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In a bureaucracy no one has the answers

Robert Salesses, Senior Official Performing the Duties of

Robert Salesses, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense and Global Security, Department of Defense during a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Senate Committee on Rules and Administration joint hearing on Wednesday, which examined the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Credit: AP/Greg Nash

The federal bureaucracy came to a hearing room on Capitol Hill to explain itself. It failed.

On Wednesday afternoon, a quartet of witnesses gave testimony before a joint committee in the Senate about the security failures at the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6. These men and women, with their sober presence and affinity for acronyms, perfectly personified the blurry, confusing, often impenetrable — occasionally well-intentioned — officialdom in which they work. During all of the questioning and the awkward answering, there was little plain talk about biases built into the system — about minorities, about leftists, about people who call themselves patriots — and how they influence perceptions of danger, which means they barely discussed what happened at all.

They sat at a black-draped table. The three civilians formed a gray triptych of governmental regrets and promises to follow-up on an array of questions. The major general, his uniform adorned with a mosaic of colorful ribbons, sat at the end of the table and made a good-faith effort not to place blame where blame so clearly belonged.

The four-hour hearing sent the attentive citizen plummeting into a governmental morass in which no one was responsible for the calamities of that infamous day because no one was apparently in charge. The buck never stopped — least of all with the assistants and senior officials and acting undersecretaries in the hot seat. It certainly didn't come to a halt at the feet of the senators asking the questions, specifically Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who stoked the mob that stormed the Capitol to overturn the election, for which both Hawley and Cruz voted. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., for his part, continues working hard to reimagine the violent insurrection as an afternoon of dress-up with a few rowdy knuckleheads by reading selective eyewitness narratives into the public record.

Other senators peppered the witnesses with pointed questions, one of the most reasonable being why the FBI did not seem to grasp the level of violence that was likely to occur that day. Jill Sanborn, the assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, testified that agents do not follow public social media conversations. This lack of Twitter knowledge was pointed to as a mitigating factor in explaining why pretty much everyone except the FBI seemed well aware that serious trouble was brewing on the day Congress met to certify the 2020 election.

Robert Salesses, whose last name more than one senator could not get right even though it was printed out in big bold letters on a placard in front of him, is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security. That is the sort of convoluted, explanatory title that only the government could have come up with, and one that could easily symbolize the tangle of officials and agencies and non-responsible parties involved in this epic security breach. Salesses could not explain in clear terms why it took more than three hours for the Defense Department to dispatch the National Guard to the Capitol, in part, because he was not on the phone call during which law enforcement requested the Guard — a fact that raised the question: Why was Salesses even at the hearing if he couldn't — or wouldn't — answer this most fundamental question?

Also in attendance was Melissa Smislova, acting undersecretary in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, who basically admitted that officials screwed up and that her job is hard — two facts no one seriously disputed.

Rounding out the bureaucratic representation was Maj. Gen. William Walker, who is the commander of the District National Guard. He came to the hearing with a sheath of notes and memos from which he quoted and was the only one at the witness table who was definitive about what unfolded and what went wrong, mainly because everything that transpired within the chain of command seemed to have been aimed at preventing him from doing the one thing he was trying to do, which was to get the go-ahead to send his uniformed men and women to the U.S. Capitol as quickly as possible.

"I just came to the conclusion that eventually I'm going to get approval," Walker said. And so he had his troops board buses and wait for the yes command. "Seconds mattered." When the buses could finally pull away, members of the National Guard arrived at the Capitol in 18 minutes, he said.

It was a frustrating hearing, if only because everyone seemed to be spinning in circles explaining how things unfolded, but no one could really get to the heart of why. No one drilled down on whether race influenced how dangerous authorities perceived the mostly White crowd to be. Did all the flags and declarations of patriotism slow the reaction time? Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., asked the witnesses to explain the difference in how law enforcement was deployed during the racial-justice demonstrations over the summer of 2020 compared with how it was used during the protest on the Ellipse that preceded the Capitol riot. Sanborn explained the difference by noting that precedent dictated each response, which was to suggest that rallies similar to the one that occurred on Jan. 6 with Trump followers and extremist groups had not in the past sparked violence, which is simply not true. Smislova just said there was no comparison. No similarities. Nothing to discuss.

The bureaucracy would not second-guess itself. There would be no follow-up. It was ready to move things along.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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