U.S. defense officials say they are worried about an insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, prompting the FBI to vet all of the 25,000 National Guard troops coming into Washington for the event.
The massive undertaking reflects the extraordinary security concerns that have gripped Washington following the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters. And it underscores fears that some of the very people assigned to protect the city over the next several days could present a threat to the incoming president and other VIPs in attendance.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told The Associated Press on Sunday that officials are conscious of the potential threat, and he warned commanders to be on the lookout for any problems within their ranks as the inauguration approaches. So far, however, he and other leaders say they have seen no evidence of any threats, and officials said the vetting hadn't flagged any issues.
"We're continually going through the process, and taking second, third looks at every one of the individuals assigned to this operation," McCarthy said in an interview after he and other military leaders went through an exhaustive, three-hour security drill in preparation for Wednesday's inauguration. He said Guard members are also getting training on how to identify potential insider threats.
About 25,000 members of the National Guard are streaming into Washington from across the country — at least two and a half times the number for previous inaugurals. And while the military routinely reviews service members for extremist connections, the FBI screening is in addition to any previous monitoring.
Multiple officials said the process began as the first Guard troops began deploying to D.C. more than a week ago. And they said it is slated to be complete by Wednesday. Several officials discussed military planning on condition of anonymity.
"The question is, is that all of them? Are there others?" said McCarthy. "We need to be conscious of it and we need to put all of the mechanisms in place to thoroughly vet these men and women who would support any operations like this."
In a situation like this one, FBI vetting would involve running peoples' names through databases and watchlists maintained by the bureau to see if anything alarming comes up. That could include involvement in prior investigations or terrorism-related concerns, said David Gomez, a former FBI national security supervisor in Seattle.
Insider threats have been a persistent law enforcement priority in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But in most cases, the threats are from homegrown insurgents radicalized by al-Qaida, the Islamic State group or similar groups. In contrast, the threats against Biden's inauguration have been fueled by supporters of President Donald Trump, far-right militants, white supremacists and other radical groups. Many believe Trump's baseless accusations that the election was stolen from him, a claim that has been refuted by many courts, the Justice Department and Republican officials in key battleground states.
The insurrection at the Capitol began after Trump made incendiary remarks at the Jan. 6 rally. According to McCarthy, service members from across the military were at that rally, but it's not clear how many were there or who may have participated in the breach at the Capitol. So far only a couple of current active-duty or National Guard members have been arrested in connection with the Capitol assault, which left five people dead. The dead included a Capitol Police officer and a woman shot by police as she climbed through a window in a door near the House chamber.