Calls grow for 9/11-style panel to probe Capitol attack
Momentum is growing on Capitol Hill for an independent 9/11-style commission to investigate why law enforcement agencies were not better prepared on Jan. 6 when a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, breached the building and threatened to assassinate the nation’s top leaders.
Rank-and-file House Democrats are calling for a bipartisan commission that would more broadly focus on the growing threat of domestic terrorism and violent extremism after this month’s insurrection. And top Republicans on the House Administration, Homeland Security and Oversight committees — Reps. Rodney Davis (Ill.), John Katko (N.Y.), and James Comer (Ky.) — have rolled out legislation creating a Jan. 6 commission that would be comprised of five Democrats and five Republicans.
The effort got a big boost this week when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it was all but inevitable that Congress would create a commission.
“We will have an after-action review; there will be a commission,” declared Pelosi, who had served on a special joint House and Senate committee that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a precursor to the more famous, independent 9/11 commission.
But Pelosi, who cut her teeth serving on the House Intelligence Committee, made clear her immediate focus is on evaluating and shoring up the current security at the Capitol complex, which includes the Capitol itself and a handful of surrounding buildings that house lawmaker offices and committees. The Speaker said she has been in close contact with Ret. Gen. Russel Honoré, whom she tapped to lead a rapid review of Capitol security to thwart a future attack on the seat of democracy.
Honoré, who coordinated the military’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was expected to complete an initial security review by this weekend and issue a preliminary report in the coming days that would address how exactly to fortify the Capitol once emergency security measures put in place to protect Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration are removed.
It’s unclear when the thousands of National Guard troops protecting the sprawling complex will be recalled or the massive concrete and steel perimeter barriers will come down, but leaders have indicated they will not be permanent fixtures — especially amid a bipartisan outcry over the troops’ abysmal lodging conditions and a COVID-19 outbreak among them.
“In the near future, Congress needs to smartly transition to a more sustainable security presence,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Friday. “Keeping the Capitol safe cannot and will not require huge numbers of uniformed troops and vast systems of emergency fencing to remain in place forever.”
Looking longer term, lawmakers in both parties are floating various proposals for independent, bipartisan commissions like the one Congress and then-President George W. Bush created after the 9/11 attacks that toppled the World Trade Center towers, incapacitated the Pentagon and targeted the Capitol building.
The GOP bill, authored by Davis, calls for a 10-member panel known as the “National Commission on the Domestic Terrorist Attack Upon the United States Capitol.” Biden would pick its chairman, while the top four House and Senate leaders would appoint the other nine.
Not more than two members of the commission could be sitting lawmakers.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic delegate who represents the nation’s capital, also has introduced a similar bill creating the “National Commission on the Insurrectionist Attack Upon the United States Capitol.”
But other Democrats — led by Reps. Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), Jackie Speier (Calif.) and Anthony Brown (Md.) — are pushing for the commission to have much broader scope and mission: investigate why federal law enforcement agencies have not aggressively cracked down on domestic terrorism and homegrown violent extremists. Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor, also has demanded investigations into whether any House colleagues sympathetic to the “Stop the Steal” effort gave rioters “reconnaissance” tours of the Capitol on Jan. 5.
Domestic terrorism is also on the minds of moderate Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who on Friday rolled out legislation that would double to 20 years the maximum jail sentence for those convicted of insurrection against the U.S. And in a letter, they called on Biden to make countering violent extremism a priority of his new administration.
Right on cue, the White House said that same day it would undertake a sweeping interagency review to allow law enforcement officials to better communicate and share information about domestic threats and to prevent deadly attacks like the one on Jan. 6.
The Biden administration “will confront this threat with the necessary resources and resolve,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Officials have said white supremacists and extremists from the Oathkeepers, Three Percenters and Proud Boys were among the thousands of rioters who, incited by President Trump’s call to “fight like hell,” waged an attack on the Capitol that day in a failed bid to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory and to keep Trump in power.
Many were armed with firearms, zip ties and bear mace, and some could be seen chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” and rummaging through the building asking, “Where’s Nancy?” Five people died in the attack, including a Capitol Police officer; scores of other officers were injured.
But despite the chorus of voices calling for the quick launch of a national commission, congressional leaders are urging patience. The 9/11 commission, led by Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, wasn’t created until Nov. 27, 2002, more than a year after the terrorist attacks. Leaders also don’t want a new commission to be stacked with current lawmakers, which would make it a more partisan body.
The Jan. 6 commission “needs to be outside and it needs to be comprehensive,” said one Democratic leadership source familiar with the internal deliberations. “The 9/11 commission didn’t form the next day and didn’t conclude its work two weeks later.”
The most basic question the commission will try to answer is why weren’t Capitol Police, the sergeants at arms and other security agencies better prepared as pro-Trump extremists, in the days and weeks before the attack, took to social media and messaging boards vowing to sack the Capitol.
One week before the deadly siege, Democratic lawmakers had called Capitol Police warning of potential violence at the Capitol and that rioters might try to kill Pence, who was tasked with overseeing the election’s certification, The Hill reported.
Three days before the assault, Capitol Police circulated an internal intelligence report stating that the Capitol could be targeted by the thousands of Trump supporters descending on Washington, D.C., The Washington Post reported. The paper also learned that an FBI field office in Virginia had issued a bulletin warning that pro-Trump extremists were traveling to the nation’s capital to commit “war.”
It was a massive security failure and security officials are now engaging in a blame game. Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who was forced to resign after the attack, said he wanted to bring in reinforcements from the National Guard, but that the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms rebuffed those requests over concern about the optics of militarizing the Capitol. Paul Irving, the House sergeant-at-arms who also resigned, had told friends he balked at the idea of calling up the National Guard because he believed his political bosses, including Pelosi, would frown upon that show of military force, the Post reported.
But Pelosi’s office told The Hill it was never briefed on the Capitol Police intelligence report or the fact that the Capitol Police Board — the two sergeants-at-arms, the Capitol Police chief and Architect of the Capitol — was debating before the attack whether to make a formal request for assistance from the National Guard.
More than 25,000 National Guardsmen and women eventually arrived to secure the Capitol complex — seven days after the bloody insurrection.
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