Why did Capitol security fail on Jan. 6?

A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by the Monitor’s politics editors.

Top security officials engaged in finger-pointing at the first congressional hearing on the U.S. Capitol attack. But at least senators agreed on who caused it, with one notable exception. 

Erin Scott/The New York Times/AP

Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs & Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on Feb. 23, 2021, to examine the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

Dear reader:


 Seven weeks after the U.S. Capitol insurrection that killed five people and shocked the world, many Americans are still wondering how this could have happened. Why were security forces so woefully unprepared?


 The Senate held a hearing yesterday, and for the most part, the biggest conflict wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans, but among security officials. Intelligence warnings that extremist groups were preparing to invade the Capitol either weren’t taken seriously or didn’t reach top commanders.


 Now-former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said he learned only this week about an FBI warning of a planned “war” on the Capitol Jan. 6. Former law enforcement officials also couldn’t even agree on what happened after the attack began. Mr. Sund recalled a phone call, soon after the Capitol was breached, to then-House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving requesting National Guard troops. Mr. Irving said the call took place later.


 The acting chief of police in Washington, D.C., Robert Contee – whose officers provided backup – recounted a phone call among Capitol security, D.C. leaders, and Pentagon officials, and said he was “stunned” by the lack of advance planning to deploy National Guard troops.


 Congressional leaders are discussing creating an independent commission to investigate the attack, much like the 9/11 Commission. The Government Accountability Office is also investigating the security breach. Court cases against rioters allege that groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers engaged in a criminal conspiracy to invade the Capitol and halt the counting of electoral votes in an effort to keep then-President Donald Trump in office. On Jan. 13, the House impeached Mr. Trump on one charge of inciting an insurrection. He was acquitted Feb. 13.


 But in these early weeks after the attack, congressional hearings are providing some of the first clues as to what did (and didn’t) happen Jan. 6.


 On a fundamental level, the law enforcement who testified Tuesday did not dispute the nature of the attack, as laid out by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota: that it was planned and carried out by extremist and white supremacist groups.


 But another senator, Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, put forth a different narrative. He read into the record an account from a far-right website that blamed the violence on “provocateurs” and “fake Trump protesters.”


 “It is a lie,” writes Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson in her newsletter, “and it is worth questioning why Johnson feels that lie is important to read into the Congressional Record.”


 Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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Mark Sappenfield


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