William J. Walker has testified about how his requests for approval to deploy the National Guard on Jan. 6 went unanswered. Now it falls to him to prevent another rampage.,
Sidelined on Jan. 6, Walker Has Top Job Securing Capitol Against a Repeat
William J. Walker has testified about how his requests for approval to deploy the National Guard on Jan. 6 went unanswered. Now it falls to him to prevent another rampage.
William J. Walker, the new House sergeant-at-arms, has been outspoken about the dysfunction that plagued the response to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — As a mob of President Donald J. Trump’s supporters rampaged through the Capitol on Jan. 6, William J. Walker, who was commanding the District of Columbia National Guard, watched helplessly, waiting for hours for approval to deploy his troops to help a badly overrun police force put down the deadly riot.
He suspected — and still does — that part of the reason for the delay was that Defense Department officials were overly concerned about the optics of sending in the Guard against the pro-Trump rioters, a move that amounted to special treatment of the mostly white crowd when compared to the law enforcement tactics used against protesters at racial justice marches in the recent past.
“We were all frustrated by the tight limits that were placed upon us,” Mr. Walker said. “The 57th anniversary of the march of Dr. Martin Luther King? No restrictions. On July 4? No restrictions. When the monuments were attacked and we came out? No restrictions to move the quick reaction force. The restrictions came for Jan. 5 and Jan. 6.”
On Saturday, when pro-Trump protesters are set to descend on Washington to rally in support of those charged in the Jan. 6 assault, Mr. Walker, who is now the top security official for the House of Representatives as its new sergeant-at-arms, said things would be different. This time, he is off the sidelines and a crucial player in preparing the Capitol for potential violence.
The rally will be a consequential test for Mr. Walker — as well as the rest of the security apparatus at the Capitol and throughout Washington — and he said they would be ready for whatever unfolds.
“This has my full focus and complete attention,” Mr. Walker said of the “Justice for J6” rally, which federal law enforcement officials warned on Friday could lead to violence. “We’re going to get through this.”
He and other Capitol officials have changed policies based on lessons learned in the wake of Jan. 6. A damning portrait has emerged of the preparations and response to the attack, including police leaders failing to equip officers with much-needed riot gear and intelligence officials ignoring or discounting serious threats of violence from Trump supporters.
“The U.S. Capitol Police were surprised. They had not anticipated anything like that,” Mr. Walker said during a recent interview in his office. “Using the lessons identified on that tragic day, Jan. 6, will help us ensure that we don’t have a repeat.”
For one thing, this time, the National Guard is already standing by to help; the Department of Defense authorized the deployment of 100 troops on Friday.
On Thursday, officials restored the temporary fencing around the Capitol perimeter that had been erected in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot.
“People can come and assemble, but they have to do it in a safe manner,” Mr. Walker said.
Mr. Walker, a Chicago native and former special agent at the Drug Enforcement Administration who spent decades in the National Guard, was installed in the top security post in the House as part of a near-complete overhaul of security personnel at the Capitol in the wake of the January attack.
Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson, a military intelligence officer, took over as sergeant-at-arms in the Senate; and J. Thomas Manger, a veteran police chief of departments in the Greater Washington region, recently become the chief of the Capitol Police. Only J. Brett Blanton, who as the architect of the Capitol is responsible for maintaining the complex, remains in the same position he occupied on Jan. 6. He also continues to serve on the revamped Capitol Police Board, the body charged with security decisions for the complex. A former Navy officer with a bronze star from Iraq, Mr. Blanton has said he was cut out of key security decisions regarding Jan. 6.
Congress has approved a $2.1 billion emergency spending bill to pay for Capitol security improvements, thought it stopped short of fulfilling all of the requests from top officials, including stripping out money to create a quick reaction force of the National Guard to respond to emergencies at the Capitol. Mr. Walker said he was still advocating for the creation of a retractable fence that could pop up “instantly” to prevent a breach of the Capitol.
Restrictions placed on the District of Columbia National Guard on Jan. 6 delayed their response to the riot at the Capitol.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times
The first Black person ever to lead security in the House, Mr. Walker said the job came with a “tremendous sense of pride and pressure.”
“I better get it right,” he said, seated on a couch in his meticulously kept office, an American flag pinned to the breast of his navy blue suit. “It might be 232 years before another African American gets the opportunity.”
He has been outspoken about the dysfunction that plagued the response to the Capitol attack, drawing disdain from some of his colleagues in the process. After Mr. Walker testified to Congress in March about how senior military leaders blocked his efforts to quickly dispatch troops to help quell the riot, one of the highest-ranking military leaders refused to shake his hand, according to a person familiar with the interaction.
It was not the first time in his career that Mr. Walker had shone an unflattering spotlight on what he viewed as a significant problem in the government.
During his time at the D.E.A., he testified on behalf of Black agents in a long-running racial bias suit in which they said the government had systemically discriminated against them within the agency. Mr. Walker gained a reputation at the agency as a relentless investigator whose work took him from Chicago to the Bahamas, Miami, Puerto Rico, Washington and New York.
“I was a totally, radically different person,” Mr. Walker said of his career there. “I didn’t abuse, but the arrest was quick.”
In 1986, he was involved in a major case that led to the convictions of 18 members of the Gambino organized crime family.
During the investigation, Mr. Walker helped secure the seizure of nearly $6 million — a record for the D.E.A. at the time — after a Long Island heroin trafficker he’d been tracking offered him and other agents a bribe.
“He offered us a million dollars — $250,000 a piece,” Mr. Walker said. “We cuffed him. I said, ‘Don’t go anywhere.'” He promptly got on a pay phone to call his supervisor to get a warrant for the man’s house.
“If he’s going to give us a million, what’s he got left for him?” he wondered.
Derek S. Maltz Sr., a former head of the New York Drug Enforcement Task Force who worked with Mr. Walker, recalled being involved in a large wiretap case in Queens years later that agents believed would net more than $1 million in drugs and guns. At the time, Mr. Walker was the agency’s No. 2 official in New York.
Mr. Maltz said when he briefed Mr. Walker on the case, Mr. Walker surprised the other agents by saying, “I’m coming with you.”
“It’s unheard-of that a senior executive, No. 2 in the D.E.A. New York office, is going to go out to the street,” Mr. Maltz recalled. After making the arrests, Mr. Walker volunteered to personally transport those in custody back for booking, Mr. Maltz said.
Fencing was installed around the perimeter of the Capitol ahead of a “Justice for J6” rally in Washington scheduled for Saturday.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times
At the National Guard, Mr. Walker encountered a different series of challenges as he rose the ranks. When Mr. Trump appointed him as the commander of the D.C. National Guard in 2018, Mr. Walker was tasked with ensuring troops were ready to respond to national emergencies, including deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Poland and Saudi Arabia.
Col. Earl G. Matthews, who was a principal deputy general counsel for the Army at the time, said Mr. Walker immediately tightened up fitness and punctuality requirements.
“He got lots of complaints, but he held people to a high standard,” Colonel Matthews recalled. “He’s a classic guy in a conservative mold. He’s a very serious guy who loves the Army and loves the country. Not many people can say they were appointed by both Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi. He’s a straight arrow. But he’s also a guy who speaks truth to power.”
He did so after Jan. 6, in testimony before a Senate committee about what he called “unusual” restrictions placed on the National Guard that day. He detailed how he had not received approval to mobilize troops to respond to the riot until more than three hours after he had requested it, and said military officials had expressed concerns about the “optics” of sending troops to the Capitol.
The violent rampage that unfolded over nearly five hours caused injuries to nearly 140 police officers. At least five people died during the attack and its immediate aftermath.
“Seconds mattered,” he testified. “Minutes mattered.”
Mr. Walker said the events of that day, with a mob attacking police as symbols of racism and white supremacy were paraded through the Capitol, still haunted him.
“It’s a mystery to me how in 2021, we could still have this division and deep-seated hatred,” he said. “If you study some of those that were arrested, some just got here. Some of them just became American. Somebody who just gets to America has a problem with me? That’s troublesome. I’ve been here.”