Exclusive: Threat of Pro-Trump Violence in Washington Overshadows Inauguration Security Plans

While federal law enforcement agencies prepare for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden in two weeks, they see this coming week as far more dangerous, wary of the threat of Trump-instigated and Trump-supported violence in the capital.

"See you in D.C.," the president ominously tweeted to on New Year's Day, referring to Wednesday's Congressional counting of the electoral votes and "Trumpmarch.com," which is advertising a "wild" protest on January 6.

The FBI is working furiously with Metropolitan DC police behind the scenes to understand just how many pro-Trump supporters will flood the capital and whether they plan to resort to violence. The effort is made all the more complicated, according to official sources directly involved in security planning and intelligence gathering, by the potential for Republican leaders in Congress who may choose to stand down or hold back the U.S. Capitol Police, and by a Department of Homeland Security that has become politicized and partisan in support of Donald Trump.

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Supporters of President Donald Trump on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. Thousands of protesters who refuse to accept that Joe Biden won the election are rallying ahead of the electoral college vote to make Trump's 306-to-232 loss official. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Newsweek spoke to a dozen Congressional, law enforcement, military, intelligence and homeland security participants in the 59th Inauguration of the President of the United States of America. None wanted to go on the record regarding specific contingency plans or the delicate balancing act that this transition period demands. The White House, the Biden inaugural team, and Joint Forces Headquarters National Capital Region—responsible for the military role—did not respond to queries.

Every inaugural has a different security problem or theme. In the inauguration of Barack Obama, counter-terrorism officials prepared for an attack by al Qaeda or the Somali-based group al-Shabaab. And continuity-of-government officials worried that this was the first presidential transition since 9/11, paying particular attention to having a strong and experienced national security leadership in place.

In 2017, for Donald Trump's inaugural, threat concerns had shifted to lone attackers unaffiliated with any particular group. Vehicle rammings were a particular concern, given a Christmas market attack in Berlin, Germany, the previous month which had killed 12 people, and the July 2016 attack in Nice, France, that killed 86. Security officials announced that they were "doubling down" to thwart vehicle attacks, and extra measures were laid on—strategically placed heavy construction equipment, dumpsters and other physical barriers all around Washington, DC.

This year's official inaugural period (January 15-24) has been designated a "National Security Special Event," attracting the standard, large security response. But that period does not include the next 11 days. In fact, the FBI-led "special event threat assessment" prepared last month for the inaugural doesn't even mention protestors and says there are no "specific or credible threats."

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— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2021

"Based on historical precedence, an increase in threat reporting through the end of January is expected with much of the reporting likely of dubious credibility, vague in nature, uncorroborated, and often meant to intimidate," the threat assessment reads. But government experts point out that the threat assessment addressed only the "official" period and the traditional external threats: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, cyber-security, and disruption of critical infrastructure.

A cyber-attack against inaugural security is of particular concern this year. In January 2017, Metropolitan DC Police faced multiple disruptions to street-level surveillance cameras as a result of ransomware infections. The National Counterterrorism Center concluded that hackers compromised 70 percent of the cameras across the city eight days before the presidential inauguration, preventing police and federal security monitors from accessing the command-and-control center of the city-wide surveillance system.

Though the Biden inauguration is expected to be substantially smaller than past ceremonies because of COVID-19, the number of counter-terrorism and security personnel assigned to the job has remained high. Over 5,000 federal law enforcement officers from more than a dozen agencies are assigned to various on-scene inauguration task forces, responsible for preparing for everything from countering a "weather event" to readying continuity of government alternate locations should there be a need to evacuate the incoming president and vice president.

But this year, if there is a theme, it is the bifurcated nature of the threat—the traditional "national security" threats on the one hand, and the additional threats, ones never before faced by Congressional and executive branch specialists, of potential violence precipitated—and supported—by Donald Trump.

On the national security side, Iranian threats recently voiced against President Trump in retaliation for the January 2020 assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani are the main concern. For that, creating a bubble around downtown Washington, and then surveilling the air, waterways and virtual space around inaugural venues and government building is job #1.

But on the second track of threats, pro-Trump, anti-election disrupters may set up an "armed encampment" on the Washington Mall, the Washington Post reported. The FBI, according to sources who spoke to Newsweek on condition of anonymity, is tracking various right-wing extremist groups and armed militias as well as aggressive Trump supporters such as the Proud Boys as they converge on DC.

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine told "The Takeout" podcast that he is concerned that "far-right" agitators and white supremacist groups will "pick fights, create damage, damage property, and then act in a very threatening way."

One senior military officer expressed confidence in the FBI and local police effort but worries that the larger security apparatus may be unready and even looking in the wrong direction. The officer, who has participated in every inaugural since 9/11, requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.

"There is already a conviction," the senior officer says, "to have uniformed troops take a decided back seat to police and civilian agencies, given the experiences in June. But I'm worried that the entire inaugural security effort is unprepared for these potential domestic threats. And particularly that there are not clear plans or rules of engagement should widespread violence break out."

Officially, given the declaration of a national security special event, the Secret Service, an agency of the DHS, is responsible for coordinating federal, state and District of Columbia security and response.

Despite thousands fewer attendees and a heavily restricted public presence, the security effort is huge. Though officials decline to divulge specific numbers, they say that security will be similar in size to that of previous years. President Trump's inauguration in 2017 included some 13,000 personnel and a similar 5,000 uniformed officers, law enforcement and military. Some 7,800 National Guard personnel from the District of Columbia, 43 states and three territories mobilized, most of them assigned to catastrophic contingency missions from the defense of Washington air space to continuity of government evacuation. Some 5,000 service members—including additional active duty troops—took part in inaugural and event escort, ceremonial and parade duties.

This year, more than 1,000 National Guardsmen and women from five states began moving to the Washington area just after Thanksgiving to provide for the air defense of the region, including 200 members of Florida's 3rd Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery, which deployed right after Thanksgiving.

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"See you in DC," the president tweeted ominously. Donald Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again rally at Richard B. Russell Airport in Rome, Georgia on November 1, 2020. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The military, together with the Coast Guard and other elements of DHS, operate the National Capital Region Integrated Air Defense System (NCR-IADS), the only place in the world that has day-to-day 360-degree coverage, including an operationally deployed low-flying defense system that is directed at cruise missiles and small planes. In September, Task Force Anaconda stood up to take charge of directing the ground effort, including deploying vehicle-mounted surface-to-air missiles secretly scattered around the capital. The Air Force and District of Columbia National Guard also have F-16 aircraft on constant alert and the Coast Guard, through its National Capital Region Air Defense Facility based in Atlantic City, New Jersey, conducts specialized MH-65 Dolphin helicopter intercepts of "low/slow" intruders that might get through the ground-based screen.

These are not the only aircraft in the skies specifically assigned to presidential transition security. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), another homeland security element, has its Air and Marine aircraft and drones assigned to the inaugural, as does the Pentagon, which is flying specially configured Navy planes that have the ability to take photographs and full motion video, transmitting the take to the ground. The FBI also has its own fleet of surveillance aircraft operating out of Virginia with the ability to intercept cellphone calls. Except for the Navy assets, all of these surveillance aircraft have been used since late May throughout America to monitor public protests.

The Department of Energy has quietly begun flying its own helicopters around the capital to take a survey of the background radiation level. If there is any change in the level, it could indicate clandestine introduction of nuclear materials contained in a radiation dispersal or improvised device. Though there is no intelligence to indicate any nuclear, chemical, or biological threat to Washington, WMD is the traditional catastrophic scenario that take precedence over all others. For this and other inaugurals, the Energy Department, the FBI and the military—through the "black" (super-secret) operators of the Joint Special Operations Command—also activate the "National Mission Force" to prepare for finding, capturing and disarming any WMD weapon. Those elements have also begun to secretly deploy to the Washington area.

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People gather in support of President Donald Trump and in protest the outcome of the 2020 presidential election outside the Supreme Court on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Weapons of mass destruction and a catastrophic attack that leads to what's called a continuity of government "event" are the constants of all high-profile presidential events. And this year is no different. Specialized units have been mobilized. The 911th Technical Rescue Engineer Company, based at Fort Belvoir, just outside the District in Virginia, is responsible for digging occupants out of a destroyed White House or Capitol building. They conducted their annual Rescuer of the Year competition on December 17.

Company C, 2nd Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment of the North Dakota National Guard is responsible for implementing the Joint Emergency Evacuation Plan (JEEP), moving the national security leadership away from the DC area. They left Bismarck with their Blackhawk helicopters on November 12 to take up their rotational assignment.

"If al Qaeda or Iran undertakes an attack, even if the Russians nuke us, we'll be ready," the senior military officer says sardonically. "But if there's a domestic breakdown, I'm not so sure. Even preparing for one is tricky."

Still, the Military District of Washington conducted an active shooter exercise at Fort McNair on December 8, the scenario being a sniper or other armed individual attacking government buildings. The Metropolitan police participated and the FBI sent observers. Other exercises, both live and "table top" decision-making, have taken place, carefully labeled in such a way as to not be directed at Trump supporters.

DC Attorney General Racine points at the president, though, and his rallying of violent supporters. "The facts are that with respect to President Trump, he literally really has given breath, fresh air and encouragement to hate groups."

Racine says his "level of anxiety is high" regarding what might happen around the January 6 electoral count and the inaugural. "My preparation is even more intense than that," he said.