U.S. security officials say they are concerned about a possible insider attack or other threats from service members involved in securing President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, leading the FBI to vet all 25,000 troops from the National Guard coming to Washington for the event.
The huge undertaking represents the security challenges that Washington has faced following the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by the pro-Trump terrorists. And it highlights concerns that some of the very people appointed to defend the city might pose a danger to the new president and other VIPs in attendance.
On Sunday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told The Associated Press that officials are aware of the possible danger. He warned commanders as the inauguration approaches to be on the lookout for any issues within their ranks. However, he and other politicians say they have seen no signs of any threats so far, and officials said the vetting has not flagged any problems that they were aware of.
McCarthy said in an interview after he and other military leaders went through an exhaustive, three-hour security drill in preparation for the inauguration of Wednesday, “We’re continually going through the process, and taking second, third looks at every one of the individuals assigned to this operation.” He said members of the Guard are also receiving training on how to identify potential insider threats.
About 25,000 National Guard members from all over the country are streaming into Washington, at least two and a half times the number for previous inaugurations. And while the military routinely reviews service members for extremist connections, the FBI screening is in addition to any previous monitoring.
Many officials said that the process began once the first Guard troops began deploying to DC more than a week ago. And they said it was set to be finished by Wednesday. On condition of anonymity, multiple officials discussed military planning.
“The question is, is that all of them? Are there others?” said McCarthy. “We need to be conscious of it, and we need to put all of the mechanisms in place to thoroughly vet these men and women who would support any operations like this.”
In a case like this, FBI vetting will entail running the names of individuals through databases and watchlists kept by the bureau to see if there is anything suspicious. That could include involvement in prior inquiries or issues related to terrorism, said David Gomez, Seattle’s former national FBI security supervisor.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, insider threats have become a persistent law enforcement priority. In most cases, the attacks come from homegrown militants radicalized by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State group, or similar organizations. In comparison, Donald Trump supporters, far-right militants, white supremacists, and other extremist groups have fueled the threats against Biden’s inauguration. Many accept Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him, an argument that many courts, the Department of Justice, and Republican officials in key swing states have denied.
After Trump made incendiary statements at the Jan. 6 rally, the uprising at the Capitol began. According to McCarthy, service members from around the military were at the protest, but it’s not clear how many were there or who may have engaged in the Capitol breach. Only a few current active duty members or members of the National Guard have been arrested so far in connection with the Capitol attack, which left five people dead. The dead included a police officer from the Capitol Police and a woman shot by police as she climbed through a door window near the House Chamber.
The chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, met with guard troops as they arrived in D.C. and as they gather downtown. He said he agrees that there are good processes in place to identify any potential threats.
He said, “If there’s any indication that any of our soldiers or airmen are expressing things that are extremist views, it’s either handed over to law enforcement or dealt with the chain of command immediately.”
However, the insider threat was just one of the security concerns expressed by officials on Sunday, as thousands of Northern Virginia military, National Guard, law enforcement, and Washington, D.C., officials and commanders went through a security rehearsal. As many as three dozen leaders lined tables surrounding a huge color-coded D.C. map reflected onto the floor. Behind them were dozens more National Guard officers and staff, with their eyes trained on additional maps and charts displayed on the wall.
The Secret Service is responsible for the security of activities. Still, a wide range of military and law enforcement personnel are involved, from the National Guard and the FBI to the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the U.S. Park Police.
Commanders went through every part of the complicated security lockdown in the area, with McCarthy and others bombarding them with questions about how the soldiers will react in every situation and how well they will interact with the other enforcement agencies around the city.
Hokanson said he feels that his troops have been trained and planned properly and that they are rehearsing as much as possible to prepare for any contingency.
The main security concern is an attack by armed groups of individuals and planted explosives and other devices. McCarthy said intelligence reports indicate that groups are planning armed rallies leading up to, and probably after, Inauguration Day.
The bulk of Guard members will be armed. And McCarthy said units are undergoing repeated exercises in order to practice when and how to use force and how to work with law enforcement partners quickly. Law enforcement officers would make any arrests.
He said Guard units are going through “constant mental repetitions of looking at the map and talking through scenarios with leaders, so they understand their task and purpose, they know their routes, they know where they’re friendly, adjacent units are, they have the appropriate frequencies to communicate with their law enforcement partners.”
The key goal, he said, is for America’s transfer of power to happen without incident.
“This is a national priority. We have to be successful as an institution,” said McCarthy. “We want to send the message to everyone in the United States and for the rest of the world that we can do this safely and peacefully.”