The U.S. National Guard, the part-time military service providing security for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, has removed 12 members from security duty for the event, military officials announced Tuesday.
The move underscored authorities’ resolve to secure the quadrennial ceremony amid concern over violence following the deadly January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by militant supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump.
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters that 10 of the 12 Guardsmen were removed for “questionable behavior” unrelated to extremism that was uncovered by the FBI during its vetting of all 25,000 Guardsmen deployed in the Washington area for Wednesday’s inauguration of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. The two others were pulled off duty after making “inappropriate” comments or texts, Hoffman said, without specifying their nature.
“We're not asking questions of people who are flagged,” he said. “We're, out of an abundance of caution, taking action and immediately removing them from the line of duty at the Capitol and the events taking place.”
Hoffman said one of the two men who made inappropriate comments was identified by his chain of command and the other by an anonymous tipster. The Associated Press, citing two anonymous officials, reported that the two Guardsmen were removed after having been found to have ties to fringe militia groups.
The development comes as tens of thousands of Guardsmen and federal agents remain on high alert in Washington in an unprecedented show of force that has transformed the nation’s capital into a veritable military fortress.
The heightened security measures were put in place in response to FBI warnings about armed protests by Trump supporters in Washington and all 50 state capitals. Raising concern about a potential insider threat, several current and former military personnel have been charged in recent days in connection with the Capitol riots.
However, some military officials are playing down the threat.
Army General Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters, “I’m not concerned,” because only 12 of 25,000 Guardsman deployed in Washington have been flagged for removal.
Hokanson confirmed a Washington Post report that the FBI had warned law enforcement agencies in recent days that far-right extremists had discussed posing as members of the National Guard in Washington.
Biden's swearing-in ceremony is set to take place shortly after noon on the West Front of the Capitol before what is likely to be the smallest inauguration audience in modern American history.
Typically, hundreds of thousands of spectators fill up the National Mall — the landscaped park between the Capitol and the Washington Monument — on Inauguration Day. This year, about 200,000 flags representing every U.S. state and territory have been planted on the Mall in lieu of the spectators, and roughly 1,000 invited guests — mostly members of Congress and other dignitaries — will attend the swearing-in ceremony.
Since the January 6 riots that left five people dead, the Capitol has remained closed to the public. A 7-foot fence — razor-wire and “non-scalable” — surrounds the Capitol grounds. A large swath of central Washington, including several blocks around the White House, is in lockdown with thousands of National Guard troops patrolling the deserted streets.
Over the weekend, at least three people were arrested near security checkpoints, including a 22-year-old man carrying an unlicensed handgun and a 63-year-old unarmed woman posing as a law enforcement officer.
As the nation remained on edge ahead of Biden's inauguration, officials sought to reassure the public about the safety of an otherwise peaceful American democratic tradition. In a video statement, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said that "every level of law enforcement and the National Guard are working around the clock in Washington, D.C., to provide safety and security for Inauguration Day.”
Moreover, he said, federal, state and local law enforcement are providing security for state capitals and government buildings in all 50 states.
"As I've repeatedly said, the Justice Department will have no tolerance for anyone who attempts to mar the day with violence or other criminal conduct," Rosen said. "Anyone who does that will be caught and they will be prosecuted."
Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, denouncing Trump for provoking the Capitol riots, said, "Tomorrow we’ll have a safe and successful inaugural right here on the West Front of the Capitol, the space that [President George H. W.] Bush 41 called democracy’s front porch."