Former House security chief denies 'optics' dictated decisions before Capitol riot

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives’ former top security official on Tuesday denied authorities had rejected stationing National Guard forces at the Capitol last month ahead of a rally by Donald Trump’s supporters out of concerns that it might look bad.

Washington Metropolitan Police Department Acting Chief of Police Robert Contee III, left, testifies via teleconference before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs & Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, U.S., February 23, 2021, to examine the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

Paul Irving, the House’s former sergeant-at-arms instead said that intelligence had not warranted having troops at the Capitol on Jan. 6, when supporters of the then-president attacked the building, leaving five dead.

Irving said that two days before the event he had discussed the possible use of 125 National Guard troops with then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund and former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger.

“‘Optics’ as portrayed in the media played no role in my decisions about security,” Irving told two Senate panels opening a probe into security failures before and during the riot. “We did discuss whether the intelligence warranted having troops at the Capitol. The collective judgment at that time was no – the intelligence did not warrant that.”

Senators in the Homeland Security Committee and the Committee on Rules and Administration want to find out where the breakdowns in planning and response occurred that allowed the violence to unfold in and around the citadel of American democracy.

The riots shook the world, threatened a peaceful transition of power and endangered the lives of U.S. lawmakers and Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence.

The Capitol building, which hosts the 535 members of Congress, has long been open to visitors and guests in a way that the White House has not been. Passersby could walk almost to the building’s steps and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic it was still open to tourists, who had to enter through a special visitors’ entrance.

U.S. media reports said that congressional leaders and security officials ahead of the Jan. 6 rally in support of Trump’s false claim that his election defeat was the result of widespread fraud had not wanted to see the same militarized presence around the Capitol that was stationed about the White House during summer anti-racism protests.

Irving’s testimony appeared to be in direct conflict with Sund’s account. Sund said in written testimony that he had requested National Guard troops but that Irving “stated he was concerned about the ‘optics’ of having National Guard present.”

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In questioning by Rules Committee Chairwoman Senator Amy Klobuchar, Sund confirmed that he had requested National Guard to be deployed two days before the riot.

Sund, Irving and Stenger all resigned in the wake of the violence, which prompted Trump’s second impeachment trial.

“There were colossal breakdowns in the intelligence gathering and security preparations leading up to the events of Jan. 6, as well as during the coordination and response efforts once the attack got underway,” said Senator Gary Peters, a Democrat and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

Once the rioting started, it took hours to get permission for the troops, which ultimately had to come from the Pentagon, Sund said.

Sund also says intelligence agencies did not pass on anything ahead of time indicating an orchestrated attack on the Capitol might happen.

The Washington Post has reported that the Capitol Police’s own intelligence unit warned on Jan. 3 that “Congress itself” could be the target of Trump supporters summoned by the then-president to fight his loss in the Nov. 3 election.

Sund, asked about this Tuesday, said that because of this report Capitol Police had expanded the security “perimeter” around the Capitol on Jan. 6, and that he had also reached out to the metropolitan police to discuss backup support.

The FBI also says it warned law enforcement agencies on Jan. 5 that extremists were preparing to commit violence, although the warning was based largely on unconfirmed intelligence such as social media postings.

Sund told the committee he did not see this report himself on Jan. 5, and only heard within the last 24 hours that the Capitol Police had received it on the evening of Jan. 5. Stenger and Irving also said they did not see the report.

Also appearing Tuesday at the hearing was Robert Contee, the acting police chief in Washington, D.C.. His forces helped the Capitol Police control the mob and eventually clear the Capitol so that lawmakers could return to certify President Joe Biden’s election victory.

Scores of police were assaulted in the melee, with over 140 Capitol Police and some 65 metropolitan police injured.

More than 200 people have been charged so far for their roles in the riot, including some with ties to far-right fringe groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

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