The day after National Guard troops were ordered to move out of the Dirkson Senate building in Washington and into a nearby parking garage, officials from the Capitol Police said the department was not responsible for the public relations fiasco.
“I want to assure everyone that, with the exception of specific times on Inauguration Day itself while the swearing-in ceremonies were underway, the United States Capitol police did not instruct the National Guard to vacate the Capitol Building facilities,” Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman posted on the department’s website Friday morning. “And on Inauguration Day, the Guard was notified and encouraged to reoccupy the spaces in the Capitol and CVC at 2 p.m.”
Pittman’s statement appears to contradict what National Guard officials said Thursday evening.
Thursday evening, after National Guard troops began complaining about being moved out of the Capitol complex to the parking garage of the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Office Building, the National Guard Bureau said the move was the result of a request from Capitol Police.
“As Congress is in session and increased foot traffic and business is being conducted, Capitol Police asked the troops to move their rest area,” the National Guard Bureau statement read. “They were temporarily relocated to the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Center garage with heat and restroom facilities. We remain an agile and flexible force to provide for the safety and security of the Capitol and its surrounding areas.”
National Guard Bureau spokesman Wayne Hall said the move was made without the knowledge of lawmakers.
“Our understanding is that the unfortunate request for the National Guard to be relocated was made to the Capitol Police by a couple of staffers, without the knowledge of the Congressional members,” he said in a statement to Military Times. “This morning, all of the break areas used by the National Guard on duty at the Capitol are inside buildings.”
The National Guard “appreciates the great number of Congressional members who expressed concern and assisted in moving our National Guard men and women into appropriate Capitol spaces upon hearing they had been relocated to the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Center garage last night,” Hall said. “Many of them offered their own personal offices and conference rooms to the National Guard; we are grateful.”
By Friday afternoon, the two organizations released a joint statement, saying they “are united in the common goal to protect the U.S. Capitol and the Congress during this time.”
It does not, however, say who ordered the troops out of the Capitol Thursday night. Or address the apparent discrepancy between the two explanations given for who was to blame.
“As with any large security operation, coordination and flexibility are required for all involved,” the statement said.
The USCP and the National Guard “have coordinated their efforts to ensure that National Guardsmen and women are stationed throughout the Capitol Complex are in appropriate spaces within Congressional buildings, including the U.S. Capitol, where they may take on-duty breaks.”
Off-duty troops are being housed in hotel rooms or other comfortable accommodations.
“The National Guard appreciates the continuous support of Congressional members who expressed concern for our National Guard men and women,” according to the statement. “The USCP is also grateful for the support of the Congress concerning the wellbeing of the women and men of the Department. The National Guard and the United States Capitol Police both have long histories of serving and protecting our country, and together, we continue in this proud tradition along with our other Federal, state, and local law enforcement partners.”
On Friday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.. called the move ”utterly unacceptable.
“I have told those who run the security of the Capitol that it can never happen again, and I pledge to every National Guard member that it will not happen again,” he said on the Senate floor. “We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the men and women who worked to keep us safe on Jan. 6 and in the days since.”
Lawmakers have also called for an investigation into the move of Guard troops, to determine who made the decisions that forced them out of their previous rest spots.
Pittman, the acting Capitol Police chief, added in his statement that his department has been working with Congress to find “appropriate accommodations” for the troops.
“Over the past several days, the U.S. Capital Police has been working tirelessly with its Congressional stakeholders to identify appropriate accommodations across the entire Capitol complex for their use,” Pittman wrote. “It was brought to our attention early today that facility management with the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Office Building reached out directly to the National Guard to offer use of its facilities.”
One National Guard soldier told Military Times that troops were ordered out of the Senate around 5 p.m. Thursday. They had been using the basement of the Dirksen building for briefings, eating and naps between shifts. The basement area is home to one of the largest cafeterias on Capitol Hill and is a key thoroughfare for lawmakers and staffers moving from the office buildings to the Senate floor.
After several days of pulling 12-hour shifts patrolling the Capitol, one soldier told Military Times that troops were ordered to leave the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building Thursday evening when not on patrol and move to a cramped parking garage with limited restroom facilities and increased risk of COVID-19.
Instead of being able to rest up after long shifts in the building they were protecting, the troops had to bug out to a location about a half-mile away, the soldier said.
“We were told we had 25 minutes to get everything out of the basement,” said the National Guard soldier, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “We had to move everything. That included all the gear, computers, riot gear. Everything had to be figured out immediately. A lot of soldiers were resting in there, catching a nap between shifts.”
The basement had been used as a combination sleeping, staging, briefing, eating and rest area for hundreds of troops keeping the Capitol safe in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 siege in which five people died.
The soldier said he and others were concerned about the garage being a soft target and an easy place to contract COVID-19.
“Some troops were able to get the first round of vaccine, but not everyone,” he said. “We have had a couple of soldiers in our company quarantined, and were told there are already 50 to 100 positive cases of COVID. Knowing we have all shared the same room several hours a day, of course we are worried about COVID and being an extremely soft target for someone taking a cheap shot at soldiers.”
The soldier also wondered if concern over COVID-19 was behind the order to move. In one week in mid-January Military Times first reported that 43 troops had contracted the virus. Guard officials on Thursday did not respond to requests for an update on that figure.
Friday morning, that soldier said Capitol Police officers apologized to the troops.
“We were let back into the same area that we had before.” he told Military Times. “All of the Capitol police that we’ve been working with on guard shifts said they knew nothing about it and apologized but said that the order didn’t come from them.”
Stories and images about the move sparked a tremendous outcry by lawmakers, with many offering their own offices to put them up.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, tweeted that she “made a number of calls and have been informed Capitol Police have apologized to the Guardsmen and they will be allowed back into the complex tonight. I’ll keep checking to make sure they are.”
Duckworth said she made her statement after reading a story in Politico, which first reported about the situation.
Late Thursday night, National Guard leadership confirmed that troops were able to leave the garage and return to the Capitol.
“Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, Inauguration Task Force Commander, confirms that troops are out of the garage and back into the Capitol building as authorized by the USCP Watch Commander and the troops will take their breaks near Emancipation Hall going forward,” according to a statement to Military Times by Air Force Maj. Matthew Murphy, a National Guard Bureau spokesman. “Our troops are going to hotel rooms or other comfortable accommodations at the end of their shifts.”
National Guard troops forced to move out of the Capitol complex told Military Times they were finally allowed to return late Thursday evening.
“Because of the massive backlash over this, we are now being allowed back into the Senate building,” one National Guard soldier told Military Times. “We’re going to make a big show of marching back into the building.”
Friday morning, Pittman confirmed that the troops were all out of the garage.
“As of this morning, all Guardsmen and women have been relocated to space within the Capitol Complex. The Department is also working with the Guard to reduce the need for sleeping accommodations by establishing shorter shifts, and will ensure they have access to the comfortable accommodations they absolutely deserve when the need arises.”
This is a developing story. Stay with Military Times for updates.
Reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this story.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.