Thousands of troops dig in for inauguration
The National Guard is playing a leading role as the country confronts a domestic terrorism threat following the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The Capitol is now crawling with more troops than in the United States’s main theaters of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined as the National Guard fortifies key areas around Washington, D.C., for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
The Secret Service is even referring to the new perimeter around the Capitol as the “Green Zone” — the same name used for secure zones in Iraq and Afghanistan’s capital cities.
And it’s not just D.C. Amid FBI warnings of the potential for violence at all 50 state Capitols, governors in roughly a dozen states have called up their National Guards to bolster law enforcement.
But there are also worries the military is part of the problem, as several veterans have been arrested in connection with the Capitol riots. And at least one person arrested is a current member of the National Guard in Virginia.
Following heavy criticism of the guard’s response to last summer’s racial justice protests in the city, D.C. and Pentagon officials had originally sought to minimize its role in security surrounding the inauguration.
In June, hundreds of guardsmen from around the country poured into the nation’s capital at President Trump’s request, despite objections from local authorities. A National Guard helicopter also hovered over protesters in the way the military does to insurgents overseas as a show of force, a move that drew widespread scrutiny and rebuke.
After that, as officials anticipated protests when Congress met to certify Biden’s electoral victory, D.C. officials requested and the Pentagon approved just 340 unarmed guardsmen to help the city with traffic control. Defense officials have said Capitol Police turned down offers of Guard help before the riots.
That all changed after the Capitol siege.
As of Friday, more than 7,000 guardsmen from across the country were in Washington, D.C., with up to 25,000 from all 50 states, three territories and D.C. expected to be in the city by Inauguration Day.
Troops have erected 7-foot “non-scalable” fences around the Capitol and other nearby government buildings and set up checkpoints with military vehicles and concrete barriers on streets throughout the area.
With Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy’s approval, guardsmen at the Capitol are armed, with scores of troops seen inside and outside the building with M4 semi-automatic rifles.
The Pentagon, D.C. officials and Capitol Police have traded accusations about who is to blame for the guard’s slow response after rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. But the Pentagon is projecting confidence now that it is well prepared for any threats to come.
“At this point, there’s a machine that’s cranking on that,” acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said Thursday of preparations for inauguration security. Miller was speaking to reporters traveling with him after a visit to U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, where he and commander Gen. Glen VanHerck discussed the preparations.
Troops deployed to the Capitol are reportedly preparing for threats as extreme as improvised explosive devices, suicide aircraft, remote controlled drones and shootings at dignitaries.
Outside D.C., more than 2,125 guardsmen are protecting state Capitols and key infrastructure around the country, according to the National Guard.
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) called up his state’s National Guard after the perimeter of the governor’s mansion was breached by pro-Trump protesters the same day as the U.S. Capitol assault.
As of Friday, governors in Ohio, Minnesota, Oregon, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Delaware have also activated their National Guards or put them on standby in case of violence in their states.
“I will not allow what happened at our nation’s capital to happen here,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said in a statement Thursday. “That is why I am taking the necessary measures to ensure everyone’s safety and security across our great commonwealth.”
The National Guard was already stretched thin over the last year, as it was called upon to help respond to the COVID-19 crisis; support local law enforcement during racial justice protests; respond to hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters; and bolster cyber defenses and local poll workers during the elections.
Even as it steps up deployments for domestic terrorism threats, the National Guard still has 21,650 troops helping states with COVID-19, including administering vaccines and tests.
And for many states responding to extremist threats, guardsmen are splitting their help between their own states and D.C.
“I am pleased to be able to offer the services of our National Guard, but I regret that we have over 2,000 of them in Washington, D.C., right now protecting our nation’s capital from Americans,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said at a news conference Thursday. “That should bother everybody. It should bother everybody when you walk out of this building and see boards across the windows of our state Capitol.”
Neither the guardsmen staying in their states nor those being sent to D.C. have been federalized, meaning they remain under the command of the governors, or in D.C.’s case, the Army secretary. They are also not barred from conducting law enforcement activities like federalized guardsmen or active-duty troops would be.
Still, pictures of armed service members policing the Capitol, a symbol of democracy, have jarred the country and evoked images of troops quartering in the federal building during the Civil War.
“The National Guard has long played a role in restoring calm after major disruptions, whether caused by nature or by human action,” said Peter Feaver, a civil-military relations expert at Duke University who was a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush. “Of course, it is striking to see these images in the Capitol, and the proximate cause of them — an insurrection attempt by supporters of the outgoing president who sought to prevent the incoming president from assuming his constitutional powers — is without precedent in modern times.”
Further adding to the unease is concern about any threat coming from within military ranks.
In a nod to that concern, every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff released a statement this past week denouncing the Capitol attack and reminding troops that “any act to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values and oath; it is against the law.”
The Virginia National Guard confirmed Thursday one of the men arrested in connection with the riot is a guardsman. The man, Jacob Fracker, was not among those deployed to D.C. for the inauguration, the guard stressed.
Fracker, who is also a Marine veteran and an officer with the Rocky Mount Police Department, was arrested along with another Rocky Mount officer after they were photographed inside the Capitol making an obscene gesture in front of the John Stark statute. The two men were each charged with one count of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.
In addition to Fracker, several other veterans have been arrested or connected to the insurrection. A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel was arrested after being photographed on the Senate floor wearing tactical gear and carrying plastic zip ties used by law enforcement as handcuffs, and the self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman” who was arrested is a Navy veteran.
The woman who was fatally shot by Capitol Police while trying to breach the door to the Speaker’s Lobby was an Air Force veteran.
And at least one active-duty service member, an Army psychological operations officer, is under investigation by the Army for her involvement in the rally that preceded the riot, though she insists she did not enter the Capitol. She also was already in the process of separating from the Army because of an earlier incident.
After Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) requested a “review of troops deployed for the inauguration to ensure that deployed members are not sympathetic to domestic terrorists,” the Army said it was working with the Secret Service to determine which members being deployed needed additional background screening.
The Pentagon this week also acknowledged a “resurgence” of white supremacy in recent years, though it declined to say how many troops it is monitoring for extremist activity or provide information on troops or veterans involved in the Capitol attack.
“We clearly recognize the threat from domestic extremists, particularly those who espouse white supremacy or white nationalist ideologies,” a senior defense official told reporters Thursday. “We are actively involved in always trying to improve our understanding of where the threat is coming from as a means of understanding and taking action.”
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