The D.C. National Guard and the Defense Department Inspector General’s office appear to be at odds over who should take responsibility for an incident that involved two low-flying helicopters on the night of June 1.
“Two D.C. National Guard helicopters that flew low over protesters in Washington, D.C., on the night of June 1 were not properly authorized to be there — and were directed by a lieutenant colonel who was far from the scene, driving home in his car, according to an initial investigation by the D.C. National Guard,” Defense One Senior National Security correspondent Katie Bo Williams reported Friday.
The superior officer who authorized the deployment claimed he didn’t know that the regulations required him to have higher-level approval to use the helicopters at all, and that in any case, he in no way told the lieutenant colonel that the helicopters should be used for crowd dispersal, according to Williams.
The protest occurred in direct response to the killing of George Floyd. President Donald J. Trump then militarized his response to the protests popping up around the country.
“There were 1,200 D.C. National Guardsmen deployed in the Washington, D.C. area on the night of June 1,” Williams wrote. “They had been summoned amid massive protests surrounding the White House, some of which had devolved into looting and other violent behavior. Thousands more had been mustered from other states through a controversial legal loophole, and the 82nd Airborne was staged outside of the city to respond if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act. The D.C. Guard also had five helicopters on standby, thanks to operations orders signed in the previous two days by Maj. Gen. William Walker, who commands the district’s Guard. The two Lakotas and three Black Hawks were readied to provide medical evacuation, troop transport and other logistics needs, a source familiar with the events of June 1 said.”
According to Williams, “At roughly 7 p.m. that night, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Wingblade emailed his superior, Brig. Gen. Robert Ryan, to tell him that the Secret Service had given the Guard special permission to fly over the highly restricted airspace above the National Mall and the White House. Wingblade, as the lead aviation staff officer, was the subject matter expert and top advisor to D.C. Guard leadership on all matters involving Army National Guard aviation. Ryan was the commander of the division of the D.C. Guard responsible for responding to the civil unrest.”
She continued, “Shortly afterwards, Ryan called Wingblade, who was in his car driving home. The general told the lieutenant colonel to put the five helicopters into the air over the National Mall. In sworn interviews with D.C. Guard investigators, Ryan insisted that he did not instruct Wingblade to use the helicopters for crowd dispersal or intimidation, but rather to observe the protests, deter looting and other criminal activity, and provide emergency medical evacuation if necessary. Ryan ‘believed the presence of military helicopters along the National Mall would be a general deterrent to the rioting and looting that had plagued the capital over the last few days and which necessitated the 1900 curfew and the presence of the D.C. National Guard in the first place,’ according to an internal D.C. Guard memo from Aug. 3 detailing the timeline and the rationale behind the investigation’s findings.”
In his interviews with D.C. Guard investigators, Wingblade said he remembered the events differently. He recalled Ryan saying, “I need you to orbit around the cross to disperse any type of looting, mayhem, whatsoever.” The D.C. Guard’s senior enlisted leader was also on the call, on speakerphone on Ryan’s end. He told investigators that, “At no time in the conversation did I hear BG Ryan instruct or authorize aviation assets to fly at low altitudes. Nor did BG Ryan speak of utilizing aviation assets to disperse crowds.”
SCOOP: The initial investigation by the D.C. National Guard into the two Guard helicopters that flew low over protesters on the night of June 1 found they weren’t properly authorized to be there & were directed by a Lt. Col. who was driving home in his car.https://t.co/E1scOpRCfm
— Katie Bo Williams (@KatieBoWill) October 30, 2020
Now, the investigation’s findings seem to be trapped in a bureaucratic morass. The findings—including a recommendation that the Lt. Col. be reprimanded—went to Army HQ. The Army IG has since sent at least one updated version to the DOD IG, which is conducting its own review.
— Katie Bo Williams (@KatieBoWill) October 30, 2020
“Normally, when the Guard goes on a mission in their state status, they’re under the direct authority of a governor or at the request of a governor,” said Mike Taheri, who retired as a two-star from the National Guard Bureau in August. “But in D.C., there’s no political accountability. The secretary of the Army doesn’t care about the people of D.C. — he cares about what Trump thinks.”
On Aug. 3, D.C. National Guard leaders responded to the inspector general’s concerns with a memo that said, in part, “LTC Wingblade, whose job it is to know and to advise his superiors on applicable regulations and policies, appears to have lacked fundamental and essential knowledge or to have been willfully dissembling.”