The Pentagon has authorized up to 25,000 National Guard members to help secure Washington, DC, for President-elect Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day. That’s in addition to the thousands of US Secret Service, Capitol Police, and DC police that will be out in force for the event.
That’s a massive security presence. For comparison, that’s about half the entire number of US troops currently stationed in Japan. President Barack Obama’s “surge” of additional US troops to Afghanistan in late 2009 consisted of 30,000 troops.
And so far, nobody — from the US Secret Service to the FBI to the National Guard itself — has provided a clear reason for why such a huge force is necessary to secure the nation’s capital.
At a press conference on Friday, Matt Miller, agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Washington field office, told reporters, “We cannot allow a recurrence” of the kind of violence seen at the US Capitol insurrection last week.
Yet no one I spoke with on Friday would explain why 25,000 National Guard troops were needed to prevent such a recurrence.
The National Guard sent me to the Secret Service. Secret Service spokesperson Justine Whelan said the force doesn’t comment on “means and methods.” When I followed up about wanting to know about the threat, not means or methods, she said, “I consider the way in which operational decisions are considered and made, in consultation with our partners, to be a method.”
The FBI directed me to comments made by FBI Director Christopher Wray in a briefing with Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday, in which Wray said, “We are seeing an extensive amount of concerning online chatter — that’s the best way I would describe it — about a number of events surrounding the inauguration.”
The office of Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city’s police department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. However, the mayor on Friday said, at that same press conference where Miller spoke, “Clearly, we are in uncharted waters.”
Right now, roughly 7,000 National Guard members surround the Capitol behind a sprawling unscalable fence alongside federal law enforcement like the Secret Service — which is in charge of security on Inauguration Day — and local forces like Washington’s police.
Together, they have set up a wide perimeter around the Capitol and the National Mall, making it nearly impossible for any unauthorized vehicle or person to get within blocks of the main building.
I know this because I walked around the entirety of the perimeter twice this week. I can safely report that what’s already in place is a veritable fortress, and it’s hard to imagine anyone successfully overcoming the armed guards like the Trump-friendly crowd did on January 6.
Even so, federal officials seem worried about potential violence as Biden is sworn into office. His inauguration rehearsal, originally planned for Sunday, was postponed over security concerns. The National Mall is closed until January 21.
A robust security presence around the Capitol is certainly warranted given the potential threats we already know about. The plan could be to ensure there’s more than enough security around the inauguration to quickly stamp out any potential threat. It could also be a deterrence measure: A large-enough force might dissuade anyone with violent designs from attempting an attack.
The problem is the public simply doesn’t know the real plan or the true extent of the threat. Having 25,000 National Guard members in place — added to all the fencing and local and federal law enforcement — might be the right amount. Or not enough, which would be concerning. Or too much, which would be a failure to adequately assess the situation and a major nuisance for DC residents.
The only people who would give me anything resembling an assessment were three members of the New York National Guard who were protecting the Capitol on Friday, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity to speak freely and avoid retribution. They said that, as of now, they don’t feel more National Guard members are needed to protect the Capitol.
More could also exacerbate another problem: The Covid-19 pandemic. The New York National Guard members said they weren’t getting tested before going on duty and would go through two weeks of quarantine when they head home. It’s possible, then, that a larger military presence could lead to a greater chance of infection among the ranks.
None of this is to say all these agencies are trying to jealously guard information. They may simply want to keep details that could be helpful to armed rioters out of the public domain or not derail any of their intelligence-gathering strategies.
Still, it’d be nice to have a clear understanding of why 25,000 National Guard members need to be deployed to the nation’s capital to secure the transfer of power.