When Bill Pickle reached his last day on the job as the Senate sergeant-at-arms more than a decade ago, he issued a stark warning to congressional leaders.
Pickle said that the Capitol had security weaknesses that had long gone ignored by lawmakers and that this could allow an attack one day.
It’s a theme Pickle thinks ex-top security officials will share during their first public testimony in Congress since the Capitol insurrection.
“I call it a systemic problem,” said Pickle, who served in the role from 2003 to 2007. “Congress has been approached over the years to do a better job.”
The Senate Homeland Security and Rules committees expect to hear from the Capitol’s three former top security officials — as well as the current head of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, Robert Contee — in the joint hearing Tuesday.
Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger all resigned their posts after the Capitol siege, following requests from top leaders of both parties.
Sund, who has said “optics” prevented him from having military support before the Capitol was breached, told NPR he’s looking forward to telling lawmakers his side of the story.
“I’m just there to tell them everything I know about what I knew at the time and all the planning I put in place at the time,” Sund said Monday.
“Everything lined up against them”
Sund told NPR last month he suspected that pipe bombs discovered at the headquarters offices of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee in southeast Washington were part of an effort to distract police as the violent mob approached the Capitol complex the day of the siege.
Ahead of Jan. 6, Sund had said he planned for more than 1,000 officers on duty, or “all hands on deck.” Sund said he spoke to Irving on Jan. 4 about National Guard aid but was turned down because of “optics.” He said he had hoped to have service members along a larger perimeter set up with police barricades.
Pickle, who remains in contact with both former sergeants-at-arms Irving and Stenger, said Irving was criticized for rejecting the request because of optics, but said Irving was drawing from a long-running culture at the Capitol that frowned upon calls for a military response.
“Politicians, and particularly the leadership, is very, very reluctant to have any military presence on Capitol Hill,” Pickle said. “That is a political issue that for whatever reason, the optics are not something that the leaders of Congress want.”
Sund has said Capitol Police did not receive intelligence from the FBI or other agencies about an orchestrated attack. It was later revealed that the FBI was aware of some extremist activity and said it shared a warning with its partners, including the Capitol Police.
Sund also said he was surprised by the bureaucracy that dragged out a delayed response from the National Guard. Pickle says Irving and Stenger were likely surprised as well, and confusion surrounds the issue.
Pickle says Sund, Irving and Stenger put together the best plan they could under the circumstances.
“They had a good security plan. It was well staffed. They had considered the National Guard. They were sure that the National Guard would have … people on standby for them if needed,” Pickle said. But “everything lined up against them that morning.”
“We’re going to have to make changes”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said the leaders of her panel and the Homeland Security Committee have joined forces on a bipartisan basis to pursue one of several insurrection probes.
Tuesday’s testimony will mark the beginning of their series of joint hearings, which could continue for the next couple of months, Klobuchar says. For example, the panels plan to next call leaders of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department to testify about the siege in the coming weeks.
“The answers we get to our questions at this hearing on Tuesday, as well as future hearings, will really dictate the solutions,” said Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. “And we can’t wait to get those answers, because decisions have to be made about the Capitol security, the backup with other agencies, how we work with the National Guard going forward, how we share information, the [U.S. Capitol] Police board.”
Klobuchar says that information will dictate how to improve the Capitol’s security picture going forward, adding that many “immediate decisions” need to be made with help from former and current leaders.
“We need to get this information immediately in the next month or two,” she said. “We’re going to have to make changes to security now.”
Other lawmakers heading up the hearing have said it’s clear that many factors contributed to the security failures.
“There is no question that on January 6, a breakdown of leadership, preparation and response allowed domestic terrorists — including white supremacist and anti-government groups — to breach the Capitol in an attempt to overturn a free and fair election,” said Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Peters says the hearings will also allow the American people to get the answers they deserve to understand what happened and will help lawmakers prevent hate groups and other extremists from attacking the country again.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the panel’s top Republican, said he wants to hear directly from the officials who were responsible for Capitol security to better understand how the lives of then-Vice President Mike Pence, congressional members, first responders and staff were endangered.
“This will inform what reforms need to be made,” Portman said, “to ensure nothing like January 6 ever happens again.”
When Pickle issued his stark warning on his last day of work, he was thinking about the Sept. 11 attacks and other security emergencies that threatened wider destruction at the Capitol.
“I truly believe at some point in the future — and I don’t know in what shape or form — we will be victimized again,” Pickle told The Hill in 2007, referencing past attempts to target the Capitol on a smaller or less successful scale.
At the time, Pickle envisioned a possible airplane attack or chemical or biological attack. After Jan. 6, Pickle says the same security weaknesses he saw then are what helped the violent mob.
Among them, Pickle says, he’s part of a long line of security officials who have pleaded with lawmakers for decades to allow a fencing perimeter. Last month, acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman reiterated that call.
“One of the things that they have not done — and it’s been front and center for at least 40 years — is this idea of building a fence around the Capitol,” Pickle said.
The longtime law enforcement official, who was a former assistant director for the Secret Service, said the White House, the Pentagon and the Capitol remain top security threats. However, of those three, the Capitol remains the most unsecured.
“Political people on both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democrats, say, ‘You know, this is the people’s house. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re going to keep it open,’ ” Pickle said. “That sounds good in a political speech. But here’s the reality: Because they’re so naive and so careless in their words, what they do is they enable bad people intent on creating mischief to do bad things.”
In other words, law enforcement didn’t stand a chance on Jan. 6 with only bicycle racks standing between them and the Capitol, he says. A fence could have deterred the approaching mobs and bought law enforcement time to hold crowds back and execute arrests.
Another issue, Pickle argues, is reporting to a security apparatus that reports to political leaders.
“So the police have a tough job. They have 535 bosses, and every one of those bosses thinks they know better than the law enforcement officials up there,” he said.
Sund may also agree.
“I know a number of groups are investigating this incident. I think they’ll find that it’s a very convoluted, bureaucratic method of maintaining security in the nation’s Capitol,” Sund said last month.
But Klobuchar disagrees. She says a board that includes sergeants-at-arms overseeing the Capitol Police could be more of the problem.
“I don’t think we’re going to find that it’s just one thing,” Klobuchar said.
She added, “I just don’t think that chain of command seemed to work well. And maybe we need some changes to it. But I just, I don’t see it as the 535 bosses. If they’re listening to a freshman congressman about their decisions of how to handle a riot as opposed to their own views on security, that’s an issue.”