Former chiefs of Pentagon, Justice Department defend response to Jan. 6 Capitol riot

WASHINGTON – The former leaders of the Pentagon and the Justice Department defended their responses Wednesday to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, telling a House panel that complaints about delays in sending National Guard troops to assist police reflect unfamiliarity with the military.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser pleaded with the Army secretary for reinforcements at about 1:30 p.m. as rioters overran barricades and began storming the building. Maj. Gen. William Walker, the D.C. National Guard commander, told a Senate panel in March that he was prepared to deploy 155 troops within 20 minutes, when “seconds mattered,” but didn’t receive approval until after 5 p.m.

But Christopher Miller, former acting defense secretary, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that the military’s response was “appropriate” during the attack.

“I stand by every decision I made on Jan. 6 and in the following days,” Miller said.

Miller said in deciding how to deploy troops, he was aware of criticism of using the military domestically, ranging from when troops were deployed to deal with racial justice protests last summer or during Vietnam War protests at Kent State.

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“No such thing was going to occur on my watch, but these concerns and hysteria about them nonetheless factored into my decisions regarding the appropriate and limited use of our armed forces to support civilian law enforcement during Electoral College certification,” Miller said. “My obligation to the nation was to prevent a constitutional crisis.”

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., talks with Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., during a House Oversight and Reform Committee regarding the on Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 12, 2021. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst, AP)

Jeffrey Rosen, who was acting attorney general during the attack, said the Justice Department urgently deployed 500 agents and officers from the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and U.S. Marshals to assist local authorities in restoring order at the Capitol.

“The Department of Justice prepared appropriately in the period before Jan. 6 and I’m proud of the department’s response on Jan. 6,” Rosen said.

But the committee chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the federal government wasn’t prepared for the attack that left five people dead, 140 police officers injured and temporarily delayed counting Electoral College votes that confirmed President Joe Biden’s victory.

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“Security collapsed in the face of the mob and reinforcements were delayed for hours as the Capitol was overrun,” Maloney said. “It is our duty to understand what went wrong that day, to seek accountability and to take action to prevent this from ever happening again.”

She also said the Justice Department and the FBI were unprepared for the attack, despite intelligence reports in the days before. She said FBI Director Christopher Wray would testify in June about the riot.

“Yet it is clear that despite all of this intelligence, the federal government was not prepared,” Maloney said. “This is completely unacceptable.”

About 340 National Guard troops were on duty in Washington on Jan. 6, as requested by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. But they were assigned to traffic control rather than protecting the Capitol.

Miller said he approved sending troops about 3 p.m. and they arrived at 5:20 p.m. He said there were complexities to deploying troops to coordinate with law enforcement.

“Criticism of the military response is unfounded and reflects inexperience with or lack of understanding of the nature of military operations or worse is simply the result of politics,” Miller said. “This isn’t a video game where you can move forces with the flick of a thumb.”

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The hearing became heated at times. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., quoted Miller had testified that he “personally believed that (Trump’s) comments encouraged the protesters.”

Miller said he has reassessed the situation and thinks Trump’s speech was “not the unitary factor at all.” But Lynch accused Miller of changing his testimony.

“That’s ridiculous,” Miller said. 

“You’re ridiculous,” Lynch replied.

Miller called the exchange a partisan attack.

“There’s a difference between marching on the Capitol and assaulting the Capitol,” Miller said.

In another hearing Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland told a Senate panel that the assault on the Capitol was a “fundamental” effort to interfere in a peaceful transfer of power between administrations. Garland said prosecuting those involved is a high priority for the Justice Department.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., asked Garland to compare people who forced their way inside the Capitol and the protesters who clashed with law enforcement last summer during a months-long demonstration against police brutality.

“I think it is fair to say that in my career as a judge and in law enforcement, I have not seen a more dangerous threat to democracy than the invasion of the Capitol,” Garland said.

Lawmakers are reviewing the response on Jan. 6 as they debate how to improve security at the Capitol and how much to spend. Threats against lawmakers have more than doubled this year, compared to last year. But lawmakers of both parties have been reluctant to install a permanent fence around the Capitol, to avoid looking like a fortress.

A task force led by retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré reviewed Capitol security at the request of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and recommended having a permanent detail of National Guard in the capital, to respond quickly to future emergencies. The task force also recommended hiring 854 more Capitol Police officers to the force of about 2,000, in an effort to reduce overtime and bolster intelligence gathering.

Contributing: Kristine Phillips

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