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SECDEF can now activate DC Nat’l Guard in emergencies

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the media on Afghanistan, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
January 03, 2022

On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a memo, giving himself and future defense secretaries sole authority to activate D.C. National Guard troops to participate in civil law enforcement requests or other emergency activations with less than 48 hours of notice.

Austin’s memo streamlines the approval process for D.C. National Guard activations. Such authority for D.C. National Guard activation was previously delegated to the secretary of the Army, the service’s top civilian member. Austin’s memo instead gives him the sole authority to approve requests for Guard support in law enforcement matters.

The process to deploy the D.C. National Guard is more complicated than the process employed for other states’ National Guard forces. While the National Guard forces of the various states have a clear chain of command that goes through their governor, that chain of command structure does not apply for the D.C. National Guard as the District of Columbia is not a state.

The commanding general of the D.C. Guard technically reports to the President, but in a 1969 executive order, the authority was transferred to the secretary of defense who further delegated the responsibility to the secretary of the Army. Austin’s memo moves emergency responsibilities back over to the secretary of defense.

NBC News reported the secretary of the Army still retains the authority to control D.C. National Guard operations in the district and to consider district government requests for D.C. National Guard in the city for non-law enforcement purposes and other non-urgent situations.

Austin’s move is one of multiple efforts to allow the Pentagon to respond quickly to requests for law enforcement support after the Jan. 6, 2020 storming of the U.S. Capitol. Earlier last week, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law that allows the Chief of the U.S. Capitol Police to request law enforcement support from the National Guard and other federal agencies, without first having to seek the approval of the Capitol Police Board.

“By clarifying and refining the request process, including outlining the required information needed to assess requests from federal and local partners, the department will be able to respond to requests efficiently, quickly, and effectively,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said, in a statement provided to NBC News.

A Senate report released in June concluded that the Capitol Police Board failed to request National Guard assistance prior to Jan. 6, despite Capitol Police intelligence indicating that there was a threat. According to the report, the lack of prior request for National Guard assistance meant that when calls for help did come through on Jan. 6, the request had to be sent to the Department of Defense, which introduced further delays as they considered whether or not to grant the request for troops.

This failure to request assistance before Jan. 6 meant that D.C. National Guard troops were not already activated and staged to react quickly to any problems at the Capitol that day.