(POLITICO) – National Guard units are being told to prepare for the possibility that improvised explosive devices will be used by individuals plotting to attack the Capitol in the days surrounding the Inauguration, according to two Guardsmen briefed this week.
The briefings indicate that Washington, D.C.-area law enforcement believe the IEDs planted last week at the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee headquarters were not an isolated incident. The individual who planted those bombs has yet to be apprehended, and FBI agents have been going door to door in D.C. this week asking residents for any photos or video they might have that could help identify the suspect, two of the residents told POLITICO.
In addition to the IED threat, the Guardsmen are being briefed that protesters could be heavily armed. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy has authorized the National Guardsmen protecting the Capitol, previously only carrying protective gear, to carry lethal weapons including M-9 handguns. A “significant majority” of soldiers are also carrying M-4 rifles, one of the Guardsmen said.
A Guard spokesperson declined to say whether law enforcement had briefed units at the Capitol on an IED threat.
“Our primary objective is to provide support to local authorities,” said spokesperson Tracy O’Grady Walsh, noting that the Guard’s mission during the inauguration is to provide crowd management, traffic control, parking coordination and medical and logistical support to local authorities. “The public’s safety is our top priority.”
Up to 20,000 Guardsmen could be stationed around D.C. in the coming days, at the request of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and other civil authorities. On Tuesday night, hundreds of armed Guardsmen deployed to the Capitol ahead of lawmakers beginning a second round of impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
It’s not clear whether National Guardsmen are preparing to respond themselves to potential IEDs, and the briefings about potential IEDs have left some uneasy, the people familiar with the matter said.
Guard members are trained in the use of lethal and nonlethal force, the use of protective equipment and “deescalation techniques,” as is standard for civil disturbance response missions, O’Grady Walsh said. Some Guard units, including Guard combat engineers, infantry and military police units, typically train for IED response ahead of overseas deployments, but not all Guardsmen are so trained.
“The most important element of defeating IEDs is knowing what to look for, knowing where to look, and understanding how to either quickly defuse or mark them for eventual destruction,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, noting that IED training principally involves “early reconnaissance of anticipated routes by drones and engineers and scouts, the use of intelligence to plot and predict potential locations of placement of IEDs that would cause the most damage or destruction, and the interference of networks.”
An unclassified intelligence bulletin compiled by the U.S. Secret Service, obtained by POLITICO, warned that at least one right-wing extremist group, Patriot Actions for America, “is organizing and encouraging a violent demonstration” on Jan. 16 at the Capitol.
The bulletin, which primarily relies on open-source information from social media and was first reported by The Daily Beast, said law enforcement is also tracking a separate “Million Militia March” being planned by two other groups for Inauguration Day itself, warning that “although no civil disobedience has been confirmed, organizers have encouraged attendees to bring weapons to the event through the use of images of weapons on promotional materials for the event. The group claims they will not attack, but defend.”
President-elect Biden was briefed on Wednesday by senior FBI and Secret Service officials about the threats surrounding the Inauguration, and will continue to receive daily briefings on “security and operational preparations to ensure the transition unfolds smoothly,” Biden’s transition team said in a statement.
Biden’s national security team “is engaging with the current administration to gain as much information as possible on the threat picture, and on the preparations being put in place to deter and defend against violent disruptions or attacks,” the statement said.