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The Capital’s ‘Complex’ Power Structure Keeps Causing Chaos Under Pressure

U.S. Army processes updated after last June’s protests failed again during the Jan. 6 riot.

The “complex nature of the District” is among the reasons cited by U.S. Army investigators in their long-awaited report into the low-flying helicopter that “rotor-washed” protestors in Washington, D.C., last June.

“There were a number of lessons learned for us writ large for the Army on this operation, but some of them were very specific to operations inside the District of Columbia just because of the complex nature of the District,” an Army official said Wednesday in a press conference tied to the report’s release.

Yet some of the problems persisted over the next seven months, leading to confusion and delay during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

In early 2020, protests were gathering nationwide in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The situation in the capital was described as “the National Guard’s D-Day” by an Army official whose name was redacted in the investigation report. The urgency to protect the city was “palpable,” one of the officers who flew a UH-72 over the city remembered. Members of the very highest echelons of Army leadership passed through the D.C. Air National Guard Armory as efforts to support local law enforcement were underway. 

“The White House will not burn while I am Chief of Staff of the Army,” Gen. James McConville told Guard leaders in the Armory on June 1. 

As Guard troops poured into the city, Army leaders puzzled over the policies governing their ability to deploy aircraft to respond to civil disturbances. Special permission is required to fly in certain locations within the city, including near the National Mall. Special permission is also required to use ambulance aircraft, such as the five flown by the D.C. Air National Guard, for anything other than medevacs or humanitarian relief. 

Ultimately, Guard leaders ordered five aircrews to fly into the city during the evening of June 1. Their mission: “Flood the box.” The leaders who authorized the use of the aircraft were not present for the mission briefing, take-off, or mission execution, the investigation report said. And somewhere in the chaos, the mission was misconstrued. 

“There was never any discussion to use rotor wash to deter or interfere with anything,” a second Army official told reporters on Wednesday. “As the mission flows down from either the commanding general or the D.C. Guard down to the crews...there was a lack of clear guidance at the operator level as to what their task and their purpose was as they entered the air space over the Mall.” 

The Army asked reporters not to name the three officers who spoke at the briefing. 

“We don’t have an additional statement, just that the subject matter experts were not to be named,” said Maj. Jackie Wren, an Army spokeswoman.

The UH-72 pilot who went viral on social media for flying low over protestors said he was following orders. 

“The purpose, as I understood based on the order I was given, was to immediately launch every aircraft that we have, was to provide a deterrent presence over the Mall area and downtown area,” he said. …“Fly low, hover, be overhead.” 

Neither he nor any other member of the aircrews involved were penalized for misconduct, Army leaders said Wednesday, as the investigation determined all five crews “operated in good faith” and were only “trying to execute the mission they were given.” 

“We didn’t know which direction that evening was going to go,” a third Army official said Wednesday. “That doesn’t excuse anything; that just reminds us that when people operate in those circumstances things get very challenging.”

The lack of policy clarity within the District was one of those challenges, the first Army official said Wednesday.

Since June, the Army has taken a “hard look at where our leaders are” and whether they “have the ability to have situational awareness of the assets that they’re controlling support of law enforcement,” the third Army official said. No aircraft have since been flown in civil disturbance situations in the city, and the Army continues a “stricter scrutiny” of the use of aviation. 

“Immediately after this event, we instituted a very strict process-oriented approval process for the use of the National Guard in support of not just the Metropolitan Police Department but any agency that’s requesting them,” the third Army official said Wednesday. “That approval process takes a hard look at everything from the orders processed so we don’t get into interpretation of task and purpose for units all the way down to aviation approval.” 

But when an even more dire situation arose seven months later, the processes were not able to to get the right resources to the right place at the right time. When the Jan. 6 riot broke out on Capitol Hill, the National Guard again struggled with intra-agency communication, leaving U.S. Capitol Police without reinforcement for hours. 

Countless Congressional hearings and briefings were called to hammer down the minute-by-minute sequence of events that left USCP without back-up during a riot that led to the death of one police officer. It took hours — and a myriad of permissions, calls, changes of orders, and communications — to move Guard troops the 20 city blocks from the Armory to the Capitol.

Since Jan. 6, further efforts have been made to ensure the various agencies in the Capitol have a system to communicate, delegate roles, and establish leadership under pressure. But DoD has maintained that it acted appropriately and according to its processes when the USCP called for assistance. 

“We were asked to support the Capitol from a cold start after it already had been overrun and are being criticized for how fast we responded,” a former Pentagon official told the Washington Post last month. “We are not like law enforcement units whose job it is to police the streets.” 

“I believe we have good processes which ensure not only the safety of those that are exercising their First Amendment rights, but also the safety of the soldiers that are performing this support mission with law enforcement agencies,” Army officials said Wednesday.