With time, the scale of the intelligence and security failures that allowed an angry mob of Trump supporters to breach the Capitol on Jan. 6 becomes clearer and clearer.
At a joint hearing of the Senate Rules and Homeland Security Committees on Wednesday, officials from the intelligence and military establishments offered their perspectives on why the Capitol was left unprepared for the assault on Jan. 6, why the intelligence community missed warning signs and why the National Guard took hours to deploy.
It was a stunning hearing in which officials frequently revealed why things went wrong as much by what they didn’t say as by what they did. In the case of intelligence, one official outright denied that there was a problem, while one Pentagon official attempted to walk back claims that “optics” were a concern in deploying the National Guard.
Here are five takeaways from the hearing.
D.C. National Guard Chief Said His Hands Were Tied
D.C. National Guard Commander Maj. Gen. William Walker dropped a bombshell before the hearing with a simple claim: three hours elapsed from when he first notified superiors that the National Guard was ready and from when he received authorization to deploy.
It was a stunning claim, and one that teed up dozens of questions from senators during the hearing.
Throughout, however, Walker returned to a central theme: unprecedented new restrictions that the Pentagon placed on his ability to react prevented him from responding to the calamity unfolding at the Capitol.
Walker told senators that the secretary of the Army required him to seek authorization for any mobilization or movement of his forces on Jan. 6, an unprecedented requirement in his view.
The D.C. commander added that he hadn’t seen requirements like those imposed on him for the Jan. 6 response in 19 years of service. He went on to say that, if not for the red tape, he would have “pulled all the guardsmen that were supporting the Metropolitan Police Department” and sent them to the Capitol immediately.
Walker added that authorization itself wasn’t necessarily the problem. The chain of command can act quickly, so long as it recognizes a threat.
“It’s an elaborate process, but it doesn’t always have to be when in extrem[e] circumstances,” Walker said. “We can get it done over the phone very, very quickly.”
Intel Community: We Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny That There Was An Intelligence Failure
As focused as the event was on the military response, senators entered the hearing with a focus on the intelligence failures that led to the insurrection as well.
But the two intelligence officials there — DHS Intelligence and Analysis Acting Chief Melissa Smislova and FBI Counterterrorism Chief Jill Sanborn — refused to give an inch on whether their offices bore any responsibility.
Neither of these officials were speaking in a vacuum. Last week, officials directly responsible for ensuring the security of the Capitol building complained that there were virtually no warnings from either intelligence officials or federal law enforcement in advance of the insurrection attempt.
But Smislova began the hearing with a straightforward denial that her office, charged with coordinating intelligence on domestic extremism, had done anything wrong.
“Before I summarize the actions my office took on Jan. 6, I am deeply concerned that despite our best efforts, they did not lead to an operational response to prepare to defend the U.S. Capitol.”
Sanborn, for her part, retreated to a different explanation for how the bureau missed planning for the insurrection, given that much of it took place in public forums online.
She said that the bureau needs the predicate of a criminal investigation in order to view even public posts. Without that, she argued, the FBI’s hands were tied.
Officials Missed The Broader Threat Of Right-Wing Terrorism In The United States
Those who found these explanations profoundly unsatisfying can count Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) among them.
Warner noted that the missteps which led to Jan. 6 stand in for a broader problem in the intelligence community and federal law enforcement: the failure to reckon with the scale of the threat posed by far-right extremism.
Warner told Sanborn and Smislova that he was “pretty disappointed” in their responses, and added that “this is not a new threat.”
He tapped into a real trend in the hearing: officials consistently fell back on claiming that right-wing extremism constituted some kind of new, unprecedented threat. In reality, it’s been killing Americans for decades.
“We can’t always say we’re going to do better next time when it’s been around for years,” Warner said. He added that “it’s not going to disappear with Donald Trump, even though there’s never been someone so active in encouraging these individuals.”
Witnesses Defended Disparate Responses To BLM Protests And Insurrection
Lawmakers pressed the officials on the stark contrast between the iron-fisted crackdown on the Black Lives Matter protests in the District last summer, when law enforcement fired pepper spray and rubber bullets at demonstrators while dressed head to toe in riot gear, and the feeble response to the Capitol siege.
Walker testified that senior officials were wary of receiving the same blowback over their militaristic response to the BLM protests, hence the worry over the “optics.” They were also allegedly concerned that the presence of uniformed guards during the Trump rally that preceded the insurrection would “incite” the attendees.
The National Guard commander did note that, unlike during the BLM protests, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy wasn’t with him on Jan. 6. In contrast, McCarthy was “right next to me for days at a time” during the demonstrations last summer, Walker said.
Walker told senators that he didn’t know why McCarthy was absent on the day of the insurrection.
When Sanborn, the assistant director at the FBI Counterterrorism Division, was asked why the FBI had deployed its state-of-the-art surveillance plane to swoop over the BLM protests without doing the same on January 6, she said she didn’t “have any specifics” on the plane. However, Sanborn insisted that her agency’s approach to both gatherings was “equal opportunity.”
Was It About Optics Or Not?
Walker told lawmakers that Army Lieutenant General Walter Piatt and Army Commanding General John Phillips expressed concern over the “optics” of deploying uniformed guards to the Capitol when he requested their approval to send his troops.
But then senior Defense official Robert Salesses, who wasn’t on the call with Walker and the senior Army leaders, said Piatt told him yesterday that he “didn’t say anything about optics” during that conversation. When Senate Rules Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) pressed him on whether he was saying Walker’s account was false, Salesses clarified that the commanding general was claiming he did not use the word “optics.”
Walker stood by his testimony.
“There were people in the room with me on that call that heard what they heard,” the D.C. National Guard leader told the senators.