Former Capitol security officials testify about Jan. 6 attack

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Melissa Nann Burke, The Detroit News
·8 min read
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Feb. 23—WASHINGTON — The first congressional hearing digging into the security failures that led to the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol is underway Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill.

Former Capitol security and police officials testifying before a joint Senate panel hearing described their surprise at the scale of the coordinated attack by actors with violent intent and acknowledged their officers were not trained on how to respond to an infiltration of the Capitol building, with many not outfitted with riot gear.

"We had planned for the possibility of violence, the possibility of some people being armed — not the possibility of a coordinated military-style attack involving thousands against the Capitol," former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police Steven Sund told lawmakers.

But Sund acknowledged that a critical report forwarded in advance by FBI intelligence agents about extremists planning for violence that day was received by an official with the Capitol Police's Intelligence Division, but the report was not reviewed by Sund or other top Capitol security officials, they said.

"It did not go any further than that," Sund told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat.

The officials and lawmakers both praised the "heroic" response of officers who "outnumbered and against the odds" successfully protected members of Congress and others in the building on Jan. 6 when a crush of insurgents broke in.

"The United States Capitol Police did everything we could, based on the intelligence and available resources, to prepare for this event," Sund said.

"I acknowledge that under the pressure of an unprecedent attack, a number of systems broke down," including a lack of clear communications and directions from officials.

Another security official, former House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving, said based on the intelligence, "we all believed that the plan met the threat and that we were prepared."

"We now know that we had the wrong plan, and as one of the senior security leaders responsible for the event," Irving said. "I am accountable for that. I accept that responsibility and, as you know, I have resigned my position."

Capitol Police Capt. Carneysha Mendoza gave senators a harrowing account of officers'hours-long battle with rioters that day, during which she took command of the scene in the Rotunda as an leader within the department's Special Operations Division.

The Missouri native said she still had chemical burns on her face that had not healed from gas deployed by the insurgents that day. She recounted that, at one point, her right arm got wedged between the rioters and a railing along a wall and would have been broken had a sergeant not pulled her free.

She expressed pride in the officers she fought with that day, noting that while some have said the battle lasted three hours, her Fitbit reported she was in the "exercise zone" for four hours and nine minutes, "and many officers were in the fight before I even arrived."

"We could have had 10 times the amount of people working with us, and I still believe the battle would have been just as devastating," said Mendoza, adding that it took hours to clear the rioters from the Rotunda.

"As an American and U.S. Army veteran. It's sad to see us attacked by our fellow citizens. I'm sad to see the unnecessary loss of life," she added.

"I'm sad to see the impact this has had on Capitol Police officers. And I'm sad to see the impact this has had on our agency and our country."

Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert Contee told senators that his agency, which polices the city of the District of Columbia outside the Capitol campus, responded immediately to the call for help when it came.

He said by 2:30 p.m. city police had requested additional officers from as far away as New Jersey to help and issued notice of an emergency citywide curfew, beginning at 6 p.m.

"From that point, it took another three and a half hours until all rioters were removed from the Capitol," he said.

Contee said he was "surprised" at the reluctance to immediately send the National Guard to help at the Capitol grounds as violence was escalating.Instead, he heard concerns about the "optics" of having National Guard troops patrolling the Capitol.

"I was just stunned that, you know, I have officers that were out there literally fighting for their lives, and we're kind of going through what seemed like an exercise to really check the boxes," Contee said.

Sund has said he had no authority to request the assistance of the National Guard without an emergency declaration of the three-member Capitol Police Board, which is a standing rule that constrains his agency.

"I cannot request the National Guard without a declaration of emergency from the Capitol Police Board," Sund said.

"I can't even get my men and women cold water on excessively hot day without a declaration of emergency. It's just a process that's in place."

Irving, a member of the Capitol Police Board, claimed that when he was asked for authorization to request National Guard assistance on Jan. 6, he approved it.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, pressed Irving on why it took over an hour for him to approve the request for National Guard help that Sund said he made at 1:09 p.m. Jan. 6.

"I did not have a request at 1:09 that I can remember," Irving said, noting he did not have a phone record of a call at that time from Sund.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the panel's top Republican, asked both Sund and Irving to submit phone records from that day.

Portman also lamented that officers didn't have the equipment necessary to push back against their attackers and "most importantly, to protect themselves."

"I think the bottom line here is that, unfortunately, our officers were not given the proper training, with regard to infiltration of the building or the complex with regard to dealing with civil disturbance," Portman said.

The security and police officials were testifying Tuesday beforethe Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and the Senate Rulescommittee, which oversees Capitol operations.

"This hearing is unique because it's personal for everyone involved," Peters said at the start of Tuesday's hearing.

Sund, Irving and former Senate sergeant at arms MichaelStenger were the three top Capitol security officials at the time of the insurrection. All three resigned under pressure in the wake of the riot, in which five people died, including a Capitol police officer.

Dozens of police officers were injured in the battle with insurgents who breached the building, ransacked offices and forced lawmakers into hiding for hours. Two police officers died by suicide in the days after the attack.

Lawmakers vowed to uncover how those in charge of Capitol security failed to prepare for the threat, especially when intelligence suggested that extremists planned violent acts that day.

"Our goal today is to begin to understand where those breakdowns and failures occurred and to determine if there are policy and structural changes Congress must make to prevent a future attack of this nature," Peters said.

"The attack on Jan. 6 was an extraordinary event that requires exhaustive consideration. The American people deserve answers on why their Capital was breached."

The Capitol Police said last week that the department suspended six officers with pay in the wake of the riot and is investigating the actions of 35 officers for their actions that day.

Another joint hearing is set for next week to hear from witnesses from federal agencies including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, said Rules Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

They "are critical to our understanding the interaction at the Capitol was more than an assault on democracy (but) was an actual life or death situation for the many brave law enforcement officers who show up here to do their work every day," Klobuchar said.

The committees' joint investigation is separate from the 9/11 Commission-style panel that, once appointed, is expected to complete an independent report on the Jan. 6 attack.

Senators on the panels earlier this month requested documents and briefings from 22 agencies and departments with information on the preparations for and response to the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress, which rioters targeted aiming to halt the certification of President Joe Biden's victory in the Nov. 3 election.

Their letter seeking answers demands all information that was known about potential violence prior to the breach, security precautions taken and a detailed readout of each agency's security response, including a "tick-tock" covering the hours prior to the attack and during the attack, up until the Capitol complex was declared secure.

"The attackers failed to disrupt the work of Congress, due in large part to the heroic acts of many officers and congressional staff," the senators wrote.

"Nevertheless, the security failures that led to the breach endangered not just the Vice President and the Congress, but the peaceful, democratic transfer of power itself. The American people deserve a complete accounting of those failures."

The senators also want to know which agencies have imposed discipline against employees related to the Jan. 6 incidents, and any investigations or individuals relieved of duty pending investigation.

More than 200 people have been arrested and charged in connection with the attack; the most serious charges have included conspiracy.

mburke@detroitnews.com