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Uphill: Congress Kicks Off January 6 Investigations
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Uphill: Congress Kicks Off January 6 Investigations

A fruitful House hearing exposes significant readiness issues among Capitol Police brass.

Good morning and happy Friday. The House is set to vote on Democrats’ nearly $2 trillion coronavirus aid package later today. It is expected to pass narrowly on a party-line vote. It’s the first step in a two-week sprint to try to approve the legislation before federal unemployment benefits expire in the middle of March. We’ll bring you more on that—and the coming Democratic brawl over how to incorporate a version of a federal minimum wage increase (potentially through a tax penalty) now that the Senate parliamentarian has ruled it out of order for the reconciliation bill—next week.

An Honest Oversight Hearing

When we first launched Uphill, I wrote that we would try to highlight when members of Congress do particularly good work. I want to take a moment in this edition to recognize the members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. Yesterday, this small panel held a hearing to examine the security failures leading up to and during the attack of January 6. Acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman and acting House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett testified. 

The hearing was remarkably refreshing—not because of any kind of commitment to transparency on the witnesses’ part—but because the House members involved approached it with genuine oversight and accountability in mind. The tenor of the hearing and the questions members asked were far more skeptical than a Senate hearing earlier this week with three former security officials who were responsible for protecting the Capitol that day. Instead of simply accepting attempts to deflect blame onto other areas of government, the House subcommittee members pressed the leaders to answer for the massive mistakes they made. They displayed a sense of frustration and anger that matched the moment. They asked direct, important questions to try to establish new facts about the riot and the response. And they didn’t fall for the jargon security officials often use to avoid reckoning with their own actions. 

Congressional hearings usually aren’t an effective way to investigate anything. Members use their limited time to deliver unproductive speeches, they don’t always pay attention to what anyone before them has said (so they ask the witnesses the same questions over and over again), and they often aren’t familiar enough with the subject matter to know which witness answers to push back on. It may be a testament to the subcommittee model that yesterday’s hearing, which only featured a few representatives, so outperformed the larger Senate hearing earlier this week. But it also had to do with the members’ stance coming into it: They did not begin with deference to the officials, and they were prepared to ask hard questions. They were also familiar with how the Capitol security apparatus works, and they brought their own experiences and interactions with rank-and-file Capitol Police officers on January 6 to the table. 

Early in the hearing, Washington Republican Jaime Herrera-Beutler detailed how she was near several officers as the situation worsened that day, and it was evident that there was no clear communication or guidance coming from the leaders of the police force. She said she could hear the chaos of the violence outside through their headsets. She questioned why so many rank-and-file officers seemed to be fending for themselves without a clear picture of how they were supposed to respond to the rioters. 

Pittman, the acting Capitol Police chief, told Herrera-Beutler the communications problems stemmed from a breakdown of the Incident Command System. The ICS is essentially an organizational structure for responding to emergencies. A breakdown in the ICS can sound vague and confusing to people who aren’t familiar with it, but Herrera-Beutler understood that meant there were real failures on the part of leadership to stay coordinated and to communicate with the officers who were trying to protect the building against the rioters. When Pittman said some of the failure came from civil disturbance commanders who were on the ground—noting that they were overwhelmed and went to the aid of their colleagues instead of focusing on directing the response—Herrera-Beutler attempted to get Pittman to acknowledge the top leadership’s failures as well.

“I want to know why yourself and the other leaders did not maintain or regain control of the comms system, because you had a bird’s-eye-view advantage,” Herrera-Beutler said. 

“I think it’s a multi-tiered failure, if you will,” Pittman responded. 

Herrera-Beutler also made clear that the leadership of the Capitol Police is not beyond reproach, explicitly pointing to a recent overwhelming vote of no confidence against Pittman from members of the Capitol Police union. 

“I’m hearing a lot of process and a lot of almost explaining why there’s a problem versus hearing how you’re going to make sure that there is a command center, who speaks into the earpieces of the officers and provides direction and leadership,” Herrera-Beutler said. “There was no incoming help as far as they knew. They had no idea what you guys were doing. My hat is off to these brave men and women. They saved our lives, and I’m frustrated that I’m not hearing, ‘This is how we’re fixing that right now. This is what we’re doing.’ And that’s what I expect.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the larger Appropriations Committee, railed against the structure of the Capitol Police Board, which includes the head of the Capitol Police, the two sergeants at arms, and the architect of the Capitol. The board has to approve important security decisions. Apparent miscommunication between its members played a role in the delayed request for National Guard assistance on January 6.

“It’s just there. It doesn’t appear to do a hell of a lot,” DeLauro said, adding that she views the board as obsolete and “nonfunctioning.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, another Washington Republican, brought up a memo from an FBI field office warning that extremists were preparing for “war” and they were targeting the Capitol. The report was emailed to the Capitol Police intelligence unit on January 5, the day before the attack, but it never made it up the chain of command. Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund and the two former sergeants at arms testified Tuesday that they never saw it. Pittman said Thursday that she didn’t see it either. Before Sund’s resignation, Pittman served as assistant chief for protective and intelligence operations. Lawmakers were baffled that she wouldn’t have been privy to the FBI warning. 

Pittman said changes were in order to ensure information is shared with top management. But she also downplayed the importance of the FBI report, saying it meshed with the intelligence Capitol Police already had. If the Capitol Police leaders had seen it, she said, it would not have changed anything about their security posture.

Members drilled down on this revelation. Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio Democrat who leads the subcommittee, asked her why it wouldn’t have affected their preparations to know the FBI report corroborated their own intelligence unit’s concerns about extremists.

“Knowing all that, knowing the tone and the tenor in the country, knowing the rally was happening, why wouldn’t we have been prepared for the worst-case scenario?” he asked.

Pittman argued the Capitol Police were well-prepared for what they believed the scope of the threat would be.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” she said. “There are numerous lessons to be learned.”

Ryan later told reporters that the hearing showed “a complete failure of leadership” leading up to and on January 6.

“It seems like the only thing they got right was the intelligence, but they didn’t use it properly or at all,” he said. “That didn’t inform to the level it needed to inform the decisions that were being made.”

Ryan’s takeaway about the intelligence was refreshing: While the current and former security officials who have testified so far have repeatedly blamed the intelligence community for not predicting a massive mob would attempt to breach the Capitol, there was abundant public information about extremists planning to storm the building and engage in violence in the weeks ahead of the attack. People who attended the rally openly workshopped their plans on pro-Trump internet forums. 

“I just don’t understand why looking at all of that, you wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s get a couple thousand National Guard, tee them up around here, create a real strong perimeter, and make sure that this thing goes off without a hitch.’” Ryan said. “To me, that seems like a pretty basic step to take to prevent what happened.”

He theorized that the failure to take the threat seriously could be “a groupthink issue in which nobody wanted to face the reality of what could potentially happen.”

Sund, the former police chief, has said he attempted to get approval earlier that week for a unit of 125 unarmed troops to help guard the perimeter. He said he was rejected by former House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving. Irving denied Sund’s account of events earlier this week. Regardless of the details, Ryan said, Sund and the other Capitol Police leaders should have fought to get reinforcements if they truly believed they were needed.

“Leaders get paid for judgment. And that was some bad judgment. And they also get paid to have nerve and courage to make the tough decisions when those tough decisions need to be made,” he said. “We needed leaders of the Capitol Police at that point to push the Capitol Police Board to raise holy hell in order to try to protect the rank-and-file members. And they didn’t.”

Ryan added that there are a couple of changes Congress can pursue to try to help with readiness. First, he said, there should be a rapid response unit that can be quickly dispatched to protect the Capitol and reinforce security when needed. He added that mobile fencing that can be erected in advance of a potential threat could help harden the complex.

He also indicated further leadership changes within the Capitol Police are possible. 

“There are some real concerns,” he said when asked about Pittman’s fitness for the role. 

Thursday’s hearing was the first time Pittman (or any other current Capitol Police official) has answered questions in a public forum since the attack. The agency is famously opaque, and it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon. Asked by Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat from Virginia, if she would commit to holding a press conference in the future, Pittman answered, “No ma’am. Not at this time.”

Other Avenues of Investigation

There’s still a lot to learn about the preparations and response to the attack on the Capitol. It didn’t help that during this week’s hearings, current and former officials gave conflicting and messy accounts of the day. Beyond clearing up discrepancies in the timeline of events, another pressing matter is why it took so long for the Pentagon to approve the Capitol Police’s request for National Guard assistance on the afternoon of January 6. The Senate Homeland Security and Rules committees, which held the Tuesday hearing with Sund and the other former officials, will hold another joint hearing next week with witnesses from the FBI, Defense Department, and Department of Homeland Security. 

Congressional leaders are also debating the contours of a potential 9/11-style commission to investigate and establish facts about the mobbing of the Capitol. The negotiations are not off to a good start: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s opening offer would give Democrats seven picks for appointing commission members and only four to Republicans. The draft would also give the Democratic chair unilateral power to issue subpoenas. 

Pelosi received immediate pushback from top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans are calling for the commission to be equally divided and for members to have to vote on subpoenas.

The leaders of the 9/11 commission—former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton—told Politico earlier this week that Pelosi’s framework is too partisan and would hurt the commission’s standing.

Kean said the report “won’t have as much confidence from the American people” if it isn’t equally split. “It won’t be as reliable,” he added.

House Democrats have raised concerns about Republican involvement, suggesting they may not want to do a serious investigation because it would highlight former President Donald Trump’s election fraud lies that brought the mob to the Capitol. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that Pelosi’s priority is that the commission “not be focused on defense of either President Trump or others who may have been involved or who may have been perpetrators themselves.”

Pelosi appeared to back off from the 7-4 split on Thursday, though, telling reporters the makeup of the committee is “easily negotiated.” She said her real concern is the scope of the investigation. Republicans have suggested the commission could also look into political violence over the summer unrelated to the Capitol attack.

A number of Democrats have resisted the idea of a partisan commission, despite the disagreements with Republicans over its scope. Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and close ally of President Joe Biden, said he would prefer an equal division.

“The leaders of the 9/11 Commission have said that part of why it was so successful was that it was even, it was balanced, and it was led by folks who were well respected and well regarded and who had a reputation for working across the aisle,” Coons said Thursday morning during a CNN interview. “I think it’s important that we have a balanced January 6th Commission, a commission that looks into all the events that led up to the riot at the Capitol and this baseless theory that Trump won the election. But it’s going to have to be done by folks who are not currently serving or seeking office, folks who are not politically motivated in how they get to the bottom of this.”

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.