In a new firsthand account of the frantic efforts of Capitol Police officers to protect Congress and themselves from an armed mob on Jan. 6, 2021, the department’s former chief blames cascading government failures for allowing the brutal melee.
The federal government’s multibillion-dollar security network, built after 9/11 to gather intelligence that could warn of a looming attack, provided no such shield on Jan. 6, former Capitol Police chief Steven A. Sund writes in a new book. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and even his own agency’s intelligence unit had been alerted weeks earlier to reams of chilling chatter about right-wing extremists arming for an attack on the Capitol that day, Sund says, but didn’t take the basic steps to assess those plots or sound an alarm. Senior military leaders,citing political or tactical worries,delayed sending help.
And, Sund warns in “Courage Under Fire,” it could easily happen again. Many of the factors that left the Capitol vulnerable remain unfixed, he said.
The Washington Post obtained an advance copy of the book, which will be published Jan. 3.
In his account, Sund describes his shock at the battle that unfolded as an estimated 10,000 protesters inflamed by President Donald Trump’s rally earlier in the day broke through police lines and punched, stabbed and pepper-sprayed officers, outnumbering them “58 to 1.”
Sund said his shock shifted to agony as he unsuccessfully begged military generals for National Guard reinforcements. Though they delayed sending help until it was too late for Sund’s overrun corps, he says that he later discovered that the Pentagon had rushed to send security teams to protect military officials’ homes in Washington, none of which were under attack.
Sund reserves his greatest outrage for those Pentagon leaders, recounting a conference call he had with two generals about 2:35 p.m., 20 minutes after rioters had broken into the Capitol and as Vice President Mike Pence and other lawmakers scurried to hiding places.
Sund writes that Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt told him he didn’t like the optics of sending uniformed Guard troopsto the Capitol, but could allow them to replace police officers at roadside checkpoints. Listening incredulously and trying to explain that he needed help to save officers’ lives, Sund said, he felt both “nauseated” and “mad as hell.”
“It’s a response I will never forget for the rest of my life,” Sund writes. While on the call, Sund recalls hearing the frantic voice of an officer being broadcast into the command center: “Shots fired in the Capitol, shots fired in the Capitol.”
Sund’s anger boiled over and he shouted the report of gunfire into the conference call: “Is that urgent enough for you now?” Then Sund hung up to deal with this new crisis.
A Pentagon spokesman, asked to respond to some of Sund’s claims, did not answer a question about his assertions that the military had beefed up security for top military officials’ homes on Jan. 6. The spokesman referred to a timeline released by the Defense Department spelling out leaders’ “planning and execution” related to the attack on the Capitol.
Piatt had initially denied saying anything about optics but later acknowledged that he had conferred with others on the call, and that it was possible he made comments to that effect. He testified he didn’t think he was rejecting using the Guard and instead was just saying that the military needed to create a plan for its use.
On Jan. 6, Sund had been chief of the Capitol Police for about 18 months after a 25-year career with the D.C. police in which he had received plaudits for his security planning for Washington’s many inaugurations and protests. He writes that he holds himself and many others responsible for what happened during the attack on the Capitol, but that the ultimate purpose of thebook is to answer a key question about the insurrection:
“Why were we so unprepared?”
The answers form the broader message Sund delivers, calling out systemic failures that left his agency and the country flatfooted despite clear signs intelligence agencies had received of a gathering storm.
“The security and information-sharing policies and mandates put in place after September 11 failed miserably on January 6,” Sund writes. “We failed miserably to see the apparent warning signs and the danger, like a ‘gray rhino,’ charging right at us.”
Sund said he was never warned about those red flags the FBI, DHS and his own intelligence unit had received: plots for protesters to come armed, attack Capitol tunnels and be willing to shoot police.
Sund resigned a day after the riot when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) publicly called for him to step down over the department’s inability to secure the Capitol. “No one holds themselves more accountable than I do” for the officers’ gruesome experience that day, he writes, “and I wish I could have done more.” Still, Sund said he regrets resigning before the full picture emerged about intelligence he never received — which would have spurred a much different security plan.
He warns that many flaws in his agency’s power structure — in which congressional leaders’ political concerns can overrule the chief’s security judgments — remain.
Three days before Jan. 6, in anticipation of large crowds, Sund had asked that the National Guard be placed on standby. But his request was batted down by the two sergeants-at-arms hired by Senate and House leaders; Sundsays he later learned the two believed that Pelosi would never allow it.
“Almost two years after the events of Jan. 6, the department is not in a better place or on a readier footing,” he writes. “Few people in the department feel there is a viable plan to move the agency into a better position. Hundreds of officers have left the department since Jan. 6 and many feel it is only going to get worse. ”
Sund writes that senior leaders in his department failed, too: The “biggest intelligence failure was within my department,” he wrote.
Starting on Dec. 21 and continuing to Jan. 5, the Capitol Police intelligence division had received emails and tips that carried frightening warnings about plots for Jan. 6. Intelligence collected on Dec. 21 revealed that prospective rallygoers were discussing how to coordinate an attack using the Capitol’s underground tunnel system, and attaching a map of the complex. They urged burning down the homes of Pelosi and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
The assistant chief overseeingthe intelligence division at the time, Yogananda Pittman, told Congress this intelligence should have been circulated to top leaders in the agency. Sund said he and other commanders never received it. An internal review found no evidence that the warnings were ever shared outside Pittman’s division. Sund said the Capitol Police head of protection for congressional leaders was also not alerted to the threats against Pelosi and McConnell.
The department’s intelligence division did widely share an updated internal threat report on Jan. 3 — three days before the attack — that carried a worrisome warning about the potential for violence at the Capitol. The memo cited the desperation of Trump supporters who saw Jan. 6 “as the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election” and would target “Congress itself.”
Sund said he didn’t remember being struck by the report’s language, as it was loaded with qualifiers about the possibility of violence and never referenced specific plots to target Capitol tunnels, congressional leaders and police.
After Sund resigned, Pittman briefly served as acting chief. Pittman has announced that she plans to retire in February. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said in a statement Monday that his department has made vast changes to guard against a future attack, including hiring new experts in intelligence operations and event security, and providing specialized riot training and equipment for officers. Congress passed legislation authorizing the chief to unilaterally declare an emergency and call on the National Guard.
“Make no mistake, there is still work to be done. The current threat climate, particularly against elected officials, will require continued and heightened vigilance,” Manger said. “With the polarized state of our nation, an attack like the one our Department endured on January 6, 2021, could be attempted again. Should the unthinkable happen, we will be ready.”
Sund also warns in his book that the department’s command structure — with political leaders dictating decisions for security officials — “is a recipe for disaster,” and had grave consequences on Jan. 6.
He recommends that congressional leaders empower future Capitol Police chiefs to execute theirown security plans alone, rather than having to report to a three-member Capitol Police Board made up of the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol, a cumbersome structure that he says makes it impossible for the chief to act independently.
“The security apparatus that exists on Capitol Hill creates a no-win situation for whoever is chief. You have the Capitol Police Board, four oversight committees, and 535 bosses plus their staffs telling you what to do,” Sund writes.
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, Sund struggled to make sense of the military’s inaction that day, something he considered a dereliction of duty. Sund urges in his book that the Pentagon follow its established policies that call on the military to provide immediate support for state and local governments and police departments facing a life-or-death situation.
The rapid dispatch of security teams to guard the homes of military leaders in the D.C. area confirmed for Sund that on the afternoon of Jan. 6, “the Pentagon fully understands the urgency and danger of the situation even as it does nothing to support us on the Hill.”
Sund writes he also later learned that, during the riot that afternoon, a large phalanx of National Guard troops returned to their command center to clock out at the end of their shift. One crew went off duty as scheduled, to be replaced by a new one, as if it were a normal day, all while Capitol Police and assisting D.C. police battled for their lives just 22 blocks away.
At 4:30 p.m. that day, two hours after Sund’s urgent request for help, Pentagon leaders reported they had completed their planning for reinforcements and could now send the National Guard.
“For the past several hours, we have been battling a mob at the Capitol and the fight has been televised around the world,” Sund writes. “We have multiple fatalities including a shooting inside the Capitol. We have had to secure members of Congress, the vice president and his family and the next three levels of succession to the president of the United States. And the military has made no effort whatsoever to help end this.”
The first National Guard troops arrived at 5:40 p.m., when the violent attack wasover and Capitol Police along with D.C. police and FBI SWAT teams had cleared the Capitol and the campus of rioters. The D.C. National Guard’s leader at the time, Gen. William Walker, later confidedto Sund his shame, Sund writes. The local Guard’s headquarters is two miles from the Capitol, yet Pentagon officials did not authorize Walker to deploy for more than three hours as they crafted a plan for actions the Guard would take. New Jersey State Police beat the troops to the scene.
“Steve, I felt so bad. I wanted to help you immediately … but they wouldn’t let me come,” Sund recounts Walker saying. “Imagine how I felt. New Jersey got here before we did?”