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Security footprint grows in nation’s capital ahead of inauguration

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/13/2021 Missy Ryan, Alex Horton, Matt Zapotosky, Dan Lamothe
National Guard troops at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock National Guard troops at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

National Guard forces from a growing list of states moved into positions around Washington on Wednesday as authorities scrambled to understand the extent of threats surrounding President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration and prevent a repeat of last week’s deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Federal officials led tabletop exercises to rehearse inauguration security and strengthen coordination among a massive patchwork of police, National Guard troops and federal personnel that is expected to fan out ahead of protests this weekend and the Jan. 20 transfer of power.

By next week, the D.C. police chief said, upward of 20,000 guardsmen were expected to be in place to guard against violence, days after supporters of President Trump smashed their way into the Capitol as lawmakers met to certify Biden’s electoral win.

At least five people died as a result of the riot, which sent lawmakers and staffers running for shelter and marked a dramatic cap to a divisive election season defined by Trump’s refusal to concede. Even as bureaucratic finger-pointing continued about who was responsible for the security debacle, officials were accelerating preparations for next week’s swearing-in ceremony as they monitored multiplying threats.

Authorities have been operating in a heightened state of alert as the Secret Service orchestrates inauguration security and the FBI runs down possible threats in D.C. and state capitals.

On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray briefed local law enforcement across the country about the “state of play,” and the agency moved to establish new command posts nationwide.

Senior FBI and Secret Service officials also briefed Biden and some of his national security aides Wednesday, the transition team said. The officials are now expected to receive daily updates on security and operational plans.

“The President-elect and Vice President-elect are focused on safeguarding the security of the American people, our institutions, and our democratic values,” Biden’s transition team said in a statement.

A week ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, the incoming administration is stressing its ability to assume charge of U.S. security without disruption, even as nominees for key positions await their confirmation hearings. Some agencies, including the Defense Department, also are unlikely to have a new confirmed leader on Day 1.

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Scrutiny has intensified after the Capitol riot over what senior intelligence officials may have known before Jan. 6, as an FBI warning about protesters’ intent to make “war” in Washington came to light.

Officials and analysts monitoring online posts and message threads said some far-right groups appeared to be backing down from plans to come to Washington in coming days, at least in part owing to the National Guard and law enforcement presence.

Some groups are advising their followers that protests planned for Sunday in D.C. and in state capitals are part of a “false flag” operation meant to lure them into the hands of law enforcement. There is no evidence that is the case.

Experts and officials say it has been difficult to separate individuals who may pose a legitimate threat from those who are engaged in hyperbolic rhetoric but ultimately are unlikely to storm a government building or even show up to a protest march. More concerning, they added, is the threat from people and small groups who may not broadcast their intentions in public forums and may have taken to encrypted messaging platforms. Those people will be harder for law enforcement to track and may be more committed to carrying out their plans.

The consensus seemed to be that while the risk of violence may be lower in Washington in coming days, state capitals remain vulnerable.

Fearing fresh rounds of violence this weekend, more governors on Wednesday announced that they were calling up National Guard troops to help maintain security.

Many state officials stressed they are dealing with only vague threats but said the attack in Washington last week left them little choice but to bolster security around their capitol buildings.

“I will deploy necessary resources to keep North Carolinians safe,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who called up 550 troops for deployment in Raleigh and in D.C.

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown (D) also activated the National Guard after state police requested additional resources following unrest outside the Capitol in Salem last week.

The Secret Service, as it typically does, is leading security preparations in D.C. But unlike in most years, the small federal service will be backed by a gargantuan force to help keep the peace.

Officials at the Pentagon were racing to evaluate a growing list of requests for National Guard assistance. A defense official said it was too soon to say how many guardsmen would ultimately be on hand in D.C. but did not dispute a statement earlier in the day from the city’s acting police chief, Robert J. Contee III, who said the number would be “beyond 20,000.”

Those forces will be joined by officials from a host agencies. The U.S. Marshals Service, part of the Justice Department, plans to deputize between 3,000 and 4,000 local law enforcement officers from across the country who — at the request of D.C. police, will help with security for the inauguration, said Lamont J. Ruffin, chief deputy U.S. marshal for D.C. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, meanwhile, “is making plans to send specially trained officers” to D.C. to assist with security during the inauguration, a spokesman said Tuesday, potentially taking a posture similar to the one it took during the civil unrest during racial justice demonstrations in June.

Justin Long, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman, said the department would send personnel “if and as determined to be needed.”

Already, the D.C. government and the Capitol Police, a federal force, have called on additional National Guard aid, resulting in the activation of all available D.C. Guard forces as well as troops from a growing roster of states including Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Pentagon officials say they must balance needs in the nation’s capital against those in states.

As House lawmakers gathered to debate a proposal to impeach Trump for a second time, the Capitol building resembled a makeshift barracks, as hundreds of guardsmen sprawled on the marble floor, using backpacks as pillows and with unloaded M4 rifles within reach.

The guardsmen were resting between shifts, D.C. Guard officials said in a statement, stressing that they were not sleeping on the floor because of a lack of sleeping arrangements. Local hotels are accommodating the service members, officials said.

Other guardsmen marveled at the decor and munched on pizza delivered by lawmakers. Some Black troops posed for a photo in front of a statue of Rosa Parks in the Capitol Rotunda.

Michael Brice-Saddler, Tim Craig, Nick Miroff, Souad Mekhennet, Razzan Nakhlawi and Shane Harris contributed to this report.

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