Among the most striking images of law enforcement futility, on a day when chaos convulsed the U.S. Capitol, was of a lone, shirt-sleeved officer in retreat waving a baton at an advancing mob that had breached the Senate side of the building.
Flag-waving rioters appeared to stalk the officer who bounded up one stairway after another – with no immediate back-up to be found.
The stunning sight was just one in an ugly collage that laid bare a jarring breakdown of security at one of the country’s most iconic institutions.
More unnerving, perhaps, is that the attackers took their target with such remarkable ease nearly two decade after the 9/11 attacks prompted federal authorities to spend millions to bolster defenses across the capital to repel such assaults.
The failure also comes less than two weeks before what is traditionally one of the country’s most challenging security operations: the inauguration of a new president.
Calls for investigations, resignations
Federal lawmakers, District of Columbia authorities and law enforcement officials already are calling for a national examination of capital security – similar to the commission that studied the myriad breakdowns in advance of the 9/11 attacks – which Mayor Muriel Bowser described as a « catastrophic failure. »
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared Thursday that she didn’t need a review and called for the resignation of Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund.
Referring to « shocking failures, » Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called for a congressional inquiry.
« Yesterday represented a massive failure of institutions, protocols, and planning that are supposed to protect the first branch of our federal government, » McConnell said Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday the Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger should resign or would be fired.
“If Senate Sergeant Arms Stenger hasn’t vacated the position by then, I will fire him as soon as Democrats have a majority in the Senate, » Schumer said in a statement.
William Bratton, who has led the country’s largest police forces in New York and Los Angeles, said it was « hard to comprehend everything that went wrong. »
« This was a failure at every level. »
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., said lawmakers began discussions about a security review even as they took cover from attackers who had breached the Capitol.
Coons, in an interview with MSNBC, said that despite the « hundreds of millions of dollars » spent in the aftermath of 9/11 to guard against a terrorist hijacking and lethal anthrax attacks, officials had never contemplated the scenario that played out Wednesday.
Capitol Police chief defends ‘robust’ plan
Nearly 24 hours after the launch of the attack which left four dead, including the fatal shooting of a 35-year-old demonstrator, Sund, in department’s first public statements addressing the incident, appeared to acknowledge that the department was caught by surprise.
« The violent attack on the U.S. Capitol was unlike any I have ever experienced in my 30 years in law enforcement here in Washington, D.C., » Sund said. « Maintaining public safety in an open environment – specifically for First Amendment activities – has long been a challenge. »
In the face of mounting criticism, Sund said the department had « a robust plan to address anticipated First Amendment activities. »
« But make no mistake – these mass riots were not First Amendment activities; they were criminal riotous behavior, » the chief said, referring to his officers as « heroic given the situation they faced. »
Yet much of the criticism for the failed law enforcement response focused squarely on Sund and his 2,300-member force.
Reels of video and photographs posted on social media show the rioters easily breaching Capitol barricades, with some officers appearing to step aside, continually give ground and even pose for selfies.
Many contrasted the police behavior toward rioters at the Capitol with what racial justice protesters encountered – including President-elect Joe Biden.
« Nobody can tell me that if it was a group of Black Lives Matter protesters that they wouldn’t have been treated differently than the thugs who stormed the Capitol, » Biden said Thursday. « We all know that is true. And it is unacceptable – totally unacceptable. »
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It is unclear whether the officers’ actions were part of a crowd-control strategy or whether they were acting to protect themselves. Some of the supporters of President Donald Trump were armed.
In his statement, Sund did not elaborate on the planning for the event or the response to it, other than to characterize the planning as « robust. »
Yet the scene that played out Wednesday afternoon on live television, government officials and law enforcement analysts said, clearly depicted a lack of preparation.
‘Advance intelligence could not have been clearer’
Noting that Trump had called on his supporters to descend on the city to protest Congress’ certification of the November vote, Bratton said Capitol Police should have anticipated that the joint session of Congress would be target, adding that there was ample time to prepare.
« The advance intelligence could not have been clearer, » Bratton said. « I find it hard to believe that there was not more preparation. This is terrible planning; security perimeters were abandoned. Capitol Police leadership has a lot to answer for, as this was an awful day for American law enforcement. »
Indeed, nearly a month before Wednesday’s attack Trump sought to stir his base to action in a tweet, calling them to Washington for the Jan. 6 meeting of Congress.
« Be there, » Trump wrote. « Will be wild. »
And in the run-up to Wednesday afternoon, he continued to stoke anger among his supporters with repeated and unfounded references to a stolen election.
In a blistering critique of his onetime boss, former Attorney General William Barr called Trump’s conduct « betrayal of his office and supporters. »
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the failure to anticipate Wednesday’s assault was inexcusable.
“You didn’t even need to see any classified intelligence,” Hagel said. “All you need to do is read the news and listen to television or radio and hear what President Trump was saying. It was about, ‘This day in Washington, January 6, is a big day. And we all got to come protest.’”
Hagel, who was a Republican senator before serving two years as defense secretary under President Barack Obama, said he was baffled by the response of the Capitol Police, referring to it as « unfathomable » negligence.
Hagel, in an interview with USA TODAY on Monday, predicted “bloodshed and riots” on Jan. 6 and on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day. He and the other nine defense secretaries signed an op-ed raising concerns about Trump’s « erratic » behavior.
“There seems to be no coordination, no understanding of the facts of the realities of the potential that was probably going to get out of hand,” Hagel said. “Again, it didn’t take any intelligence to figure that out. It was right out in the open for the last few weeks.”
Hagel also scoffed at the notion raised Thursday by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who oversees the district National Guard, that officials did not foresee the attack on the Capitol in their “wildest imagination.” Guardsmen, with shields and vehicles, could have been used to set up a perimeter far from the Capitol itself, he said.
Michael Sherwin, acting U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., acknowledged during a call with reporters Thursday that authorities did not anticipate a breach of the Capitol, although he said Justice Department officials began preparing for the influx of protesters to the district weeks earlier by monitoring flights, hotels and social media.
« We have a lot of lessons to learn from this. … Things obviously could’ve been done better, » Sherwin said when pressed about why the breach was not anticipated despite threats that had been brewing for weeks on social media.
Sherwin said he can’t speak for Capitol Police on why protesters were not immediately arrested as they forced their way into the building, although he acknowledged they should’ve been. Videos on social media, which USA TODAY has not been able to independently verify, showed men in police uniforms taking selfies with rioters and removing outdoor barriers for them.
« If hundreds of people flooded the Capitol and they were not apprehended or ziptied … the scenario has made our job difficult, » Sherwin said, adding that investigators must now identify suspects through video footage and seek court orders to obtain cellphone data.
Before Wednesday’s seige, Trump seemed to set the stage for the attack as he addressed protesters near the White House, urging them toward the Capitol.
« You will never take back our country with weakness, » the president told the crowd.
Terrance Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief and Senate Sergeant at Arms, was watching on television as the crowd built on the Capitol grounds Wednesday. But he never believed that a breach was possible.
« It would be whoppingly difficult for anybody to get into that building, » Gainer said at the time. « They would have to do serious damage to people or property. »
Minutes later, the attackers were doing just that: using makeshift battering rams to break through the heavy doors, leaving splinters of wood, shattered glass and injured officers in their wake.
Where was the National Guard?
For now, authorities have begun ringing the Capitol grounds with 7-foot « non-scalable fencing that is expected to remain in place through the inauguration.
And as many as 6,200 National Guard troops are scheduled to arrive by the weekend.
But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., expressed harsh criticism for the military’s response during the height of Wednesday’s clash.
Murphy said Capitol and district police waited four hours for help, as they battled with rioters inside and outside the Capitol, adding that « we need to make serious changes in the way the Capitol is defended. »
He also slammed the Capitol Police strategy.
« It’s hard to understand why Capitol Police did not request pre-positioned assets, » Murphy said.
National Guard soldiers were not near the Capitol when rioters stormed the building Wednesday afternoon because local law enforcement did not anticipate needing their help, top Pentagon officials said Thursday.
Military officials did not receive requests for additional support until about 2 p.m. Wednesday after rioters had attacked the Capitol, McCarthy said Thursday. The only other request had been made earlier in the week for 340 National Guard soldiers to assist at traffic checkpoints and Metro stations, he said.
The request on Wednesday resulted in the mobilization of the entire D.C. National Guard, numbering about 1,100 soldiers, he said. But it took hours to get them equipped with the riot gear they needed to help restore order on Capitol Hill, he said.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, at 6 p.m., called up National Guard units from states along the east coast for a force of 6,200 troops who will be on duty for 30 days, McCarthy said.
The Pentagon relies on local law enforcement to gauge threats and request National Guard assistance, said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. The Pentagon does not collect domestic intelligence, he said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday received a call from Rep. Steny Hoyer asking to deploy the Maryland National Guard, but Hogan said he was required to wait an hour and a half before receiving authorization to send the unit to Washington.
Maryland was the first state to send the guard. Hogan said Thursday that America would be better off if Trump resigned or was removed from office.
Reps. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, plan to send a letter to several agencies, including the Sergeant at Arms, the U.S. Capitol Police, House leaders and law enforcement departments, to ask about efforts to prepare for the protests.
“At the end of the day, there was plenty of security there, but that was after the fact,’’ Thompson said. “Why did it take so long for the backup … to get there?”
He said they want to discuss what intelligence was available to the Capitol Police and the involvement of other agencies, including the FBI and Secret Service. At some point, Thompson said, the Capitol Police will have to either justify the security that most people say was inadequate or acknowledge the failures of security.
“If these same folks want to do this somewhere else, we’re looking at domestic terrorists,’’ he said. “Who in the hell would have ever have imagined that American citizens would invade the United States Capitol? Given the fuel that Donald Trump provided … you could almost predict that something like this had the potential to happen.”
Art Acevedo, the police chief in Houston who heads the Major Cities Chiefs Association, offered the collective resources of the largest police agencies in the country to assist in a « urgent review that should extend beyond the Capitol Building to ensure the security of our most crucial assets. »
« It was appalling to see what happened (Wednesday), » Acevedo said Thursday. « This was a group of miscreants who easily took control of what should be one of the most secure buildings in our country. This is a failure of leadership, first and foremost. »
Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry