Why McCarthy's Betrayal Of Capitol (And National) Security Must Be Stopped

Why McCarthy's Betrayal Of Capitol (And National) Security Must Be Stopped
Photo by Blinkofanaye/ CC BY-NC 2.0

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The 44,000 hours of Capitol security footage released by Speaker Kevin McCarthy to Fox News conspiracy-monger Tucker Carlson includes tape of the January 6 insurrection that no one outside of the Capitol Police has yet seen. The story of the Capitol surveillance footage is longer and more complicated than has been revealed in the recent stories about McCarthy’s craven capitulation to right-wing representatives in the Republican caucus who have been demanding that he throw them some red meat. McCarthy has turned over thousands of hours of security footage to Fox News whose of coverage of January 6 has been an exercise in right wing propaganda.

Previous to this, footage from Capitol security cameras had been tightly controlled by the Capitol police. In early 2021 when the House was preparing articles of impeachment against Trump, the Capitol police released 14,000 hours of surveillance footage, encompassing the hours of noon to 8 p.m. to two Congressional committees looking into what they were then calling the Capitol riot: The House Administration Committee and the Senate Rules Committee. The Capitol police also shared the 14,000 hours of security footage with the FBI and the Metropolitan police to assist them with their investigations of what happened in the Capitol that day. Later, surveillance footage from the Capitol was released to the House Select Committee that investigated the insurrection. Excerpts of that footage were shown during hearings of the committee.

As insurrectionists began to be arrested in 2021, some of the footage from January 6 was used as evidence in their arraignments on charges in federal court, and their lawyers began to demand to see more footage of the Capitol from that day, contending that it might include exculpatory evidence for their clients. Capitol Police General Counsel Thomas DiBiase filed a sworn affidavit in response to one request from an arrestee’s attorney, saying “The Department has significant concerns with the release of any of its footage to defendants in the Capitol attack cases unless there are safeguards in place to prevent its copying and dissemination. Our concern is that providing unfettered access to hours of extremely sensitive information to defendants who have already shown a desire to interfere with the democratic process will result in the layout, vulnerabilities and security weaknesses of the Capitol being collected, exposed and passed on to those who might wish to attack the Capitol again.”

Since that time, hundreds of hours of surveillance footage have been used in court as evidence for both prosecutors and defense attorneys involved in the cases against insurrectionists.

Politico reported in late February 2021 that Capitol police worked to establish an archive of video that “would permit defendants to peruse relevant clips but sharply restrict their access and permit prosecutors a chance to object if they feel such footage could be misused or present a risk.” Eventually, a “protective order governing the sharing of sensitive information with Capitol riot defendants” was issued, according to Politico.

Also that year, a dozen or more news organizations sued in federal court to get access to Capitol footage. A federal judge ruled that despite the public’s right to know about the contents of the footage, the videos could only be released on a case-by-case basis after the footage had been played in court during the cases against Capitol insurrection defendants. Federal prosecutors argued at that time, “once the capabilities of a U.S. Capitol interior surveillance camera, including its position and whether it pans, tilts or zooms, is disclosed to the public via the release of a single video from that camera, the cat is out of the bag.”

That gives some idea of the sensitivity of the Capitol security footage and the controls imposed on its release up until now.

It is not known what is on the 44,000 hours of Capitol surveillance footage released to Tucker Carlson or what it encompasses in terms of the time frame involved or which parts of the Capitol complex the cameras covered. It would appear from the difference between the 44,000 hours of footage released by McCarthy, and the 14,000 hours released to the two Congressional committees and the FBI and Metropolitan D.C. police in 2021 that the footage covers more hours and perhaps more parts of the Capitol both inside and outside the Capitol building itself.

Office buildings are situated on the sides of the Capitol corresponding to the House and Senate. On the Senate side are the Russell, Dirksen, and Hart buildings. On the House side are the Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon buildings. All the office buildings on Capitol Hill are connected to their respective sides of the Capitol by a subway system in underground tunnels. The tunnels also include access to other offices involved in the administration of the Capitol. It is not known if the tapes turned over to Fox News include the office buildings and access tunnels, but given the number of hours of footage, it probably does.

All of which brings up an interesting question: Who controls the surveillance footage of the Capitol building, office buildings, and access passageways? Everything I’ve read says it is controlled “by law” by the Capitol Police. But the budget for the Capitol Police is controlled by the House of Representatives, which would seem to give Speaker McCarthy leverage over the police.

However, both houses of Congress, the Senate and the House, have their own Sergeants at Arms who are also involved in the security of the Capitol building and the congressional offices. After the insurrection on January 6, both Capitol sergeants at arms were fired for their failure to secure the Capitol, along with the Chief of the Capitol Police.

It would appear with the kinds of turf battles fought within the legislative branch of the government over who controls what and who gets what privileges and so forth that there would be separate controls on the surveillance footage for the separate sides of the Capitol. The two houses of Congress control their sides of the Capitol in practically every other way. For example, as a reporter, you have to get press passes from both the House and the Senate, and each press pass gives you access to the designated sides of the Capitol and to the different office buildings. Every place in the Capitol complex is tightly controlled for security reasons.

I just can’t imagine that the Senate and the House do not both jealously guard their rights to control their sides of the Capitol with respect to the surveillance cameras that show what’s going on in the Capitol itself and within the congressional office buildings. Footage shown at the House Select Committee hearings showed both sides of the Capitol. Remember the scene of Senator Josh Hawley scampering across a hallway on the Senate side of the Capitol when he was running for his life from the insurrectionists he had encouraged with a raised fist only hours before? Of course, in 2021 and 2022, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, so I’m sure the House Select Committee had no difficulty getting access to the entire trove of security footage.

It may be that Senator Chuck Schumer, because of the way the Capitol is administered separately by the House and the Senate, has the power to put his foot down and demand the return of all the security footage that covered the Senate side of the Capitol building and the Senate office buildings. If he does, he should immediately demand the return of the Senate security footage from Fox News.

It cannot be that one man, Kevin McCarthy, has the sole power over the Capitol surveillance footage when he does not have the power, for example, over who gains admission to the Senate Press Gallery and which reporters should be issued press credentials. That is within the authority of the Majority Leader of the Senate, and I would be willing to bet good money that so is the Senate’s half of the surveillance footage taken of the insurrection on the Senate side of the Capitol. The breathtaking security breach that McCarthy committed with his release of sensitive Capitol camera footage cannot stand.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.


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