Washingtonians in government and law enforcement are unsure what to expect this weekend as the nation inches closer to the inauguration and the anticipated arrival of protesters.
While Capitol Hill staff said they felt safer because of the influx of thousands of soldiers to the U.S. Capitol and surrounding area, others pointed out vulnerabilities may exist across much of downtown Washington, D.C., where rioters could turn if legislative buildings seem too hard to breach.
An internal FBI memo obtained by ABC News this week revealed that the federal agency was tracking armed protests at all 50 state capitols and the U.S. Capitol and that an armed group planned to travel to Washington on Saturday. President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration rehearsal on Sunday has been postponed to Monday due to security concerns.
National Association of Police Organizations Executive Director Bill Johnson said the public should expect to continue seeing a strong showing of law enforcement and military in the capital city, even though no major attack has taken place in the past nine days.
“I would expect that the state of vigilance/preparedness would remain very high in light of last week’s events,” Johnson wrote in an email. “I don’t think any chief or supervisor would want to risk being in the position of something bad happening, and then having to say, ‘We thought the threat had abated.’”
Philip Banks III, the former chief of the New York Police Department, said even significant action by the government “very seldom stops” violent people, in this case, because there is no one leader of the many far-right groups online.
“The threat level is extremely high, and I’d argue that the people who set it into motion don’t even know how to pull it back in or want to pull it back in,” said Banks. “It almost takes a life onto its own, which creates a lot of challenges. … You send something into the atmosphere, and even the leaders can’t pull it out.”
Banks said intelligence gathered by law enforcement needs to be acted upon by committing extra personnel and resources to areas that could be targeted in addition to the Capitol and White House. The federal government ought to be tracking those it knows are traveling to Washington, the hotels they are staying at, and if they have boarded scheduled flights. How they might act once in Washington will depend on who they are targeting. Securing Biden and his staff is the top priority for the federal government, and if violent extremists feel that they cannot get to him, they may focus on seriously interrupting the inauguration ceremony or causing other chaos.
A top aide to a senior House Republican who resides in Washington said she was still concerned despite the surge of soldiers into her community but hoped that the presence of the National Guard and law enforcement will “ward off anything escalating to the level that we experienced on the 6th.”
“I certainly feel more safe now than ever before thanks to the outstanding presence of the National Guard,” another senior House Republican staff member wrote in an email.
A senior aide to a freshmen congressman said it was still concerning that so many resources had been activated.
“I don’t see why they would commit that amount of resources unless they see something,” he said, noting the armored vehicles and state troopers with assault rifles he saw while walking to work this week.
Mayor Muriel Bowser warned Friday that the inauguration on Wednesday was “not the only target or activity that’s out there being discussed” as high-threat.
“There are other events that lead up to that,” Bowser said.
A Secret Service official in Washington said at the same press conference that “there is the potential for people to go elsewhere,” including other parts of the city that are not as fortified as the Capitol and White House.