The massive undertaking reflects the extraordinary security concerns that have gripped Washington following the deadly 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol by rioters incited by Donald Trump. And it underscores fears that some of the very people assigned to protect the city over the next several days could present a threat to the incoming president and other VIPs.
Army secretary Ryan McCarthy said officials were conscious of the potential threat, and warned commanders to be on the lookout for problems within their ranks. So far, however, he and other leaders say they have seen no evidence of any threats, and officials said the vetting hadn’t flagged any issues that 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 after he and other military leaders went through an exhaustive, three-hour security drill. He said guard members were also getting training on how to identify potential insider threats.
About 25,000 members of the guard are streaming into Washington from across the country – at least two and a half times the number for previous inaugurals. And while the military routinely reviews service members for extremist connections, the FBI screening is in addition to any previous monitoring.
Multiple officials said the process began as the first troops began deploying to DC more than a week ago. They said it was slated to be complete by Wednesday. Several officials discussed military planning on condition of anonymity.
“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 situation like this one, FBI vetting would involve running peoples’ names through databases and watchlists, looking for involvement in prior investigations or terrorism-related concerns, said David Gomez, a former FBI supervisor in Seattle.
Insider threats have been a law enforcement priority since the 9/11 attacks. But in most cases, the threats are from homegrown insurgents radicalized by al-Qaida, the Islamic State or similar groups.
In contrast, the threats against Biden’s inauguration have been fueled by supporters of Trump, far-right militants, white supremacists and other radical groups. Many believe Trump’s baseless accusations the election was stolen, a claim refuted by many courts, the justice department and Republican officials in battleground states.
The insurrection at the Capitol began after Trump made incendiary remarks at a rally. According to McCarthy, service members from across the military were at that rally, but it’s not clear how many may have participated in the breach at the Capitol.
A couple of current active-duty or national guard members have been arrested in connection with the Capitol assault, which left five dead including a police officer and a woman shot as she climbed through a window near the House chamber.
Gen Daniel R Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, has been meeting guard troops as they arrive and gather downtown.
“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,” he said.
The insider threat, however, was just one of the security concerns voiced by officials on Sunday, as dozens of military, guard, law enforcement and Washington officials and commanders went through a security rehearsal in northern Virginia. The Secret Service is in charge of event security, but there is a wide variety of military and law enforcement personnel involved, ranging from the Guard and the FBI to Washington Metropolitan Police, Capitol police and US park police.
Hokanson said he believes his troops have been adequately equipped and prepared, and are rehearsing to be prepared for any contingency.
The major security concern is an attack by armed groups, as well as planted explosives and other devices. McCarthy said intelligence reports suggest groups are organizing armed rallies leading up to Inauguration Day, and possibly after that.
The bulk of the guard members will be armed. McCarthy said units are going through repeated drills to practice when and how to use force and how to work quickly with law enforcement partners. Law enforcement officers would make any arrests.
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.”