Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, who serves as the commander of the D.C. National Guard, has revealed in a new interview with The Washington Post how restrictions on his authority from higher up in the chain of command prevented a faster response during recent deadly rioting at the U.S. Capitol. “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,” the Post explains, but in the lead-up to the Capitol rioting, then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and then-acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller took over the final say on deploying personnel.
As the Post explains, the shift in authorities at the Justice Department was “in part because its leaders had been lambasted for actions the D.C. Guard took during last June’s racial justice protests.” McCarthy told the Post that after the protests in D.C., where demonstrators faced military force including a helicopter that flew low over a crowd in a so-called show of force, “the authorities were pulled back up to the secretary of defense’s office.” McCarthy, who was slated to privately testify before the House Appropriations Committee alongside Walker on Tuesday, added that the Defense Department “wanted to make sure we were very careful about the employment — careful about fragmentary orders.”
In a memo that the Post obtained that was dated January 5 — the day before the rioting — McCarthy “prohibited [Walker] from deploying the quick reaction force composed of 40 guardsmen on his own and said any rollout of that standby group would first require a “concept of operation,” an exceptional requirement given that the force is supposed to respond to emergencies,” the publication explains.
In a memo from the previous day, McCarthy himself was restricted from deploying D.C. National Guard members with certain equipment — like weapons — without the prior approval of then-Defense Department chief Miller. Ultimately, Walker “did not have” the “immediate response authority to protect property, life, and in my case, federal functions — federal property and life,” the commander says.
On the day of the rioting, then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund called Walker to ask for assistance on 1:49 P.M. — well into the day, and less than half an hour before rioters breached the Capitol building — and permission from the Defense Department for a deployment took another about hour and 15 minutes. Members of the D.C. National Guard did not arrive on the scene until about 5:30 P.M., at which point they helped set up a perimeter to protect the Capitol complex.
Sund says that when he got in touch with the Defense Department directly, Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt — the Army staff director — said that he doesn’t “like the visual of the National Guard standing a police line with the Capitol in the background,” as if trying to preserve the public image of the day while members of Congress fled for their lives. Walker, for his part, said that he’s “not sure” who exactly “talked about the optics” on the call to which Sund was referring, although Piatt indicated that “note-takers in the room told him he may have said” the alleged remarks, according to the Post reporting.