Senators Grilled Law Enforcement Leadership About the Capitol Riot. We Still Don't Know What Exactly Went Wrong

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Lissandra Villa
·6 min read
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Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on February 23, 2021
Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on February 23, 2021

Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on February 23, 2021 Credit - Photo by Erin Scott—Pool/Getty Images

Senators grilled top officials in charge of responding to the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob for hours at a joint hearing on Tuesday. But despite being some of the key decision makers leading up to the insurrection, the law enforcement leaders offered little insight into how the chain of command broke down, resulting in the deadly breach of the Capitol.

There was a general consensus among the four witnesses that there should be further review and changes made to prevent something similar from happening again. But the testimony of the officials—former chief of U.S. Capitol Police Steven Sund, former House and Senate sergeants at arms Paul Irving and Michael Stenger, and the acting Chief of DC Metropolitan Police Robert Contee—left open serious questions about why they didn’t see the threat coming.

“Based on the intelligence that we received, we planned for an increased level of violence at the Capitol, and that some participants may be armed. But none of the intelligence we received predicted what actually occurred,” Sund said. “I acknowledge that under the pressure of an unprecedented attack, a number of systems broke down.”

Why and how exactly they broke down is still unclear, including failures to foresee the possibility of violence on this scale and a significant delay before the National Guard came to respond while the onslaught was underway. Those failures left the Capitol vulnerable to the deadly attack by extremists that directly threatened the lives of lawmakers, congressional staff, and police officers, and disrupted the certification of the Electoral College results at the heart of the transfer of power. An inability to diagnose the problems that plagued law enforcement that day could leave the U.S. government exposed to future attacks.

Sund sought to cast the Capitol Police—the agency he oversaw until his resignation in the wake of the attack—as a “consumer” of information provided by the U.S. intelligence community. “There’s significant evidence coming out that the insurrection that occurred on the 6th was planned, coordinated well in advance,” Sund said. “It’s that detection that I think would have been key to put the effective security in place for this event.”

But not only did much of the planning for the storming of the Capitol happen in plain sight, at least one significant piece of intelligence that officials received ahead of the attack was apparently not passed on to some of the highest-ranking security officials on Capitol Hill.

Sund, Stenger and Irving all said they did not see a threat report issued by an FBI office in Virginia that detailed online threats related to Jan. 6. Sund said that he only found out within “the last 24 hours” that his agency received the FBI report on Jan. 5, a day before the attack.

The Jan. 6 rally had been planned for months, and was meant to be the culmination of several “Stop the Steal” protests across the country, including two large demonstrations in Washington in November and December which also led to violence. All of them clearly stated their goal was to mount a “final stand” to keep Trump in power.

The final effort in January was widely advertised online with posters that included language like “Occupy the Capitol” and “Storm the Capitol.” Public online forums were flooded with posts that made it clear they took Trump’s call to “stop the steal” literally—a message that was repeated from the stage by the organizers themselves.

At some points during Tuesday’s hearing, the witnesses appeared to be trying to diminish their own roles in the events that unfolded. There was, for instance, a major discrepancy between the testimonies of Sund and Irving: Sund said he called Irving, who Sund said he believed was with Stenger at the time, and asked for additional assistance at 1:09 p.m. on Jan. 6. Irving said his phone records do not reflect such a call at the time Sund said he placed it.

Contee, whose agency responded quickly with backup, described a call with top law enforcement officials that took place the afternoon of the attack. He said he was surprised that there was reluctance to immediately deploy the National Guard.

The witnesses described “all hands on deck” preparation for Jan. 6, including having approximately 1,200 Capitol Hill police officers onsite, national guard troops on standby, and metropolitan police officers operating on 12-hour shifts with cancelled leave and days off. “Based on the intelligence, we all believed that the plan met the threat and that we were prepared,” Irving said. “We now know that we had the wrong plan. As one of the senior security leaders responsible for the event, I am accountable for that. I accept that responsibility, and as you know, I have resigned my position.”

The details offered on Tuesday did not address why officials with access to U.S. intelligence say this was a failure caused by lack of information, but Sund said he believes the intelligence community needs to broaden the type of information it collects.

The hearing was a joint one between the Senate committees on Rules and Administration and Homeland Security and Government Affairs. But other lawmakers are also seeking answers: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced plans to pursue a 9/11-style commission that would review the security failures. There’s been widespread support for such an independent commission, including from Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland, who had his nomination hearings this week and told Congress on Monday that he would ask only that such a commission not interfere with the Department of Justice’s ability to prosecute rioters who stormed the Capitol.

The Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump earlier this month also laid out chilling details how the Jan. 6 attack played out, but it left a lot of the law enforcement decisions and deficiencies unexplored.

Some Republican Senators asked political questions at Tuesday’s hearing including Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who suggested that the mob was made violent by “provocateurs” that intermingled with Trump supporters. In another striking moment, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who was the first Republican to announce that he would object to certifying the presidential election results and was photographed on the day of the insurrection raising his fist for the mob, asked the witnesses whether they were complicit in the riot.

On the matter of security and response, there will be more hearings to come, as early as next week. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, chair of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, announced another hearing to take place in early March that will include the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI.

—With reporting by Vera Bergengruen/Washington