WASHINGTON — The Army initially pushed to reject the Washington D.C. government’s request for a modest National Guard presence ahead of the Jan. 6 rally that led to the Capitol riot, underscoring the deep reluctance of some higher-ups at the Pentagon to involve the military in security arrangements that day.
In an internal draft memo obtained by The Washington Post, the Army said the U.S. military shouldn’t be needed to help police with traffic and crowd management, as city officials had requested, unless more than 100,000 demonstrators were expected.
The draft memo also said the request should be denied because a federal agency hadn’t been identified to run the preparations and on-the-day operations; the resources of other federal agencies hadn’t been exhausted; and law enforcement was “far better suited” for the task.
The Army leadership made its position clear in deliberations at the Pentagon the weekend before the event, citing those reasons among others, according to four people familiar with the discussions, who like others in this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal Defense Department matters.
The Army ultimately relented after facing pressure from acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and the chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, and realizing that District officials weren’t going to turn to the Justice Department for help instead, as the Army had wanted, the people said.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy agreed to support the request, so long as a lead agency was identified and all other federal agencies “exhausted their assets to support these events,” according to the recommendation he gave in a revised final memo to Miller, who approved the request.
Still, the Army’s initial impulse to consider refusing military involvement in the security arrangements — even though the Guard is trained to assist law enforcement during large-scale protests and has done so regularly for decades in Washington — shows the extraordinary steps officials at the Pentagon were taking to stay away from what was shaping up to be a politically toxic and volatile moment for the nation.
Col. Cathy Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for the Army, said in a statement that the Pentagon provided 340 members of the D.C. Guard to help with street closures and crowd control as asked.
“Clearly, the Mayor’s request was approved and supported,” Wilkinson said. “The draft memo was not signed or approved. It is customary for the Army staff to provide options for Army senior leaders to inform their decision making process.”
The Army’s previously undisclosed draft memo advocating against the deployment ahead of the pro-Trump rally sheds light on the thinking of leaders involved in the security arrangements, which permitted one of the biggest national security failures since the 9/11 attacks.
In the weeks since the riot, top Pentagon officials have emphasized that the Capitol Police and federal agencies didn’t request military backup before the event, leaving the Defense Department unprepared to respond rapidly when the situation got out of control. The draft memo, however, suggests that the Army leadership also had been disinclined to get involved from the start.
Reluctance at the Pentagon about the deployment of the D.C. Guard during the preparations also raises questions about when it is appropriate to use the U.S. military on domestic soil. While top Pentagon officials have emphasized that military force should be used to support domestic law enforcement only as a last resort, that maxim has traditionally been understood to apply to active-duty forces — not the National Guard.
Unlike in the 50 states, where governors control the National Guard, the D.C. Guard answers to the president, who delegates authority to the defense secretary and Army secretary. The mayor of the District of Columbia can only request that the federal government deploy the D.C. Guard.
The thinking of Pentagon leaders before and during the riot is now facing scrutiny from lawmakers who have accused the Defense Department of reacting too slowly to the Capitol Police’s 11th-hour plea for military assistance, as rioters breached the Capitol in a catastrophic security failure.
Despite the unanswered questions, the political appointees and generals who were leading the Pentagon on Jan. 6 haven’t been called to testify publicly on the matter before Congress, as lawmakers attempt to understand how the Capitol could have been left so vulnerable to attack.
Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. Guard, told lawmakers on March 3 that after receiving a panicked call from the chief of the Capitol Police, he had to wait three hours and 19 minutes before the Pentagon allowed him to send his available forces to the building.
Even when the situation spiraled out of control, and the Capitol Police pleaded for backup from the military, Army Lt. Gen. Walter E. Piatt and Lt. Gen. Charles A. Flynn, the brother of the former national security adviser, articulated why it would be better for the military not to be directly involved, according to Walker. Piatt and Flynn were not part of the D.C. Guard’s chain of command.
Pentagon officials have denied that their response was delayed, describing the arrival of the D.C. Guard about three hours after the call for help as a quick rollout, considering that the military hadn’t been postured or asked to provide backup to the Capitol Police if needed.
“We were asked to support the Capitol from a cold start after it already had been overrun and are being criticized for how we fast we responded,” said a former Pentagon official involved in the events that day. “We are not like law enforcement units whose job it is to police the streets.”
By the time of the riot, Pentagon leaders had become skittish about using the military to support law enforcement on domestic soil.
Last June, Milley and then-defense secretary Mark Esper were excoriated by lawmakers and retired military personnel for appearing alongside President Donald Trump as federal law enforcement cleared racial-justice protesters near the White House using force and pepper balls.
They also faced blowback more broadly for militarizing Washington, with more than 5,000 National Guard troops in the city and 1,600 active-duty forces amassed nearby, in response to the unrest that followed the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The D.C. Guard flew helicopters low over protesters, and the Justice Department put uniformed agents with no insignia from the Bureau of Prisons on the streets, enraging city officials.
The fallout from the Nov. 3 election deepened the reluctance at the Pentagon.
Trump ousted Esper after the vote, raising worries that the president was paving the way for extrajudicial action using the military. Days later, Milley gave a pointed speech, saying members of the U.S. military “do not take an oath to a king or queen, tyrant or dictator,” but rather to the Constitution.
Still, Trump began taking increasingly extreme measures to remain in power. After his former national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, suggested that Trump could “rerun” the Nov. 3 vote, all 10 living former defense secretaries penned a letter warning the Pentagon to keep the military out of the presidential transition.
On Dec. 31, city officials, also wary of a repeat of June, submitted a narrow request to the Pentagon for help from the D.C. Guard with traffic and crowd control on Jan. 6, which the D.C. Guard determined would require 340 personnel.
The Army thought the proposal was light on details and didn’t want to authorize it after a first-blush review that resulted in the draft memo, a former senior Pentagon official said, noting that the Army and senior leadership were “scarred by the experiences of June” and that the military has long been hesitant to deploy for domestic matters involving law enforcement.
Senior officials were “very cognizant” that sending in the military “could be misconstrued by so many people as a power grab and play into the narrative that the military was on the cusp of overthrowing duly elected officials to redo an election,” the former official said.
Asked to explain the Army’s position, the other former Pentagon official said: “It is customary practice that law enforcement assets have to be utilized and near exhaustion before DoD will support operations. It is not an official policy but is designed to reinforce that military should be used as a last resort.”
But while top Pentagon leaders have stressed since June that active-duty troops should be used to support domestic law enforcement only as a last resort, the National Guard is used regularly for such missions across the nation.
Washington officials routinely ask for help from the D.C. Guard for major events, mostly to help with traffic control to free up police officers for other duties.
The D.C. Guard, for example, helped with last year’s July 4 event and aided the city in handling a march on Washington led by the Rev. Al Sharpton last August. The Guard even deployed to prevent large crowds from gathering and spreading the coronavirus during the 2020 cherry blossom festivities.
A Washington official familiar with the security plans on Jan. 6 couldn’t recall any historical example of the Defense Department rejecting the city’s request to deploy the D.C. Guard.
During a preparatory call ahead of the pro-Trump rally, McCarthy suggested that the city get help from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons, according to the District official. District officials refused, citing concerns they had with federal agents last summer.
City officials thought the D.C. Guard was a better fit, calling the force “a tactical ready unit” that was familiar with the area and had worked with local law enforcement regularly during large-scale events, according to the District official.
According to the former senior Pentagon official, top defense officials discussed the request on calls over the holiday weekend before the Jan. 6 event. Miller had “strong inclinations to support the mayor,” the former senior official said, and eventually Pentagon leaders came to a consensus to grant the request.
The Army approved the request because District officials refused to ask for extra help from federal law enforcement as Army officials had wanted, according to the former Pentagon official.
“It was obvious we didn’t want to find ourselves in a situation where [the D.C. police] needed help and we denied it,” the former Pentagon official said.
After the Pentagon approved the Guard mission, Washington’s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bower sent a letter on Jan. 5 confirming that the city had not requested additional personnel from federal law enforcement. She said the D.C. police were “well trained and prepared” for the event.
The Army leadership also felt strongly that the military shouldn’t be used unless a federal agency was designated to lead the activities.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told Miller and acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen that the Justice Department would serve as the “lead” agency, according to people familiar with the arrangement.
As the “federal lead,” the Justice Department essentially was in charge of coordination for the various agencies, a federal law enforcement official familiar with the preparations said.
The designation pertained only to the Justice Department, the FBI, the Defense Department and the Interior Department, the official said, and did not cover the Capitol, where Capitol Police oversee security.
The designation was so vague that officials in the District government and at the D.C. Guard didn’t even know that the Justice Department was functioning as the “lead agency.” The Justice Department declined to comment.
The arrangement fell far short of what happens when the Department of Homeland Security designates a National Special Security Event. On those occasions, such as during the presidential inauguration or the State of the Union address, there is a clear command structure, in which the Secret Service sits atop all the other federal and local agencies. The Jan. 6 event wasn’t declared an NSSE.
The former Pentagon official said the Army leadership wanted to ensure there was a command-and-control architecture for appropriate decision-making and information sharing before and during the event. The official said the Justice Department fell short of ensuring that.
The D.C. Guard deployment also went ahead, even though federal resources hadn’t been exhausted, as McCarthy had stipulated as a condition in his final memo recommending approval.
Ultimately, the Army leadership approved the Guard mission because it didn’t want to put the District government in a tough place, the former Pentagon official said.
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The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan contributed to this report.