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Pentagon restricted Nat’l Guard response to Capitol storming, DC Guard commander says

National Guard troops in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
January 28, 2021

The commanding general of the Washington D.C. National Guard (DCNG) said this week that the Pentagon restricted his ability to respond to demonstrators who stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, forcing Congress to lockdown amid violent clashes between demonstrators and Capitol police.

Local Guard commanders typically have the power to order military action in an emergency situation, but Maj. Gen. William Walker, DCNG’s commanding, told the Washington Post on Tuesday that his response authority was restricted.

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

Walker told he had to wait for approval from former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and acting defense secretary Christopher Miller before he could send troops to the Capitol. Walker said 40 DCNG soldiers were on standby as a quick reaction force that day, to respond if the 340 DCNG troops active in the city that day needed back up.

Walker and McCarthy both testified about the National Guard response during a closed-door briefing before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. The DCNG has faced criticism and questioning for its response time during the Jan. 6 incident at the capitol, which resulted in the death of one Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, and four demonstrators.

An order that DCNG troops were not to be armed also reportedly slowed the response. In comments to the Washington Examiner, DCNG spokesman Senior Master Sgt. Craig Clapper said troops in D.C. on Jan. 6 were ordered to be unarmed.

“We’ve explicitly been told there is no weaponry of any kind for this mission,” Clapper told the Washington Examiner. DCNG troops reportedly had to return to an armory to grab the necessary equipment to respond to the incident at the Capitol that day.

DCNG authorities were reportedly restricted after criticism about their handling of demonstrations in D.C. over the summer, during protests and riots following the death of George Floyd.

McCarthy told the Post, “After June, the authorities were pulled back up to the secretary of defense’s office. 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 argued to push emergency response authorities down from the secretary of defense to Walker in the weeks following the Jan. 6 incident, as National Guard troops flooded D.C. to assist with President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Walker also said in the lead up to the Jan. 6 incident, Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who has since resigned, asked how quickly Walker could respond to a call for help.

“All he said was, ‘If I call you, will you be able to help?’ ” Walker said of his conversation with Sund. “And I said, ‘Yes, but I need permission. So send a formal request,’ and I never got it, until after the fact.”

A formal request for National Guard assistance from the Capitol came at around 1:49 p.m. that day.

Walker said he forwarded the formal request when it came through but the response was apparently delayed as military officials debated the optics of sending troops to the Capitol.

“There was some talk about optics, but I can’t assign that to one person,” Walker told the Post. “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.”

According to the Post, Pentagon officials were also concerned that sending troops, who ultimately answered at the time to then-President Donald Trump, could have been seen as troops helping demonstrators, who were entering the Capitol after Trump called on supporters to rally in D.C. as he raised challenges to the 2020 election results.

DCNG troops eventually arrived at the Capitol at around 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, hours after the formal request for help.

Walker told the Post it’s “probably axiomatic” to debate what difference National Guard troops could have made had they arrived sooner. “Here’s what I want you to know: We got there and we made a difference upon arrival.”