Washington: The bloody chaos inside the US Capitol came Wednesday after the police force that protects the legislative complex was overrun by a mob of Trump supporters. Law enforcement officials termed it a ‘catastrophic failure to prepare’. The siege of the Capitol, home to both the US Senate and the House of Representatives, represents one of the gravest security lapses in recent US history, current and former law enforcement officials said. The incident turned one of the most recognisable symbols of American power into a locus of political violence.
While events such as a presidential inauguration involve detailed security plans by numerous security agencies, far less planning went into protecting the joint session of Congress that convened Wednesday to ratify the results of the 2020 presidential election, the officials said. That lapse came despite glaring warning signs of potential violence by hardline supporters of President Donald Trump, who are inflamed by his ‘baseless claims’ of a stolen election. They hope to block the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
And security initially was handled almost entirely alone by the US Capitol Police, a 2,000-member force under the control of Congress and dedicated to protecting the 126-acre Capitol Grounds. For reasons that remained unclear as of early Thursday, other arms of the US federal government’s vast security apparatus did not arrive in force for hours as rioters besieged the seat of Congress. The Capitol is a short walk from where Trump in a speech railed against the election just before the riot began, calling the vote an ‘egregious assault on our democracy’ and urging his supporters to ‘walk down to the Capitol’ in a ‘Save America March’.
The counting of the electoral votes of the presidential election by Congress, normally a formality, was preceded by weeks of threats in social media that planned pro-Trump protests could descend into violence. Despite those rumblings of danger, the Capitol Police force did not request advance help to secure the building from other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, according to one senior official. And National Guard reinforcements, summoned by the city’s mayor, were not mobilised until more than an hour after protesters had first breached the barricades.
In stark contrast, those agencies were aggressively deployed by the Trump administration during last summer’s police brutality protests here and elsewhere in the United States.
The Capitol Police did not respond to requests for comment. The force’s officers are trained to keep protesters off the Capitol’s marble outdoor steps, to protect the complex like a citadel. But there are so many windows and doors in the 19th-century complex that it is difficult to defend them all, said Terrance Gainer, who served as Capitol Police chief and later as the US Senate’s Sergeant at Arms, its chief law enforcement officer. “Once they (police) lost the steps, they lost the doors and windows,” Gainer said.
As hordes of rioters streamed into the heart of American government, they could be seen on camera roaming freely through the historic halls – swinging from a balcony, rifling through the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and even sitting in the chair reserved for the Senate’s presiding officer.
“I truly had to suspend my disbelief because I didn’t think you could breach the Capitol,” said Gainer. “I have great confidence in the men and women who protect Congress, but there will need to be a full accounting. We’re going to have to have a deep dive into what went wrong,” he added.
Lawmakers inside the building blamed a lack of preparation for the historic security breach. “I think police did a good job under the circumstances, but there clearly wasn’t enough planning,” said Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat.
It looked like the Keystone cops
Some Democratic members of Congress, worried about the prospects of violence, tried for more than a week to press agencies for information about what they knew about threats or countermeasures, according to one congressional source. But there was no sign anyone was gathering serious intelligence about possible disturbances or planning to counter them, this source said.
Typically, law enforcement agencies in the American capital spend weeks or months planning for large protests, one former Justice Department official said. Officials from dozens of agencies, including local police, Capitol Police, the Secret Service and the federal Parks Police, ordinarily gather at the Washington field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the premier national law-enforcement agency, to coordinate their response. But it’s not clear how much of that planning happened for Wednesday’s event.
A senior federal law enforcement official familiar with the planning to protect other federal sites Wednesday, including the grounds where Trump spoke, said that he was shocked that the Capitol Police were not better prepared.
“It looked like the Keystone Cops out there,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It should have never happened. We all knew in advance that these people were coming, and the first order of policing is presence. The Capitol police force is essentially a guard force, so it’s hard to understand why they weren’t better prepared,” he added.
The challenges of securing the Capitol have been discussed in hearings and in reports for years. In 2013, Gainer said he proposed a fence, to be called the Capitol Gateway, to stop such a mass assault. It was never built.
“The idea was roundly defeated, because members of Congress wanted to protect the public’s access, and did not want the complex to look like a fortress,” Gainer pointed out.
Trump launched march to Capitol
Trump on Twitter promised a ‘wild’ event aimed at reversing his loss in last November’s election – and appeared to encourage his supporters to act. “Our country has had enough, and we will not take it anymore,” Trump said at Wednesday’s rally. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” he added.
After a perimeter was quickly breached, Capitol police officers seemed to be alone in battling the extremists on the building’s steps, according to witness accounts and video from the scene. They were unable to secure all the doors and windows in the sprawling complex. Protesters surged inside the building, which contains the chambers of both houses of Congress. Video footage showed Capitol Police overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers of intruders as the mob grew into the thousands.
Whatever the case, they added, the delay was too long. A US defense official said Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser requested National Guard troops at around 2.00pm. That was about 45 minutes after the rioters had breached the first barricade. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller activated the full DC National Guard at about 2:30, the official informed.
By then, the Capitol was under lockdown. In the rotunda, the iconic circular room under the Capitol dome, tear gas masks were being distributed. Police evacuated Vice- President Mike Pence – who was there to preside over the formal counting of the Electoral College votes for the election he and Trump lost – and members of the House of Representatives and Senate. The police used pepper spray and tear gas on the protesters. They tried to barricade doors with furniture but quickly lost the battle.
One woman was shot and killed by Capitol police inside the building, and pipe bombs were recovered at the offices of the Democratic and Republican national committees, Washington Police Chief Robert Contee said. He didn’t explain what prompted officers to shoot the woman.
Calls to rise up for Trump
While the mob invasion of the Capitol was unprecedented, there were ample warning signs in the days leading up to the protests. Many Trump supporters who traveled to the capital shared plans and organised on social media websites such as Parler, a Twitter-like service that has attracted right-wing extremist groups.
Some posters discussed ways to illegally sneak guns into Washington. In a post on the social media app Parler, the leader of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, promised the group’s attendance at Wednesday’s rally. Tarrio was arrested Monday for destruction of property during a protest last month and possession of a firearm magazine. He pleaded not guilty but was ordered to leave the city Tuesday.
Neil Trugman, a former Capitol Police intelligence officer, called Wednesday’s invasion of the complex unfathomable. He said the force generally prepares for much smaller groups under rules designed to allow for maximum expression of free speech rights.
“We’re all witnessing something we never imagined,” said Trugman, who recently retired as chief of police for Amtrak. “I’m not sure any chief of police could have handled this any differently,” he added.
Trugman blamed Trump for inciting the riot: “This is no longer just a protest. They crossed the line. This is terrorism,” he asserted.