The House's history-making top security official talked with Insider about his plan to reopen the Capitol and ensure it will 'never, ever be breached again' after the January 6 attack

·14 min read
William Walker
US House Sergeant at Arms William Walker announces the arrival of President Joe Biden to address a joint session of Congress. Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images
  • Maj. Gen. William Walker, the new House sergeant at arms, is the first Black man to hold that job.

  • He's responsible for keeping the House side of the Capitol safe and reopening it to the public.

  • He sat down with Insider for an exclusive interview, the first since starting his new role.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The sound of the gavel echoed through the House chamber and members of Congress fell silent on the evening of April 28. All turned their attention to the wooden doors that just months before had been barricaded shut in a bid to hold off a riotous mob.

"Madam Speaker, the president of the United States!" Maj. Gen. William Walker announced.

It's an introduction that precedes every speech the president makes before Congress to reflect on his accomplishments and vision for the year ahead. But much has changed this year even beyond the tightened security and the sparse, pandemic-cautious audience in attendance. It was the first time in congressional history when a Black man had made that announcement as the House's top security official.

There was more history in the room that day. For the first time, two women sat behind the president as Joe Biden gave his maiden address to Congress since becoming commander in chief in January: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris. Walker was only two days into his new job as the House sergeant at arms.

"It was beyond exciting," Walker told Insider of the experience during an interview a week later, his first since being sworn in April 26. "It was thrilling actually."

He hit the ground running with rehearsals for the president's joint address just a day after being sworn in.

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In his history-making role, Walker is crucial to keeping the Capitol complex and its occupants safe. His office is on the first floor of the House side of the Capitol, facing the Library of Congress.

On the evening of the joint address to Congress, almost 27 million viewers watched Walker usher Biden down the center aisle toward the rostrum. After the speech, Walker slowly guided Biden toward the exit while the president greeted lawmakers and guests.

At one point, Biden can be seen on camera saying something to Walker. Both men laughed. No one watching could hear the brief exchange, but Walker remembered it.

"He patted me on the arm, and he said, 'Wow, you're in pretty good shape,'" Walker recalled. "And I said, 'Yes, Mr. President, I work out."

Walker's fitness routine comes from a 39-year career in the military. He's originally from Chicago but came to the role of sergeant at arms from the District of Columbia National Guard, where he was commanding general.

Nine days after starting his new role, Walker talked to Insider at his still-sparsely decorated office. C-SPAN was playing on a TV by the windowsill. Walker said he usually watched that or CNN.

An avid reader of books on history and leadership, Walker said he planned to bring in souvenirs from his time as a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration and from the Army National Guard, where he received eight certificates including as second lieutenant and major general.

William Walker Testimony
Walker testifying on March 3 before a Senate panel to examine the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Greg Nash/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A vow that the US Capitol will 'never, ever be breached again'

As an angry pro-Trump mob overwhelmed police officers at the Capitol on January 6, it was Walker who dispatched troops to help push back the rioters and allowed lawmakers to continue certifying Biden's election victory. The breach led to the immediate resignation of three top Capitol Hill security officials, including Paul Irving, Walker's House sergeant-at-arms predecessor.

Now Walker is tasked with protecting the Capitol from the inside along with Brett Blanton, the architect of the Capitol, and Senate Sergeant at Arms Karen Gibson, who was sworn in March 22 and is the first woman in that role.

Blanton has been in his job since January 2020 and oversees the day-to-day upkeep of the campus, including the repairs to the Capitol that were needed after the riot. The three leaders are part of the Capitol Police Board and speak almost daily.

Walker's job is to help evaluate and implement security measures so the Capitol can once again be a safe place to work in and visit after both the riot and more than a year of limited public access caused by pandemic restrictions. The security measures could include some of the recommendations that retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré and his task force assembled for Congress.

Walker said the plans they're working on would create a "security bubble for this Capitol that makes it unbreachable." It would include a combination of technology, artificial intelligence, and strengthening of the police force.

That comes after the January 6 attack shattered the illusion of Congress as one of the safest buildings in the country.

"Some of the changes will be visible. Most will not, but there will be changes," Walker said. "We have to continuously adapt to threats. There are committed enemies - not just domestic but foreign threats that we have to track down and get in front of."

They also want to make it easier for the DC National Guard to come quickly to the aid of the Capitol Police. When Walker was running the DC National Guard, the Department of Defense took more than three hours to approve the Capitol Police's request to send troops to their aid during the attack, he testified in a March Senate hearing.

More changes will most likely take time to suss out. Congress is trying to set up a 9/11-style commission to evaluate the security failings of the Capitol attack. And House Democrats will soon unveil $2 billion in funding to boost Capitol security.

More than 100 days after the attack and a year into a pandemic that forced most congressional staffers to work from home, the Capitol still looks different from the way it used to, and some National Guard troops remain on-site.

The outer fencing that extended blocks beyond the Capitol and that was looped with razor wire is down, but fencing remains between the offices and the inner Capitol area. Metal detectors are parked at each entry to the House chamber. While the area is accessible to lawmakers, their staff, essential workers, and reporters, visitors including advocacy groups and tourists aren't allowed.

Walker said he planned to change that, vowing that the Capitol would "never, ever be breached again" and that it would be a "safe, secure complex to work in and visit."

"That's not a hope," he said. "I know it's going to be accessible again. This is the people's house."

What makes him so confident he'll succeed?

"We've never had another 9/11," he said. "We never had another Pearl Harbor. The United States learns from experiences. We adapt. We learn and we make changes. We adapt and modify."

Walker didn't set a timeline for when the Capitol would be open to the public again, though he said the team was working "deliberately, methodically, cautiously - but with a sense of urgency."

He added that he wanted to "move at the speed of perfection," paraphrasing a quote he attributed to Vince Lombardi, the legendary NFL Hall of Fame coach.

"We're going to chase perfection," he said. "We're going to chase it relentlessly knowing all the while we'll never catch it, but we will catch excellence."

House Sergeant at Arms, General William Walker, escorts President Joe Biden in the chamber.
President Joe Biden greets Supreme Court Justice John Roberts with a fist bump before addressing a joint session of congress in the House chamber of the Capitol. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Parallel DEA and military careers

Derek Maltz, who worked just under Walker at the DEA in the early 2000s, told Insider he was thrilled to see his former colleague on TV for the joint address.

Maltz said he recorded a short video and posted it on a private Facebook group for former DEA officers. Walker told Insider that numerous former colleagues reached out to him after the event.

Maltz and Walker go way back and have stayed in touch - Walker also had worked under Maltz's father, who was chief of the DEA's New York Drug Enforcement Task Force.

"He's a very formal guy and he's a very quiet guy," Maltz said of Walker. "He's not one of these guys that run around and brags about himself and try to get out front in the media and all that stuff. He's all about business. So when I worked for him, I was able to see a side of him that I believe most people didn't really get to enjoy."

Maltz recounted his time working with Walker, describing him as supportive, detail-oriented, and willing to be a team player. He recalled a time when Walker went with him to help search a stash house in Queens containing guns, drugs, and $1.3 million in cash.

"Most bosses at that level, they're not going to jump in a car and go out to the scene of a search warrant," Maltz said.

When Walker arrived on the scene and saw the team was short-staffed, he offered to take the people who had been apprehended back to the New York DEA office.

Another former government official, Joseph Rannazzisi, who was DEA deputy assistant administrator, worked with Walker during the early stages of the opioid crisis.

"He was just a very steady leader. In law enforcement, that's what you want," Rannazzisi said. "You want somebody that's not going to get agitated. That's not going to get upset. That just looks at things objectively and says: 'OK, I got this. This is what we're going to do.'"

Honoré, who led the task force to review Capitol security, recommended Walker for the sergeant-at-arms job, according to information made public by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the Democratic chair of the House Administration Committee. Honoré spoke with Walker while he was leading the task force and called him a "natural fit" for sergeant at arms.

"He worked for the DEA during the week and then would go do National Guard duty on weekends, and go to drills, and be deployed," he said. "He served his country with distinction in a parallel career. He knows security - he's worked it at the highest level. He knows law enforcement, he knows the law."

Before the sergeant-at-arms nomination came along, Walker had planned on staying in the National Guard longer. But it was an offer that he said filled him with honor, humility, and even a little bewilderment.

"I just couldn't say no to it," Walker told Insider.

Pelosi's appointment of Walker on March 26 was met with bipartisan approval.

"Throughout his long, dedicated career in public service, General William Walker has proven to be a leader of great integrity and experience who will bring his steady and patriotic leadership to this vital role," Pelosi said when she announced his appointment. "His historic appointment as the first Black American to serve as sergeant at arms is an important step forward for this institution and our nation."

He was sworn in a month later.

White House Fence Memorial
Banners and signs on a fence at Lafayette Square near the White House, during ongoing protests against police brutality and racism, on June 7 in Washington, DC. JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images

'Every day we were making America safer'

Walker told Insider that the TV shows "The Untouchables" and "Combat!" inspired him to go into public service. The shows were about Prohibition-era federal agents in his hometown of Chicago and American platoons fighting the Germans in France during World War II.

Walker said he saw the DEA as "today's untouchables." Joining the National Guard allowed him to pursue both career paths. He worked all over, including in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Afghanistan.

"I just knew every single day at work we made a difference," he said. "Every day we were making America safer."

Walker made a few headlines during his time overseeing the DC National Guard. One of his first responsibilities was overseeing the security for Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration.

Then last year, during protests against racism and police brutality in Washington following the murder of George Floyd, Walker found himself in the middle of a controversy over National Guard troops from the district and other states stationed near the White House.

Secret Service agents and other security officials had used tear gas and flash grenades to disperse peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park for Trump to pose for a photo holding a Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by a fire during protests the night before. Trump's actions angered religious groups and former military officers. Part of the anger was directed at the National Guard troops. Walker defended his troops on CNN, saying they were not responsible for using force against the protesters.

Walker told Insider that he could relate to the pain of the racial-justice protesters. He said police officers stopped him several times in the 1980s when he was working as a DEA agent in New York, New Jersey, and Florida, sometimes at gunpoint.

"I've been profiled," he said. "As a federal agent driving a high-value vehicle I've been pulled over, no reason other than I was an African American driving a high-value vehicle, conducting surveillance in a place that I probably stuck out and was just pulled over. But how can I stick out in America? Why should I stick out in America?"

He said he would carefully ask the officer for permission to show his credentials.

"I've had the conversation with my children about what to do, how to survive the encounter," Walker, a father of five, said. "It's something that I am hopeful as our nation grows and grows, that we will become more understanding of one another and appreciate our differences. But right now there is a fear - when you are pulled over - that is hard to explain. And here I am a federal agent and still concerned about this officer approaching me for reasons known only to him."

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Walker visited Leo High School in 2017 to speak with students. Photo provided by Leo High School

Chicago roots

Until recently, Walker was flying to Chicago once a month to obtain a doctorate in values-driven leadership from Benedictine University, a Catholic institution. He put his studies on hold to focus on his work at the Capitol.

But Walker hasn't forgotten his Chicago roots. The decorated general has stayed in touch with his grammar school St. Sabina Academy and with Leo High School.

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Walker as s student at Leo High School in Chicago, from which he graduated in 1975. Yearbook photo provided by Leo High School

Walker called himself a "proud Catholic" who was "blessed" and driven to give back and sacrifice. His primary education, he said, fueled his deeply held beliefs and also taught him discipline. His high school's motto, "acts, not words," has stuck with him.

Walker visited Leo in 2017 to speak with students about his career path. He managed to persuade four students to enlist or join the Reserve Officer Training Corps, Leo High School's principal, Shaka Rawls, told Insider.

"It was a great motivational speech. He's a local kid. So a lot of them can see themselves in him," Rawls said. "They were able to see his process - where he made good decisions and accomplished all those things."

Rawls said it was a "life-changing moment" for his students to be able to talk to an Army general who grew up just like them.

"To be able to say that you're sitting in the seats or you're walking the halls where he once walked, it gives a sense of empowerment to our boys, and they too see themselves in a position of this stature, of his magnitude," Rawls said.

Rawls said students at Leo were watching Biden's April 28 speech to Congress, with eyes focused on Walker.

"It just shows the boys that they matter. That anything is possible," Rawls said. "Being able to announce the first female African American vice president and the president of the United States to the world, being able to make that first announcement was just a huge occasion for our community."

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