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Our View: Riot at Capitol demands 9/11-style commission to study security failures

The Editorial Board, USA TODAY
·4 min read
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You’re reading Our View, one of two perspectives in Today’s Debate.

For the Opposing View, read “U.S. Capitol Police did not fail on Jan. 6.”

The three top security officials at the U.S. Capitol when insurrectional rioters breached the building Jan. 6, halting the counting of electoral ballots by Congress, have since come under intense criticism. And they didn't do anything to help themselves Tuesday during testimony before joint Senate committees investigating what went wrong.

All three men — former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, former House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving and former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger — resigned or were asked to quit shortly after the riot.

They contradicted one another Tuesday in self-serving fashion, admitted how crucial intel predicting violence got lost in departmental bureaucracy, and described an ossified chain of command where key decision-making under combat conditions took forever.

Conflicting Senate testimonies

Their fatally clumsy performance is one more reason a 9/11-style congressional commission is necessary to fully examine the events of that crucial day. Just some of the haplessness described Tuesday includes:

Bungled intel. Sund said his agency, the U.S. Capitol Police, had adequately planned for the limited violence they expected to see. But he also acknowledged that the day before the building was breached, an FBI report landed with his agency, warning that extremists bent on war with the government were heading to Washington, D.C. But the report never reached Sund. It never got beyond a sergeant in his intel office, the former chief told senators.

Conflicting accounts. Two days before the riot, Sund said, he sought permission to bring in National Guard troops to assist with security. But Irving turned him down, worried about the "optics" of soldiers on Capitol Hill. In testimony Tuesday, Irving denied all of this, saying that there was no reference to optics, that Sund never even requested the troops, but merely discussed with Irving and Stenger the idea of using National Guard soldiers — something all three agreed wasn't necessary.

Clashing stories. On the day of the riot, as Capitol Police defenses were crumbling under the onslaught of rioters, Sund said, he called Irving at 1:09 p.m. — Sund repeated that precise time Tuesday — asking to be allowed to summon National Guard troops to help defend the building. Sund said it took an hour, at the height of the assault, before receiving permission. But Irving flatly contradicted this Tuesday, saying he didn't hear from the chief until 1:28 p.m. — and even then it was only a suggestion that it might be worth calling the Guard.

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Nor was this fumbling response limited to just these three men. Robert Contee, acting police chief for Washington, D.C., testified Tuesday about an emergency phone conference he participated in with Sund, where the Army was asked about sending in troops.

'Stunned at the response'

Contee said the call was at 2:22 p.m., minutes after rioters had broken into the building, and Sund was pleading for help. But rather than immediately granting the request, Contee said, Army officials began asking questions about the overall plan and how it would look to have soldiers on Capitol Hill. "I was just stunned at the response," Contee testified.

It would be more than three hours before National Guard troops would arrive.

The violence that day left five dead and temporarily interrupted a constitutional ballot-counting process. At least 200 rioters have since been indicted.

The ransacking of the Capitol by American citizens is a stain on our democracy. Learning how this could have happened, what was missed and where foolish mistakes contributed to a massive security failure, is imperative.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Capitol security lapses need 9/11-style commission in riot aftermath