largest force, over the past year.
Analysts say McCarthy has led soldiers through the trying times of the coronavirus pandemic and a strategic refocus on Russia and China, and that his tenure has been marked by relative stability.
But they describe his record elsewhere as mixed, saying he has lacked vision and failed to take responsibility for some of the Army's most visible challenges, including a leadership crisis at Fort Hood, calls to rename Army posts christened after Confederate officers and the events in the nation's capital.
McCarthy has said changes, such as an overhaul of a sexual crime prevention program recommended in a report on Fort Hood's troubled command, will make a difference.
"This report, without a doubt, will cause the Army to change our culture," he said Dec. 8.
McCarthy, who was appointed in September 2019, may be asked to stay on for the new administration, Defense News reported, which sometimes occurs in an effort to ensure continuity of leadership. The Biden presidential transition team declined to comment. A spokesperson for McCarthy did not make him available for an interview.
Few details about the helicopter mission have been made public beyond McCarthy's acknowledgment that he authorized it, with officials describing their intended role as observational. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told lawmakers in July the investigation was expected "within days," but it has not been released.
McCarthy and other senior defense officials were concerned that if unrest spiraled out of control, the Pentagon would escalate by sending a response unit of the 82nd Airborne into the District of Columbia, according to a defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
But that day, McCarthy and other Army leaders dubbed Lafayette Square "the Alamo," the official said, using a name synonymous with a violent defensive stand.
The pilots and other officials may have interpreted that and other language used by the Army leaders, like "flood the box," as a desire for aggressive tactics in the absence of clear orders, said an officer in the D.C. National Guard with knowledge of the incident.
One helicopter flew as low as 45 feet above the crowd, The Washington Post estimated.
Defense and law enforcement officials were satisfied with the results of the helicopter mission because it may have blunted the need for mobilizing active duty troops, according the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with reporters.
But the mission was widely condemned by lawmakers and experts, who described it as a dangerous maneuver on mostly peaceful demonstrators. They also criticized the use of medical support helicopters emblazoned with red crosses — an international symbol of mercy.
Paul Yingling, a retired Army officer who served in Iraq, said McCarthy has not adequately addressed the fallout. "He is culpable for the use of military force against peaceful protesters," Yingling said. "His silence itself is a statement."
McCarthy's supporters, meanwhile, have praised his steady leadership while the White House politicized the military.
Some of McCarthy's supporters also applaud his goals to transform the Army into a lean and tech-savvy force in a time when defense budgets are predicted to remain flat.
In that sense, he has succeeded in a complicated bureaucratic dance to shed older weapons and vehicles in favor of advanced systems, including long-range precision guided munitions and modern air defenses, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
McCarthy, a former defense company executive and Army Ranger with service in Afghanistan, has served in top Army leadership positions since early in the Trump administration, first as the undersecretary and two stretches as acting secretary until he secured the top job.
At his confirmation hearing, McCarthy outlined the Army's objectives, largely contouring plans to the Pentagon's focus on conventional foes. But he also connected readiness for the next conflict to the welfare of soldiers.
"It is only through the care of our people that these priorities will be achieved," he told lawmakers.
In July, McCarthy ordered an independent civilian review of Fort Hood after the disappearance and death of Spec. Vanessa Guillén, who was killed by another soldier in April. Her family said she was sexually harassed and that Army leaders didn't move quickly to find her.
The panel said in a report released Dec. 8 that care for soldiers was an afterthought. Hyper-focus on preparing for war allowed sexual harassment and assault to go undetected and unpunished, and Army leaders lacked initiative to corral violent crime, the review found, despite years of data that shows Fort Hood has more crime than any other Army post.
The implications in the report, McCarthy said, are Army-wide.
McCarthy has played down some issues, like the lack of confidence among female soldiers that their claims could be taken seriously, until they "metastasize" into bigger problems, said Emma Moore, a military analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
He has also not articulated a vision beyond punishing a few commanders and tweaking existing programs, Moore said, or addressed how profound cultural issues found in the report — chief among them, a lack of respect for female soldiers — played a role.
"He said a lot of good things since the report, like leaders need to be held responsible," Moore said. "The irony is, he is a long-standing leader, and he is not holding himself responsible in any way."
Guillén's family has tried for months to speak with McCarthy, they said, after meeting with President Trump and Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff.
Army officials granted the family a phone call with McCarthy after a news conference announcing the review's findings. They had anticipated an update on a separate investigation and a heartfelt condolence. What they received, they said, was a Zoom call plagued with technical problems.
"I was disappointed," Guillén's sister Mayra said, describing the call as scripted. "I feel it was more like he had to do it, and not that he wanted to do it."
McCarthy's handling of public discussion over 10 Army posts named after Confederate officers could also help define his career, said Mike Jason, a retired Army officer who worked as a strategic planner for McCarthy until 2019.
After George Floyd's death led to a reckoning over racism, McCarthy said he supported a "bipartisan discussion" with the White House and lawmakers to rename the posts, though it is within his authority to order the changes through his assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.
Trump said soon after his administration would not "even consider" any changes. The defense spending bill includes a measure to rename the posts. Trump has said he would veto the measure, though Congress approved it with a veto-proof majority.
Jason said McCarthy had only a short window to make such a call on his own before Trump got involved.
Still, he said, "I think it was a missed opportunity to leave a moral legacy."