Bureaucracy And Chaos Strangled The Military’s Response To The Capitol Riot

A rally to protest the certification of the results of the 2020 Presidential Election and a subsequent riot on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, together remain one of the most significant and controversial chains of events in recent American history. Now, the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General, or DODIG, has released a redacted report on the U.S. military’s initial preparations and response to the situation once the Capitol was breached. 

The redacted review concludes that, based on the information available at the time, the Department of Defense, as a whole, including the D.C. and other state National Guards, took appropriate steps within its authorities to prepare for contingencies and respond to the evolving situation. In addition, investigators found that there had been no deliberate actions by anyone within the Department of Defense to obstruct any of these activities. These assessments aside, the publicly released version of the report, despite redactions, plainly describes a situation hampered by bureaucracy and compounded by chaos after violence erupted at the Capitol Complex

Members of the DC National Guard at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021., AP Photo/Julio Cortez

A total of 340 members of the D.C. National Guard were deployed into the city initially on Jan. 6. This was part of an approved plan to support D.C.’s Metro Police Department (MPD) as they bolstered their own presence to be prepared for any disturbances resulting from the election-related rally. Those personnel were spread out between 30 traffic-control points and six subway stations to provide additional security. A 42-person-strong Quick Reaction Force (QRF), equipped and prepared to carry out riot control duties, if required, was on standby at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

Unlike national guards elsewhere across the United States, the D.C. National Guard has a more complex chain of command that goes through the Department of the Army to the Department of Defense, and then up to the President of the United States — then Donald Trump — who is its official Commander-in-Chief. This appears to have created numerous immediate hurdles to getting military support for civilian law enforcement personnel on Capitol Hill.

A graphic showing the DC National Guard’s chain of command, and adjacent chains of command, all of which came into play during the events of Jan. 6., DODIG

Just before 1:00 PM on Jan. 6, then-U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) Chief Steven Sund made his first request for National Guard assistance, via the Capitol Police Board. This followed skirmishing between his officers and large numbers of individuals who had marched on the Capitol after attending the rally. What happened between then and 1:49 PM, when Sund reached out directly to the D.C. National Guard commander, now-retired Army Maj. Gen. William Walker, for assistance, is not entirely clear. 

Ryan McCarthy, who was then Secretary of the Army, said he received a call at 1:34 from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser asking him whether the USCP had asked for help. “Mr. McCarthy told us that it was clear to him the DoD needed to help either the MPD or the USCP,” according to DODIG’s report.

After he got Sund’s phone call, Walker called Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, the Director of the Army Staff. “Hey, look. The Capitol is being breached. You can see it on TV. We need to get out there and help them,” Walker said he told Piatt. “We’ve got to go find the Secretary of the Army,” Piatt responded.

It’s unclear when exactly they were able to find McCarthy, but it is clear that, due to the existing approved plan, neither he nor Gen. Walker could retask elements of the D.C. National Guard without approval from Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller. Miller says he first became aware of the situation from a television in his office.

“As events escalated at the Capitol, the DoD Executive Secretary moved into Mr. Miller’s office. Throughout the day, Mr. Miller exchanged telephone calls with the Vice President, Members of Congress, Cabinet members, and members of the White House staff,” according to DODIG’s report. “Mr. Miller and GEN Milley [U.S. Army General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] both told us that there were no calls between the President and Mr. Miller.”

The D.C. National Guard commander on the ground in the city also only became aware of the situation from the news and as MPD officers began to leave to leave their shared posts at the TCPs and subway stations to head to the Capitol. That individual, who is only referred to as the Task Force Guardian Commander in the report, ordered the QRF at Andrews to get ready to move, expecting the order to come down quickly. They also gathered up all the personnel from the TCPs and the subway stations for the same reason. Gen. Walker has previously testified before Congress that he could have had 150 people at the Capitol within 20 minutes had he been authorized to send them immediately, something witnesses DODIG interviewed disputed based on the simple timelines necessary to get things approved.

USCP says that the first actual breach of the Capitol building occurred at around 2:15 PM. Seven minutes later, a conference call that included Secretary McCarthy, Mayor Bowser, Chief Sund, and others began. 

“Mr. McCarthy was on the conference call when it started, but did not remain present for the duration of the call,” DODIG’s investigators found. “Witnesses told us that Mr. McCarthy stayed on the call for approximately 5 minutes, long enough to hear and acknowledge the urgent request from Mr. Sund and Mayor Bowser.”

“LTG Piatt told us that it was not the ‘clearest’ conference call because some participants were nearly panicked,” the report adds. “He said that people talked over each other, there was ‘yelling and screaming and shouting,’ other people were moving in and out of Mr. McCarthy’s office, simultaneous conversations were occurring, the news was on the television, and background noise was heard on some of the participants’ telephones.”

“One of these witnesses said that no one on the conference call could answer LTG Piatt’s questions and the only thing LTG Piatt and the witness heard were ‘hysterical cries for help,'” it continues. 

Capitol Police in front of the Capitol on Jan. 6., AP Photo/Julio Cortez

In the chaos, the D.C. National Guard QRF moved from Andrews to its Armory in D.C., closer to the Capitol. There is confusion about who ordered this, with Piatt saying McCarthy instructed Walker to do so, and Walker saying he did it “without permission.” In any case, none of the parties appear to have had the actual authority to approve this movement. There was also no approved operational plan for what the QRF would be supposed to do once approval was given for them to go to the Capitol.

“LTG Piatt told us that he commanded a division in Iraq and could not imagine sending a subordinate element into a violent situation without that element clearly understanding the mission,” DODIG’s report says. “LTG Piatt added, ‘It would be like me saying, ‘Go to Baghdad and just find somebody and see what they need.””

At the time, Sund reportedly viewed Piatt’s hesitance as a denial of his initial request for support. Walker and other witnesses told DODIG that Piatt, as well as Army Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn, then the service’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and brother to controversial retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, had also raised concerns about the “optics” of rushing troops to the Capitol. This was, in part, prompted by the separate controversy over National Guard involvement in the responses to civil disturbances in the city in 2020. 

“MG Walker said that he was ‘stunned’ and ‘frustrated’ at these comments,” the report says. Piatt’s position is that he only wanted to make sure that things were done properly. 

“LTG Piatt explained that DCNG personnel were not armed or equipped for riot control and if the DCNG reported immediately, as requested, the USCP would only get ‘a bunch of bodies that [would] be able to reinforce the perimeter’ but would not be equipped or prepared to conduct building clearance operations,” DODIG’s report says. The report also notes that some personnel in the QRF were not actually trained for riot control duties and that basic rehearsals for what they might be called upon to do had been conducted earlier in the day at Andrews.

This conference call ultimately ended abruptly at 2:45 PM as shots were fired at the Capitol. This would have been around when USCP officer Lieutenant Michael Byrd shot Ashli Babbitt as she made her way into the building. Bryd has since been cleared of any potential wrongdoing in his decision to use lethal force.

“Whatever time that was that was like, ‘Okay. The National Guard is getting mobilized. We’re going big. It’s now — it now has triggered that worst-case scenario,'” Miller told DODIG’s investigators. He authorized the deployment of 1,100 D.C. National Guard personnel at 3:04 PM. Calls also began being made to National Guards in neighboring states to coordinate possible support.

It seems clear that the need to plan, properly equip and transport personnel, and coordinate those deployments with law enforcement, together with various bureaucratic requirements, stymied the response. USCP Chief Sund only called General Walker at 3:26 to walk through the process of submitting a formal written request for support, more than two hours after his initial request for help through the Capitol Police Board.

At 3:48 PM, Secretary McCarthy also left the Pentagon to physically go to MPD headquarters in D.C. to try to better coordinate things in person. “Mr. McCarthy told us his staff was trying to get situational awareness but it was clear there was a lot of confusion. He said individuals on the conference call were talking past each other so he made the decision to go to MPD headquarters, coordinate directly with D.C. officials, and get some assets to the Capitol as quickly as possible,” DODIG’s report explains.

At that point, the entire situation seems to have been in total chaos, as is described in the following passage:

An Army witness told us that MG Walker could not clearly articulate to his staff what the USCP specifically needed. The witness said this is what prompted Mr. McCarthy and his staff to go to MPD HQ to figure out what was actually happening at the Capitol and what the USCP needed. Another witness told us that MG Walker and his staff “were unable to tell Secretary McCarthy any details about where they [DCNG] were going, what they were doing,” which was why Mr. McCarthy went to MPD HQ to do the planning. The witness said that the DCNG, including MG Walker and two DCNG liaison officers at MPD HQ, provided no meaningful input to Mr. McCarthy or did not produce a plan that set the conditions to deploy to the Capitol other than to say they were ready to go.

Per DODIG’s review, USCP Sund did not finally get his formal request for D.C. National Guard support sent until 4:07 PM. He also did not ask for help from the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, with which USCP has a standing mutual assistance arrangement, until 4:13 PM. With all of this and a plan finally in hand, the D.C. National Guard’s officially received its new mission at 4:35 PM. 

“[Army Chief of Staff General] GEN McConville said that at approximately 5:05 p.m., he asked MG Walker … if he ‘had authority to go [to the Capitol],’ and MG Walker replied, ‘Yep. What do you want me to do?'” DODIG report says. “GEN McConville said that he advised MG Walker that the best thing to do would be to ‘Go command. Go do the right thing, the right way, get out there and do what you need to do.'”

The first guardsmen, the members of the QRF, did not arrive at the Capitol building until between 5:20 and 5:30 PM, after initially getting lost in the parking lot. By that point, it was more than four hours after USCP made its first request for support and even longer since the violence had erupted, which had quickly overwhelmed law enforcement officers on the scene.

Members of the DC National Guard arrive at the Capitol on Jan. 6., AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Even then, the National Guard personnel had to be formally deputized to carry out law enforcement missions in the Capitol Complex, a swearing-in process that only started at 5:40 PM. Guardsmen only began to take up their positions at 6:00 PM. 

Other federal law enforcement personnel had also begun to arrive in the interim. At 7:03 PM, just a little over an hour after National Guard forces actually took up their posts, the Capitol building’s interior and immediate outside were declared completely “clear of demonstrators.” Personnel from the Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware National Guards, despite efforts to coordinate their deployment hours before and earlier public statements from some state officials that they were ready to go, did not get approval to enter the city until 11:27 PM. This was more than five hours after the inciting incident had effectively ended.

With all this information in hand, even with its overall assessments, DODIG’s report does, obviously, recommend streamlining the chain of command for the D.C. National Guard, as well as improving the mechanisms for communication, planning, and training ahead of and during future events that could spiral into major civil disturbances. Members of Congress have already moved to make changes to the structure and posture of the D.C. National Guard to try to be better positioned to react to similar crises in the future.

Many questions do certainly remain as to why various parts of the process took so long to move forward, though again, they were clearly compounded by bureaucratic demands and just how chaotic and fast-moving the situation was initially. At the same time, this does not seem to fully explain why coordination initially was so haphazard, with various senior U.S. military officials being alerted to how dangerous the situation was becoming the same way the rest of us were – through media reporting at the time. 

The report also indicates that many of the same issues were present in the responses by the U.S. Capitol Police, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice, but, of course, a detailed investigation into their actions is outside of DODIG’s remit.

All told, it is clear that much remains to be learned about what happened on this fateful day at the Capitol, but hopefully lessons learned are already being put into place.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.