You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Defense Secretary overruled Army recommendation to reduce number of National Guard troops at Capitol

CNN logo CNN 3/12/2021 By Barbara Starr, Zachary Cohen and Whitney Wild, CNN
a close up of Lloyd Austin wearing glasses and looking at the camera: WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Defense Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin answers questions during his confirmation before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images) © Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Defense Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin answers questions during his confirmation before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's decision to keep nearly 2,300 National Guard troops on Capitol Hill security duty through May 23 came after the secretary decided against an Army recommendation that less than half that number was actually needed to support US Capitol Police.

Three defense officials confirm that Austin reviewed the lower option to keep fewer than 1,000 troops but ultimately decided to give the Capitol Police the full amount of troops they had asked for. "There was a discussion" about approving less than 1,000 troops one defense official told CNN. The Army oversees the DC National Guard and has taken a lead role in the deployment of guard forces.

There are currently about 4,300 troops operating in and around Capitol Hill and without the extension they would have been scheduled to leave Washington on March 12. Fox News was first to report that Austin decided against the Army recommendation.

The Pentagon says it approved the police request for the nearly 2,300 troops to remain on duty because the Capitol Police successfully made the case they did not have enough manpower and "capability" to ensure security after the January 6 insurrection and given ongoing security concerns.

But it comes as the Pentagon has been facing withering political criticism that it failed to quickly provide National Guard forces that day and amid mounting opposition to the current security posture on Capitol Hill.

"The secretary was not driven by political pressure and he was not driven by the specific events of January 6th, which is currently under investigation anyway. He looked at this analytically, had his staff look at this analytically about what the need was, the capacity gap that we could fill and then how best to do that," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters this week.

While the extension was approved, the number of Guard troops in Washington will be significantly reduced and thousands are expected to return to their home states. A National Guard official confirmed to CNN Friday that all 1,000 Michigan National Guard are expected to be out of DC by the beginning of next week.

Pentagon officials have emphasized they now want to see the police force make improvements on getting more manpower and security, so that guard forces can be withdrawn. "We want to see the Capitol Police make progress," a second defense official told CNN. In a March 9 statement approving the extended deployment the Pentagon said "DOD officials will work with the U.S. Capitol Police to incrementally reduce the National Guard footprint as conditions allow."

Video: Smerconish: 'Absence of independent thinking in Washington' (CNN)


Lawmakers unhappy

Meanwhile, members of Congress have sought clarity from US Capitol Police and the Pentagon as to why the deployment of Guard troops was extended this week through May but have not been given a clear explanation, according to a source familiar with the outreach.

The current understanding, the source told CNN, is that US Capitol Police does not have the staffing to provide security post-January 6 even with a reduced threat, so the National Guard is bridging the gap.

The timeline for hiring additional USCP officers, something that was also recommended by Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré who conducted an independent review of Capitol security, remains unclear but that process will inevitably take months.

All USCP officers must complete six months of paid training before they can officially join the force, according to the government job search website,

It's not uncommon to have internal disagreements at the Pentagon on how many troops may be needed for a specific mission. But in this case it appears that Austin overruled the views of both the Army and the National Guard. The Guard has felt the strain of deployments for months as thousands of its troops across the country have been mobilized to help with the pandemic. "The National Guard have never been mobilized at this level in the history of the Guard, " said spokeswoman Traci O'Grady Walsh.

For the next several days the troop levels are likely to be in flux as the Pentagon tries to finalize commitments from governors around the country on how many troops they will commit to the extended operation. If governors who want to participate are not able to get enough guard forces to volunteer they could face having to order involuntary call-ups, officials say.

Cost of mission now exceeds $500 million

"The National Guard estimates the cost for the extension of the mission from March to May at $111 million," a Guard official told CNN. The original cost estimate for operations from January to March estimate was revised from $482.8 million to $410 million. The new projected cost estimate for the entire mission is $521 million."

There is continuing bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill about the extended Guard deployment. "We are deeply troubled by the current level of security around the United States Capitol. More than two months after the January 6 attack, the seat of our nation's democracy remains heavily protected by guardsmen and surrounded by a perimeter fence," said Representatives Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee in a statement Thursday.

"As the U.S. Capitol Police continues to build its personnel capacity, there is no doubt that some level of support from the National Guard should remain in the National Capital Region to respond to credible threats against the Capitol. However, the present security posture is not warranted at this time."

Top Senate Republicans on five key committees echoed that sentiment in a joint statement Friday and asked Capitol Police to justify the decision to extend the Guard Deployment.

"Capitol Police has repeatedly failed to provide specific, credible threat intelligence to adequately justify the current Capitol security posture, which remains disproportionate to the available intelligence," Sens. Jim Inhofe, Roy Blunt, Rob Portman, Marco Rubio and Richard Shelby wrote, adding that they "are also concerned about numerous recent decisions made by the Capitol Police leadership related to Capitol security."


More from CNN

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon