The acting US secretary of defence has said there is “no intelligence indicating an insider threat” for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday.
Law enforcement agencies are screening all 25,000 National Guard officers deployed for the event, after it emerged that some of those involved the deadly January 6 riot at the US Capitol had ties to security agencies.
Christopher Miller, the acting US secretary of defence, said in a statement on Monday that ‘this type of vetting often takes place by law enforcement for significant security events” but said the “scope of military preparation is unique”.
Thousands of US National Guard forces have entered Washington, DC, in recent days, as the city prepares for a scaled-back inauguration on January 20.
“In coordination with the Secret Service and the FBI, they’re screening all the personnel that are coming in,” General Daniel Hokanson, who heads the National Guard Bureau, told CBS News on Sunday.
The comments by the four-star general come as the capital, Washington, DC, remains locked down under unprecedented security following the storming of the Capitol – the seat of the US government – by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump. The mob wanted to prevent the Congress from certifying Biden’s election following repeated false claims by Trump that the November election was stolen.
At least five people died in the worst riot in almost two centuries, and prompted the US Congress to impeach President Trump for “incitement of insurrection”.
Speaking from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi said that ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration day, the National Guard was no longer relying on its usual vetting mechanisms to ensure that those within the service are not radicalised in some way.
“We’ve been told constantly from the National Guard leadership that members of the National Guard are routinely vetted for any potential dangers in their backgrounds, any links to extremism and so on,” he said.
“The new development that’s been reported is that the FBI is now getting involved.”
Rattansi said the FBI was running the names of the National Guard officers through its own databases, “checking for any red flags, any connection to extremist or militia groups”.
At least 21 current and ex-members of the US army and law enforcement have been identified as being at or near the Capitol riot, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
The US Army has also been investigating a psychological operations officer who led a group of people from North Carolina to the rally. Captain Emily Rainey, who had said she acted within military regulations, later resigned.
On the lookout for problems
Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy told AP on Sunday that officials were conscious of the potential threat, and he warned commanders to be on the lookout for any problems within their ranks as the inauguration approaches.
So far, he and other leaders say they have seen no evidence of any threats, and officials said the vetting had not flagged any issues they were aware of.
”We’re continually going through the process, and taking second, third looks at every one of the individuals assigned to this operation,” McCarthy said in an interview after he and other military leaders went through an exhaustive, three-hour security drill in preparation for Wednesday’s inauguration.
He said Guard members are also being trained on how to identify potential insider threats.
Much of Washington, DC, resembles a fortified compound in a war zone, with most of the downtown area blocked off, security fences topped by razor wire and about 25,000 National Guard troops – at least two and a half times the number for previous inaugurations – deployed to the capital.
In a recent letter to all US troops, the joint chiefs of staff told service members the January 6 riots were “inconsistent with the rule of law” and said troops “must embody the values and ideals of the nation”.
The National Guards’ Hokanson said he believes his troops have been adequately equipped and prepared, and that they are rehearsing as much as they can to be prepared for any contingency.
The main security concern is an attack by armed groups or individuals, as well as planted explosives and other devices. McCarthy said intelligence reports suggest that groups are organising armed rallies leading up to inauguration day, and possibly after that.
The Secret Service is in charge of event security, but there are other military and law enforcement personnel involved, ranging from the National Guard and the FBI to Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, US Capitol Police and US Park Police.
The bulk of the Guard members will be armed, with McCarthy saying units are going through repeated drills to practise when and how to use force and how to work quickly with law enforcement partners. Law enforcement officers would make any arrests needed.
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 … friendly, adjacent units are, they have the appropriate frequencies to communicate with their law enforcement partners”.
The key goal, he said, is for the United States’ 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.”
New Mexico official arrested
Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice said on Sunday it had arrested an elected official from New Mexico who had vowed to travel to Washington with firearms to protest against Biden’s inauguration.
Cuoy Griffin, a New Mexico county commissioner and founder of a group called “Cowboys for Trump,” was arrested in Washington on charges related to the January 6 attack against the US Capitol.
Griffin was among thousands who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to block Congress from certifying Biden’s victory over Trump, according to charging documents. He stood on the steps of the building but did not enter it.
According to an FBI document, Griffin said he planned to return ahead of Biden’s inauguration this Wednesday.
“If we do, then it’s gonna be a sad day, because there’s gonna be blood running out of that building,” he said in a video posted to Facebook.