Capitol Police, DC National Guard leaders need emergency authority to act, review finds

Task force led by Honoré recommends big changes to security apparatus

U.S. Capitol Police and National Guard troops conduct a security briefing on Independence Avenue on March 4, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. Capitol Police and National Guard troops conduct a security briefing on Independence Avenue on March 4, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 8, 2021 at 2:28pm, Updated at 7:21pm

As part of the review of Capitol security after the Jan. 6 attack, retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré and his task force are recommending a boost to the Capitol Police chief’s authority in times of crisis, the deployment of a mobile fencing option and an upgrade in member security, along with changes to how law enforcement agencies in the region interact.

In January, Speaker Nancy Pelosi selected Honoré, well known for coordinating relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to examine improving security at the Capitol complex.

Congressional hearings in the past two months have exposed the structure of the Capitol Police Board as inefficient and ripe for an overhaul, a sentiment shared by a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers and those who have served on the board.

Former Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund, a nonvoting member of the board, has recounted his struggle to obtain approval from the board for National Guard assistance as the violent mob encroached on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Further complicating matters, Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, the commander of the D.C. National Guard, was not given permission to send troops to the Capitol until around three hours after a mob breached the complex in support of President Donald Trump, who advocated overturning his election loss. The president is the commander in chief of the D.C. National Guard, and the chain of command runs down to the Defense secretary and the Army secretary.

Honoré’s assessment says the law should be changed to provide the Capitol Police chief the authority to ask for help from other law enforcement agencies and the National Guard without preapproval from the Capitol Police Board in “extraordinary emergency circumstances, when necessary to prevent the loss of life or wanton destruction of property and to restore governmental functions and public order.”

Furthermore, during the planning process for events, the Capitol Police chief should be able to appeal a decision by the board to House and Senate congressional leaders, the assessment says. It also calls for an independent review of the board’s authority over the department.

Loading the player...

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he met with Honoré last week but was troubled that their discussion took place after the report was completed. The California Republican also criticized the general’s previous statements criticizing the Capitol Police, even as he said the Capitol Police Board’s structure needs to be changed.

“While there may be some worthy recommendations forthcoming, General Honore’s notorious partisan bias calls into question the rationality of appointing him to lead this important security review,” McCarthy said in a statement. “It also raises the unacceptable possibility that the Speaker desired a certain result: turning the Capitol into a fortress.”

That was not a unanimous take on the recommendations among Republicans.

“I think a lot of the recommendations are spot-on,” said Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the ranking member on the House Administration Committee, which has oversight of the Capitol Police and Capitol operations. “Actually, some of the recommendations we made early on to General Honoré and his team were integrated into the program. And I think they put together a very nonpartisan, unbiased, very effective outline of what their vision is to make sure that they secure the Capitol.”

Davis said the recommendations were consistent but need buy-in from both members and leaders in both the House and Senate. Davis noted the difference in how each chamber responded to potential threats on March 4. The House left because of the security threat, but the Senate was in session taking up the coronavirus relief package.

The review says a Department of Defense directive needs to be amended to make clear that the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard has “emergency authority” in urgent circumstances where prior authorization by the president is not possible and local authorities can’t contain the situation.

Additionally, the report states that a federal agency, such as the Department of Homeland Security, should lead a collaborative effort to include the Capitol Police Board and representatives from leadership in D.C., Maryland and Virginia so those stakeholders can engage in collective planning.

Many lawmakers have expressed concern about the barbed wire fence that still encompasses the Capitol complex, worrying that the seat of government will be cut off to members of the public.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson, nominated last week to be the new Senate sergeant-at-arms, and Terrance Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief and Senate sergeant-at-arms, are among those who helped develop the recommendations.

When it comes to the fence around the Capitol, the report says it should be replaced with a retractable system that could satisfy the security needs while also allowing access to the public.

“As the fencing comes down, we recommend it be replaced with a mobile fencing option that is easily erected and deconstructed and an integrated, retractable fencing system in the long term to secure both the Capitol Building and Congressional office buildings,” the assessment notes. “Such a solution could enable an open campus while giving security forces better options to protect the complex and its Members should a threat develop.”

Member security during travel and in lawmakers’ districts also needs to be bolstered in a significant way, the report says. Changes include developing a threat-based protection model for the Capitol Police’s Dignitary Protection Division that can be consistently applied to non-leadership members of Congress by allocating protection resources based on an evaluation of risk to members and their families.

The task force also recommends that Congress appropriate funds to cover residential security systems for all lawmakers.

USCP overhauls

The security assessment found that the Capitol Police needs to improve its intelligence operation and increase staffing.

In February, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman told lawmakers that although a communication breakdown kept her and other department leaders in the dark about an FBI warning of “war” at the Capitol, they would not have changed the security posture leading up to the Jan. 6 attack even if they had seen the bureau’s message.

The task force found the Capitol Police is “not postured to track, assess, plan against, or respond to this plethora of threats due to significant capacity shortfalls, inadequate training, immature processes, and an operating culture that is not intelligence-driven.”

Only “a handful” of people in the department have “significant intelligence training,” and the Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division, which Pittman headed until Sund resigned after the Jan. 6 attack, lacks experience, knowledge and processes to provide intelligence support against domestic threats, according to the report, which recommends an urgent, modest increase of trained analysts.

Honoré found that the “USCP were understaffed, insufficiently equipped, and inadequately trained to secure the Capitol and Members when violently attacked by a large mob.” As a result, the department should hire 233 officers just to fill vacancies as a start.

Because of insufficient staffing and increasing demands, the Capitol Police used almost 720,000 overtime hours in fiscal 2020. The assessment says there should be significant personnel increases.

Some Democrats with national security credentials signaled approval of the recommendations, although they were realistic about the work and time ahead to implement them. Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA officer, said the recommendations to hire more officers and streamline command and control appear to be far off in the distance. 

“It’s the timeline that trips me up because all of those recommendations are, frankly, at best, due to the appropriations cycle, a year out, right,” she said. “So what do we do right now?” she said, referring to the supplemental presence of the military.

“The National Guard is not a long-term solution for securing the U.S. Capitol, but then also without any action, there’s no plan to wean the Capitol Police off of the National Guard,” Slotkin said.

Virginia Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, another former CIA officer, praised the report but also mentioned the timeline for implementation.

“It was a really detailed, organized, comprehensive security review. I think they made tremendous recommendations,” she said. “It’s an issue of now what will be implemented and what are we going to resource.”

Andrew Clevenger and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.