WASHINGTON – The commander of the District of Columbia National Guard said the Pentagon restricted his authority before the riot at the U.S. Capitol, requiring higher-level approval that cost time as the events that day spiraled out of control.
Local commanders typically have the power to take military action on their own to save lives or prevent significant property damage in an urgent situation when there is not enough time to obtain approval from headquarters.
But Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, said the Pentagon essentially took that power and other authorities away from him before a pro-Trump protest on Jan. 6. That meant he could not immediately roll out troops when he received a panicked phone call from the Capitol Police chief warning that rioters were about to enter the U.S. Capitol.
“All military commanders normally have immediate response authority to protect property, life and in my case, federal functions – federal property and life,” Walker said in an interview. “But in this instance I did not have that authority.”
Walker and former Army secretary Ryan McCarthy are set to brief the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday behind closed doors about the events, the beginning of what probably will become a robust congressional inquiry into the preparations for a rally that devolved into a riot at the Capitol, leaving five people dead and representing a significant security failure.
The military, which is not structured to be a first responder like law enforcement, took hours to arrive at the scene primarily because the Capitol Police and the city government had not asked the D.C. Guard to prepare a contingency force for a riot. The Capitol Police chief also did not call Walker to tell him that a request for Guard backup was imminent until about 25 minutes before rioters breached the Capitol.
The restrictions the Pentagon placed on Walker also contributed to the delay. He needed to wait for approval from McCarthy and acting defense secretary Christopher Miller before dispatching troops, even though some 40 National Guard members were on standby as a quick-reaction force. That standby force had been assembled in case the few hundred National Guard troops deployed that day on the city’s streets to assist police with traffic control and crowd management needed help, Walker said.
The Pentagon required the highest-level approval for any moves beyond that narrow mission, in part because its leaders had been lambasted for actions the D.C. Guard took during last year’s racial justice protests, including helicopters that flew low over demonstrators in D.C. Top officials concluded that those maneuvers resulted from “fragmentary orders” that had not received high-level approval and were looking to prevent a repeat of that situation.
“After June, the authorities were pulled back up to the secretary of defense’s office,” McCarthy said in comments to The Washington Post. “Any time we would employ troops and guardsmen in the city, you had to go through a rigorous process. As you recall, there were events in the summer that got a lot of attention, and that was part of this.”
McCarthy said he worked to ensure that authority was pushed back down the chain of command to Walker before the inauguration, during which Walker oversaw the 25,600 troops that came to D.C. As for the preparations for Jan. 6, McCarthy said, “It was everyone just being very careful. When you go back to times when we’ve done this, like June, we wanted to make sure we were very careful about the employment – careful about fragmentary orders.”