Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin served three tours in Iraq alongside the US military as a CIA analyst before becoming a member of Congress, so the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 was unfortunately by no means the first time she had been in a life-threatening situation.
What kept her relatively confident in war zones compared to what she witnessed during the attack against the Capitol and has experienced since was knowing the security and communication plan for what to do and who was in charge in a crisis.
“I served in Iraq. Insurgents and terrorists were trying to kill us all day long, every day,” Slotkin said in an interview with CNN. “But I knew that the folks at the gate and the security plan that was in place was designed to keep me safe and do the absolute most it could to protect me.”
It’s been more than two months since the attack on the Capitol and there are real questions about what actions are being taken and who is in charge.
A series of hearings have revealed how chaos and miscommunication made an already bad situation even worse. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for a 9/11 style commission to investigate January 6, but partisan gridlock over the makeup and scope of the commission has seemed to screech progress to a halt. Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, at the behest of Pelosi, published Monday a series of security recommendations for the physical Capitol complex, the Capitol Police force and members, but the question becomes when, how and if Congress will take up those recommendations and secure the funding needed to turn the recommendations into reality. All of this, while the National Guard and barbed wired fencing continue to remain at the Capitol.
Steeped in crisis communication and trained to operate under a clear chain of command, former intelligence officers and veterans now serving in Congress offer a unique perspective on the kind of streamlined communication that needs to be adopted and the types of briefings and shared information lawmakers should be expecting in the wake of January 6. Their experience sheds light on what the serious intelligence holes are, and how the lack of information contributes to the underlying stress about when members can feel like the Capitol is safe again.
‘Who is piloting the aircraft?’
The attack of the Capitol showed that serious changes need to be made to the decision-making process as it relates to security at the Capitol, especially in a crisis.
One of the key themes to emerge in hearings and interviews since the attack has been that there is not an efficient process for how the different entities involved in Capitol security decision-making talk to each other. A stark example of the multi-layered decision-making process was the delay in getting the National Guard to the Capitol on January 6 as the result of a deeply convoluted Police Board decision making process.
“I just don’t know who is piloting the aircraft,” Slotkin said. “I’m desperately used to a chain of command organization where there’s a clear chain of command, there’s a clear understanding of who has responsibility for what, and they’re held accountable for those responsibilities.”
Republican Rep. Brian Mast, who lost both of his legs while serving in the US Army told CNN “no, certainly not” when asked if he knew who was making security decisions since January 6.
In a complex system, lawmakers say they have been left in the dark on crucial pieces of information like who is responsible for actions like requesting the National Guard to extend their stay.
When asked why the National Guard’s presence was extended at the Capitol, Pelosi told reporters on March 4, “that’s a question for them, the decisions about security are made by the security leadership here and we’ll see what that ask is.”
Congress faces the inherent challenge of being a bicameral system that is separate and allows for the response to threats to be handled differently, as was the case on March 4 when the House canceled votes amid security warnings but the Senate remained in session.
“That’s not normal, right?” Slotkin said to CNN. “So, the answer that I think many of us are seeking is what’s the organizational structure, knowing that it’s completely complicated by this being a federal building in the District of Columbia. We know it’s no one’s fault, but we have to clean that up.”
Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, previously a former CIA case officer who worked on counterterrorism and nonproliferation issues, underscored the importance of knowing who is in charge, and who is being briefed on relevant security concerns.
“Without any clarity on who makes some of the decisions related to how we handle security, I think that’s a place where greater communication could be helpful to ensure that people have confidence in the decisions that are getting made” the Virginia lawmaker told CNN.
And as the recommendations to improve Capitol complex security, member security, and the Capitol Police force have come into clearer view, the question becomes is there one person or designated group of people in charge of following through with those recommendations to see that they become adopted.
“Who has responsibility in the House of Representatives of following up with these recommendations and actioning them,” Slotkin posited.
Finding the balance between sharing everything and nothing
In addition to knowing who is in charge, lawmakers with former intelligence and military experience highlighted how severely unprepared Capitol Police was to handle the attack on January 6 and the gaps that remain in terms of keeping members up to date on steps being taken to secure the Capitol.
Spanberger was in the chamber on January 6 and watched the security breach happen right in front of her.
“It was sheer, sheer chaos,” Spanberger said of what it was like to be in the gallery during the insurrection. From being told competing directions about what to do with the gas mask to confusing guidance about when they were able to evacuate, Spanberger described laying in-between the rows of seating in the gallery, hearing her colleagues calling home and praying as “horrible.”
In the wake of the attack, Spanberger outlined that “there’s an absence of information.”
For the Virginia Democrat, it’s not necessary for the average member of the House to be privy to more classified information, it’s that members need to be at least clued into what conversations are going on and who is responsible for what.
“I’ve worked at embassies overseas” Spanberger told CNN. “There’s a space between telling us everything, which is, I think inefficient and, and frankly from a former intelligence officer’s perspective wholly unnecessary, and not particularly helpful, to not conveying any information.”
The decision to change the House’s voting schedule session last week, and cancel session amid warnings about March 4 conspiracies also marked, for many, the pinnacle of what Congressional leadership and security personnel have wrong about how to communicate threats in a way that deescalates concerns.
“There was nothing, nothing, nothing, everything’s fine. Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine and then it’s ‘oh actually we’re just going to do these two votes and, you know, we’re not going to be in a session on Thursday,” Spanberger told CNN, emphasizing not that it was the wrong call, but that the way it was conveyed could lead to speculation.
Republican Rep. Peter Meijer, who was first deployed to Iraq in 2010 and later worked with a conflict analysis NGO in Afghanistan, spoke about the intricate layers of communication needed to maintain safety.
“Living essentially by myself in Kandahar city outside of any major base, I became very finely attuned to how you’re working out concentric layers of security,” Meijer told CNN. “It’s obviously a very disappointing and humbling thing to see how those layers had failed.”
How anxiety breeds as the result of not knowing
As many rank-and-file members are left in the dark about what decisions are being made and by whom, lawmakers with former military and intelligence experience explained how the lack of knowing can lead to anxiety and even a distrust of the decision-making process, a reality felt all too much by many members who have to return to the scene of the deadly attack on a daily basis.
Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, outlined the challenges of crisis communication and the importance of getting it right.
“Crisis communication is always very challenging because you want to put out information as quickly as you can because there’s a lot of fears and anxieties, but you want to put out good information. So, the worst thing you can do to try to move too fast and put out wrong information and then correct it because then you undermine the credibility of your organization and the messenger.”
But that delay in putting out information, even if it is with the best intention of waiting until there is greater certainty on getting it right, can breed distrust in the system.
“I think it’s contributing to people’s feelings that maybe there isn’t a clear plan,” Slotkin said of the impact not knowing is having on members.
As Spanberger outlined, not clearly explaining to members the reasons votes were canceled last week and why the Senate remained in session becomes an opportunity for “your imagination to run away with you in terms of, well why would that have been done.”
“Communication helps mitigate some of the anxiety that might be felt,” Spanberger echoed.
In the void of information, members have leaned on each other. Crow, who was in the chamber on the 6th, said that he and other Democratic members have a private group chat where they talk almost daily, hold Zooms and even socially distanced gatherings to support each other as they go back to work in the place they were traumatized.
“It’s also important for someone like me to say, I was traumatized too. Just because I’m an Army Ranger, have been to war three times and have done these combat missions doesn’t mean that that wasn’t traumatic for me” Crow said of his time in the chamber on January 6.
“It was actually very different for me, in that when I was a Ranger that wasn’t my job. And I was expecting that. That’s what I was trained and equipped to do. I went to war expecting that. I never in a million years expected to be attacked by a violent mob, while sitting in the House chamber in 2021 as a member of Congress. So, that certainly has impacted me in a different way than my prior experiences.”