As National Guard leaders prepare to extend their Capitol Hill mission into March, Republican lawmakers are questioning whether thousands are uniformed troops are still needed to secure the halls of Congress.
On Wednesday, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton penned an op-ed for Fox News stating that contrary to Defense Department and local law enforcement plans, the guardsmen should leave the Capitol grounds as soon as possible.
“I’m aware of no specific, credible threat reporting … that justifies this continued troop presence,” wrote Cotton, a former soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Thus, I believe the rest of these soldiers should also go home to their families and civilian jobs.
“The lesson of the Capitol riot is not that we should quarter a standing army at the Capitol just in case, but rather that our security measures should be calibrated to the actual threats.”
Cotton’s piece came the same day that 11 House Republicans requested a briefing from the acting Army Secretary on any ongoing threats to the Capitol and the reasoning behind extending the guardsmen’s mission in Washington.
“The Guard has endured unprecedented stress on the force in the last year given COVID-19, social unrest, natural disasters and ongoing overseas requirements,” the group wrote. “The National Guard should be used as an option of absolute last resort.”
Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., one of the letter writers and a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, said he supports the Guard remaining on Capitol Hill if needed, but has not seen the justification for it.
“If it’s just online chatter, that’s one thing,” he told Military Times. “But we should know exactly what is driving that number.
“And the guardsmen deserve to know that. The ones I have spoken with, they don’t seem to know. To have them here just to stare at a fence doesn’t make sense to me.”
Almost 26,000 National Guard troops were mobilized in advance of the Jan. 20 inauguration to provide security for the president-elect and members of Congress.
Two weeks prior to that event, nearly 1,000 rioters supporting former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the certification of last November’s presidential election results.
Five people died in the violence, including Capitol Hill police officer Brian Sicknick, a former New Jersey Air National Guard member who was struck in the head by a fire extinguisher.
Guard officials say that there will be a presence in D.C. through the end of March.
Around 7,000 Guard troops are currently on duty in Washington, according to Wayne Hall, a spokesperson for the National Guard Bureau.
By mid-March, the number of activated troops will draw down to about 5,000, said Hall in an email to Military Times. The Guard will “continue supporting federal law enforcement agencies.”
A large portion of the dwindling force consists of D.C. National Guard troops who have orders to remain through the end of March, according to a memo obtained by Military Times and statements from Guard officials.
“The D.C. National Guard will remain on orders until March 31, 2021,” said Capt. Melissa Heintz, a spokesperson for the D.C. Guard’s 113th Wing.
HASC Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., wants to continue the National Guard presence in the Capitol, a HASC Democratic spokesperson told Military Times.
“To date, we are still gaining further clarity about the specific threat assessment that led to the extension,” the spokesperson said. “The House Armed Services Committee will continue to press for additional information about the National Guard deployment extension, threats, as well as monitor the long-term effects on the overall mission readiness of our National Guard personnel as a result of this tasking.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.