If Wednesday’s House hearing on “unanswered questions” about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was good for anything, it showed why an independent commission is needed to investigate what happened that day.
It was the first time that former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen testified about the decisions and actions they took. Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee also testified, but his actions are under far less scrutiny because his police officers responded immediately and essentially saved the day. He had also already testified about these matters in the Senate.
Despite this opportunity to question Miller and Rosen (and the important questions they could have been asked), members of the House Oversight Committee elicited little new information. Instead, precious time was wasted with grandstanding and aggressive posturing on both sides. Whether it’s Democrats admonishing the witnesses before they have a chance to speak or, worse yet, Republicans flooding the zone with disinformation, it’s increasingly clear that Congress is not up to the task of investigating the events of that day.
That’s a shame, because when it comes to Jan. 6, there are essentially two security failures that demand accountability (not to mention the role played by former President Donald Trump): the failure to prepare and understand the signals of what was coming and a failure to quickly get federal forces to respond once it was underway. The Department of Justice and the FBI bear some responsibility for the first failure, which left the U.S. government flat-footed when the attack began. The Defense Department, which Miller oversaw, was responsible for fielding requests for support from the D.C. National Guard and then authorizing its deployment, and so, is at the center of responsibility for the second failure.
According to previous testimony and the Defense Department’s own timeline, a desperate call for help first came in at 1:49 p.m., when U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund called Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the D.C. National Guard. Sund’s voice was “cracking with emotion,” and he “indicated that there was a dire emergency on Capitol Hill and requested the immediate assistance of as many Guardsmen as I could muster,” Walker testified in March. After speaking to Sund, Walker says he immediately called Army leaders and relayed the request. The Defense Department failed to mention this call when it released its timeline on Jan. 8.
Despite this urgent midday call for help, members of the D.C. National Guard did not arrive at the Capitol until around 5:20 p.m., at which point the worst of the crisis was over. To the lawmakers who were hiding from the violent crowd in their offices and in undisclosed locations, and to the police officers engaged in hours of hand-to-hand combat on the steps of the Capitol, this seemed like a long time. A really long time. What was going on?
It was this lag, and the behind-the-scenes decision-making that contributed to it, that Miller was expected to explain on Wednesday at the House Oversight Committee hearing. The two basic questions he needed to answer: What explained the period of time between Sund’s frantic request at 1:49 p.m. and Miller’s authorization to deploy the D.C. Guard at 4:32 p.m? And then why did it take another 36 minutes for Army senior leaders to tell Walker he had Miller’s authority to deploy the Guard troops to the Capitol?
But, it was quite clear before the hearing even began that Miller was not going to shed much light on these questions. In his written testimony, released the night before, he defended the Defense Department’s handling of the situation. “I stand behind EVERY decision I made that day and the ones I made in the days following January 6,” he said (emphasis via all caps and bold in the original text). The slow and deliberate process was on purpose too. “Good leaders slow things down to plan and then brief their Soldiers, ultimately saving time and lives,” he told Congress.
The Stated Rationale
In his own words, Miller was extremely wary of sending the U.S. military into a domestic law enforcement situation. He rightly said U.S. troops are only to be used in these types of situations “as the absolute last resort.” However, he also admitted that moment came to pass on Jan. 6 around 2:30 p.m. By that point, D.C. police, fending off brutal attacks as they tried to keep the violent mob outside the Capitol Building, issued a call for emergency assistance, meaning all units should respond. Why it took three hours after that for the D.C. Guard to arrive Miller couldn’t explain other than to tell lawmakers that it wasn’t like “a video game where you can move forces with a flick of the thumb.”
But it’s not just naive observers with no military experience who have suggested the Guard could have been on the scene faster. It was Walker, the two-star commander of the D.C. Guard, who has said so. He told the Senate that DoD hadn’t given him the authority he needed to move faster on Jan. 6. If he’d had it, he said he would have quickly re-missioned the Guard members on traffic duty to follow their D.C. police counterparts to the Capitol “and report to the most ranking Capitol Police officer they saw and take direction.” He also would have been able to deploy the Quick Reaction Force stationed at Andrews Air Force Base sooner.
Listening to Miller on Wednesday, it’s not clear he’d approve such a mission — though nobody pressed him on these important specifics. “We appreciated the seriousness of the situation, but we did not want to piece-meal National Guard forces into the zone of Conflict,” he said in his written testimony. Instead, he seemed more concerned with defending the constitutional principle of keeping the U.S. military out of domestic law enforcement and seemed to suggest that the 8,000 police officers on hand should have been able to handle it.
“It’s not the correct role for the Department of Defense and our armed forces to be involved in civilian law enforcement matters except as the absolutely last resort and when all civilian law enforcement has been expended. That did not occur until 2:30 p.m. in my estimation,” Miller responded to a question from Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley.
“The last resort? You came in after the fact,” Quigley said, expressing outright surprise that Miller was not acknowledging any mistakes on the part of DoD. The congressman said he remembers colleagues asking on Jan. 6: “When does the effing cavalry get here?”
Quigley told Miller, “If you’re the effing cavalry, you never showed up. You never got there on time and we were exposed because of this.”
It was profoundly disappointing not to get more information about why Defense Department leaders, especially senior Army leaders, didn’t move faster — making decisions and then conveying them to the relevant people. And, it made me want to bang my head on the desk listening to Republicans not agree to basic facts about the day: The mob was made up of Trump supporters who’d largely just arrived from a Trump rally where Trump told them to walk to the Capitol, urging them to “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Representative Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) said to call it an insurrection was a “bold-faced lie” and that it much more resembled a “normal tourist visit.” On Wednesday night, CNN released footage of the crowd beating D.C. police officer Michael Fanone. In the video you can hear him screaming and pleading with his attackers, “I have kids.”
Wednesday’s hearing provided the clearest reasons for why the events of Jan. 6 need to be rigorously investigated and documented and why an independent commission is likely the only body to be able handle the task. On Capitol Hill, the forces that unleashed the violence that day are still working to hide the truth.