Security and police forces in and around Washington will be operating at what they describe as “a high-level of readiness” as the impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump gets underway next week, worried the event could serve as a flashpoint for American extremists still angry over the outcome of the presidential election.
Officials have been hesitant to share specifics about the intelligence, some of which has been described as disturbing chatter on social media platforms. But following the siege of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which resulted in the deaths of five people, they have been public about not wanting to leave anything to chance.
"We must demonstrate an overt security presence in (Washington) D.C., at least for now," Christopher Rodriguez, director of the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, told lawmakers during a hearing Thursday.
“We believe that this posture is essential to ensuring that the Metropolitan Police Department can deploy resources to all parts of the city during an emergency,” he said, adding, “We will not tolerate violence in our city.”
And while some of the security measures and roadblocks put in place for the inauguration of President Joe Biden last month have been taken down, so-called enhanced security measures for the Capitol itself — like the barbed-wire fencing — will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
“The department’s current security posture continues to demand that we operate at a high-level of readiness for the upcoming Senate impeachment trial and the continued threats directed at the Congress and the Capitol,” Capitol Police spokeswoman Eva Malecki told VOA in an email Tuesday.
The U.S. Army announced last week that of the almost 27,000 U.S. National Guard called into Washington to help with inaugural security, 7,000 will stay in Washington through at least mid-March.
Officials also said the National Guard — part-time soldiers who can be deployed overseas but who are often called upon to help with emergencies in their home states — would be armed as needed and would help provide security, as well as help local forces with communications and crowd control.
Additionally, Washington, D.C.’s mayor has requested that 500 National Guardsmen be on standby to serve as a rapid reaction force should anything go awry.
“The department believes it's still necessary,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters during a briefing late Wednesday, pointing to the intelligence that was being shared with defense officials by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and local authorities.
“They still have determined that there is a currently heightened threat environment across the United States, and that's likely to persist over the coming weeks,” Kirby said. “That certainly applies to the capital region.”
Much of the concern seems to be focused on the potential for lawful protests to be manipulated by individuals whom officials describe as malicious actors, bent on causing violence and chaos.
“We remain concerned that individuals frustrated with the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances and ideological causes … could continue to mobilize,” DHS said in a statement last week, explaining why it issued a new a National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Bulletin.
The bulletin further warned that violent domestic extremists “may be emboldened by the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to target elected officials and government facilities.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer for the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks extremist groups in the U.S., told lawmakers Thursday that for white supremacists in particular, the siege of the U.S. Capitol was a “watershed moment.”
"For them, the sight of congressmen and women cowering under tables, Confederate flags and Nazi symbols being paraded through the building was nothing short of a victory," Greenblatt told members of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Other experts worry that there could be a danger from individuals who, while not yet extremists, continue to grieve Trump’s loss in the presidential election.
“You have such a large group of people that are unaffiliated with these terrorist movements or terrorist organizations, but they're very vulnerable right now,” said Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention at DHS.
“We actively see neo-Nazis recruiting Trump supporters to their ideology,” she said. “They're very sophisticated in how they do it — they don't come right at you. You don't necessarily know you're talking to a white supremacist.”
There are also ongoing concerns that some countries are seeking to use their influence to cause problems.
"Our foreign adversaries, Russia in particular, are deploying decades-old tools of covert action to fan the flames of cultural conflict here,” said Rodriguez, of D.C.’s Homeland Security agency.
State officials have voiced similar concerns, going back to before Biden’s inauguration or even the siege of the U.S. Capitol.
“There's this incredible and horrible convergence, quite frankly, of ideology, of hate, of anger. And it's all being driven at this kind of causing chaos and concern from a variety of groups,” Jared Maples, director of New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, told VOA last month.