Capitol Chief Says Biden Speech to Congress Could Be Target
(Bloomberg) -- Threats against the U.S. Capitol linked to an anticipated speech by President Joe Biden mean the tighter security measures put in place after a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed Congress will remain for the near future, the head of the Capitol Police force said.
The warning of new threats from domestic extremists added urgency to a Thursday House hearing with security officials who described intelligence failures before and command structure breakdowns during the Jan. 6 attack on Congress.
“We know that members of the militia groups that were present on Jan. 6 have stated their desires that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible with a direct nexus” to Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman said.
“Based on that information, we think that it’s prudent that Capitol Police maintain its enhanced and robust security posture, until we address those vulnerabilities going forward,” Pittman said.
An address to Congress by Biden, a ritual for modern presidents, hasn’t been announced or scheduled.
The grounds around the Capitol are ringed by tall, razor wire-topped fences and patrolled by National Guard troops. Many lawmakers have been call for the extra security to be pulled back as soon as possible and for the building to be reopened to the public. Members of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee conducting the hearing didn’t press Pittman for details about additional threats.
Speaking virtually before the panel, Pittman there were several “operational” shortcomings on Jan. 6 that the department is seeking to address. Those include not properly executing a lock-down at the Capitol, leaving officers unsure of rules for use lethal force, and the breakdown of communication lines to officers that were not “as robust” as they should have been.
“But I want to make clear that these measures alone would not have stopped the threat we faced,“ Pittman said. “To stop a mob of tens of thousands requires more than a police force. It required physical infrastructure or a regiment of soldiers.”
Thursday’s hearing was one of several to investigate what went wrong on Jan. 6 when rioters disrupted a joint session of Congress convened to certify the results of November’s presidential election. Capitol officials have blamed incomplete intelligence and unwieldy layers of bureaucracy for inadequate preparation and a slow response as the attack was underway.
About 140 law enforcement officers were injured in the attack, one was killed and two later died by suicide. Then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund resigned, and the union representing officers overwhelmingly voted against Pittman, his replacement, in a “no confidence” vote.
Pittman said she had only been in charge for little more than a month when that vote was taken and not all officers participated.
One of the main problems Pittman described was the communication gaps left when commanding officers rushed to help officers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Trump supporters storming the building.
“Those operational commanders at the time were so overwhelmed, they started to participate and assist the officers with boots on the ground, versus providing that guidance and direction,” Pittman said.
Democratic Representative Tim Ryan, chair of the subcommittee, said he is “at a loss” to understand how the mob walked 16 blocks from the White House to the Capitol, growing in size and aggressive demeanor, yet “failed to impact” the Capitol Police security posture.
“I have spoken to many officers who felt that on the day of the attack they were left alone and unsure how to respond,” Ryan said at Thursday’s hearing. “How did command and control break down so quickly?”
Another failure came in the preparation before the attack when a Jan. 5 report from a FBI field office in Norfolk, Virginia about extremists headed to Washington to commit “war” and violence was not advanced up the Capitol security and police chains of command. However, while Pittman recognized that as “a lesson learned,” she said it wouldn’t have changed security planning.
The FBI report was “very similar to what Capitol Police already had in terms of militia groups, the white supremacists groups, as well as the extremist groups, that were going to participate in acts of violence and potentially be armed.”
Ryan said it’s “mind-boggling“ that the FBI report didn’t reach the appropriate commander, and he questioned why police didn’t prepare for “the worst-case scenario.“ He and other panel members urged Pittman to improve systems for handling intelligence, planning defense and responding to emergencies.
“Minute by minute things could go sideways here, and we need to push you and the department to function at a very high level,” Ryan said.
Washington Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, the panel’s ranking Republican expressed some frustration with Pittman’s explanation of communications breakdowns, interrupting her at one point to ask, “How you are going to make sure there is a command center that speaks into the earpieces of the officers?”
“My hat is off to these brave men and women because they saved our lives,” Herrera Beutler said. “But I’m not hearing we’re fixing“ those breakdowns.
Part of Congress’s response to the attack is to determine what permanent changes should be made to Capitol security to balance lawmaker safety with accessibility for their constituents and visitors. The Capitol is still closed to the public and surrounded by razor wire-topped fencing, with the grounds patrolled by National Guard troops.
Herrera Beutler said it’s “important that we try to keep this institution as accessible as possible,” adding that she doesn’t like the appearance and cost of the tall fence surrounding the Capitol. She said the military-type defense is costing $2 million a week.
Texas Representative Kay Granger, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said “miles of fencing still surrounds the Capitol” making the nation’s seat of government “tarnished by razor wire and limited access.”
Acting House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett, who also testified Thursday, said he doesn’t think the fence will be permanent, and Pittman said it will stay in place until more “appropriate infrastructure” is installed.
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