The Pentagon has authorized up to 25,000 National Guard members to secure Washington DC for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration day. This is in addition to the thousands of U.S. intelligence agencies, Capitol Police, and DC Police that will go into effect for the event.
That is a massive security presence. By comparison, that’s roughly half the total number of US troops currently stationed in Japan. President Barack Obama’s “surge” in additional US troops to Afghanistan in late 2009 consisted of 30,000 soldiers.
And so far, no one – from US intelligence to the FBI to the National Guard itself – has given a clear reason why such a large force is necessary to secure the nation’s capital.
Speaking at a news conference on Friday, Matt Miller, the agent in charge of the Secret Service Washington field office, told reporters: “We cannot allow a repetition of the kind of violence seen in the US Capitol riot last week.
But no one I spoke to on Friday would explain why 25,000 National Guard troops were needed to prevent such a repeat.
The National Guard sent me to the secret service. Intelligence spokeswoman Justine Whelan said the force did not comment on “means and methods.” When I thought about wanting to know about the threat, not means or methods, she said, “I see the way operational decisions are considered and made in consultation with our partners as a method.”
The FBI referred me to comments made by FBI Director Christopher Wray in a briefing Thursday with Vice President Mike Pence in which Wray said, “We see a great deal of online chatter – this is how I would best describe it – a series of events around the inauguration. “
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office and the city police department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, the mayor said on Friday at the same press conference that Miller spoke, “We are clearly in uncharted waters.”
Currently, around 7,000 members of the National Guard surround the Capitol behind a sprawling, non-scalable fence, along with federal law enforcement agencies like the Secret Service, which is responsible for security on inauguration day, and local forces like the Washington Police Department.
Together, they created a wide perimeter around the Capitol and the National Mall, making it nearly impossible for unauthorized vehicles or people to get into blocks of the main building.
I know this because I’ve run around the full perimeter twice this week. I can confidently report that what is already there is a true fortress, and it is hard to imagine anyone having successfully defeated the armed guards as the Trump-friendly crowd did on Jan. 6 Has.
Even so, federal officials appear concerned about possible violence when Biden is sworn into office. His initial rehearsal, originally planned for Sunday, has been postponed due to security concerns. The National Mall is closed until January 21st.
A robust security presence around the Capitol is certainly warranted given the potential threats we are already familiar with. The plan could be to ensure that the initiation is more than secure enough to quickly stamp out potential threats. It could also be a dissuasive measure: a sufficiently large force could deter anyone with violent intent from attempting an attack.
The problem is that the public just doesn’t know the real plan or the real scope of the threat. 25,000 National Guard members in place – in addition to all fences and local and federal law enforcement agencies – might be the right amount. Or not enough, which is worrying. Or too much, which would be a failure to properly assess the situation and a major nuisance to residents of DC.
The only people who gave me anything that resembled an assessment were three members of the New York National Guard, who guarded the Capitol on Friday and spoke to me on condition of anonymity to speak freely and avoid retaliation. They said they do not currently believe that more National Guard members are needed to protect the Capitol.
More could also make another problem worse: the Covid-19 pandemic. New York National Guard members said they would not be tested prior to their duty and would go through two weeks of quarantine when they head home. So it is possible that a larger military presence could lead to a greater likelihood of infection in the ranks.
None of this means that all of these agencies are jealously trying to protect information. They may just want to keep out of the public domain details that could be helpful to armed rioters, or not to derail any of their information-gathering strategies.
Even so, it would be nice to have a clear understanding of why 25,000 National Guard members need to be dispatched to the country’s capital to ensure the transfer of power.
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