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Why the FBI is vetting the National Guard ahead of the inauguration

Credentialing National Guard members ahead of national special security events is routine.

As many as 25,000 National Guard soldiers will be tasked with securing Washington, DC, for the inauguration.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The FBI is vetting all 25,000 National Guard troops who are tasked with securing the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on January 20, due to fears of a coordinated insider attack, according to the Associated Press.

Investigations into the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol have revealed that law enforcement officials were involved: Nearly 30 sworn officers are known to have at least participated in the rally that preceded the riot, with other officers being arrested for their involvement in the insurrection itself. And a few National Guard members have been arrested in connection to the Capitol assault, the AP reported, including Virginia National Guard Cpl. Jacob Fracker.

Following the attack on the Capitol, 25,000 National Guard troops were requested at the Capitol to provide inauguration security and to guard against any further riots. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told the AP that officials are “aware of the potential threat” that could arise from within the Guard, and instructed commanders to “be on the lookout for any problems within their ranks.”

Vetting, which commenced about a week ago, includes a screening before traveling to Washington and a background check “enhanced with more screening,” Maj. Gen. William Walker told ABC News. Walker added that the enhanced process involves the Secret Service and the FBI. So far, the entire vetting process has not turned up any red flags, the AP said.

While the publication described the vetting process as a “massive undertaking,” a spokesperson for the National Guard Bureau told Vox on Monday that the vetting process underway is normal procedure and is being sensationalized.

“This is a normal part of working every inauguration,” Maj. Matt Murphy told Vox. “It is the normal credentialing process for anyone who attends the inauguration, whether that’s journalists, aides, or catering staff, and has access to inside the area.”

The credentialing process for the inauguration is routine. But for 25,000 troops, it is unprecedented.

What’s different this year is the number of National Guard troops, and hence the time it will take to vet everyone. As of Monday, more than 21,500 members of the National Guard were on the ground in DC, with troops flying in from as far as Guam.

Under normal circumstances, about 8,000 to 10,000 National Guard members serve at the inauguration to help with logistics — including directing traffic and escorting people on the grounds — as well as staffing security checkpoints. “What is causing the concern is the sheer number of troops that were requested by the federal agencies,” Murphy said. “The credentialing process by the FBI or Secret Service is routine, but this year we just happen to have an additional 25,000 troops that are required to have it.”

As Vox’s Alex Ward reported, officials have not directly explained why 25,000 National Guard troops were needed to prevent a situation similar to what took place on January 6. All that is publicly known is federal security officials have said they have reason for concern. In a briefing with Mike Pence last Thursday, FBI Director Christopher 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.”

So far, the security has led to some arrests: Over the weekend, three people were arrested and detained by police at DC security checkpoints near the Capitol, two for carrying unregistered or unlicensed weapons.

As for the threat of an insider attack, Murphy told Vox there is a specific process the National Guard follows that has always involved federal agencies.

“If there’s any inappropriate association or statements made by service members, it’s actually a federal agency that notifies the National Guard Bureau that this person may be saying inappropriate things or posting inappropriate things.” Once the federal agency notifies the National Guard Bureau, the bureau notifies local command and they conduct an investigation. For the inauguration, the FBI will determine what happens if they identify a threat.

But the process is nothing out of the ordinary, particularly for national security-level events like the inauguration or the Super Bowl, Murphy maintained.

The DC National Guard is also providing additional training to service members as they arrive in the District — and part of that training involves watching one’s colleagues. Members are being told that if they “see or hear something that is not appropriate,” they should “report it to their chain of command.”

This unique preparation is meant to supplement the Guards’ annual training in the Threat Awareness and Reporting Program (TARP); that program requires personnel to report any information regarding known or suspected extremist behavior that could be a threat to the Defense Department or the country, according to an emailed statement from an Army spokesperson.

The statement also said, “There is no place for extremism in the military and we will investigate each report individually and take appropriate action. Any type of activity that involves violence, civil disobedience, or a breach of peace may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or under state or federal law.”

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