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Smith unsatisfied with Pentagon answers on protest response

Chairman blasts brass for refusing to appear before the committee

A member of the D.C. National Guard patrols near the Vietnam Women's Memorial on Wednesday, June 3, after days of protests.
A member of the D.C. National Guard patrols near the Vietnam Women's Memorial on Wednesday, June 3, after days of protests. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith on Thursday remained locked in a stalemate with Pentagon leaders amid requests for them to testify before the oversight panel on the military’s role in response to recent nationwide protests, and particularly those within Washington, D.C.

The Washington Democrat has demanded information from Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, firing off a blistering letter Wednesday criticizing them for failing to answer written questions and refusing to appear before the committee.

Milley and Esper did eventually respond, but their answers provided very little new information on their role specifically, and the military’s general role, in the response to the protests, which were spurred by the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody.

Esper and Milley were specifically asked about the military’s involvement in the clearing of largely peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square on the evening of June 1. Minutes later, Esper and Milley joined President Donald Trump in walking from the White House across the square to St. John’s Church, where Esper posed for photographs alongside the president, who held up a Bible.

Milley was wearing combat fatigues, and was interviewed hours later walking around the streets of Washington.

The District of Columbia National Guardsmen “did not actively participate” in clearing protesters from a park across from the White House on June 1, Esper and Milley wrote in their letter. Federal law enforcement officials used gas and rubber pellets to move the protesters, images of which have sparked furor across the country.

But they did not go much further, and they did not elaborate on their own involvement.

“We participated in the walk with the aim of observing damage in Lafayette Square and at St. Johns Church, and meeting with and thanking the National Guard members who were on duty,” they wrote.

In response to a question about what vehicles non-Washington based guardsmen used and what weapons and equipment they were issued, they answered: “Non-D.C. National Guard troops used organic vehicles, including General Service Administration box trucks, buses, and military vehicles.”

And in response to questions about the missions and orders for two helicopters (a Black Hawk and a Lakota medevac aircraft) that hovered at low altitudes and intimidated protesters, they largely deferred.

“There is an open investigation to determine the exact facts and circumstances of the mission, authorization to hover, property damages, and violation(s) of policy,” Esper and Milley wrote.

The letter, a House aide said, does not eliminate the need for Esper and Milley to testify before the committee.

“DoD directly responded to the questions asked with the information requested or, in some cases, indicated that an investigation must be completed before answers could be provided. Where there was an opportunity to elaborate or explain further, they did not,” the House aide said in an email. “In some cases, the answers provided raised additional questions, which must be addressed when the Secretary and Chairman appear in person.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said many of Smith’s questions had been answered during a closed-door briefing for committee members given by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy on June 8.

“HASC staff is also well aware that we have been working on finding a mutually available date to testify soon,” Hoffman said.

Mea culpa

For his part, Milley has gone on the record about his own role on June 1.

In a videotaped keynote speech shown Thursday to the graduating class at National Defense University, Milley said he “should not have been there” alongside Trump and others, calling it a “mistake.”

“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” he said. That video was later removed from an official Defense Department website used to distribute officials videos and pictures. The Joint Staff later posted a transcript of Milley’s remarks on Facebook.

Prior to their confirmation hearings in 2019, both Esper and Milley provided written answers to advance policy questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Do you agree, if confirmed, and on request, to appear and testify before this committee, its subcommittees, and other appropriate committees of Congress?” the questionnaire asked. Both men replied “Yes.”

Smith’s panel will mark up its version of the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill on July 1, and the military’s role in the response to the protests is almost certain to be a central issue during what is expected to be a marathon debate.

John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.

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