Secret Service launches massive security operation to protect Biden inauguration

"People could wind up dead. But there's no danger that they're going to overthrow the United States government."

Michael S. Williamson
Scores of National Guard personnel finish their shift guarding the U.S. Capitol on Saturday, Jan. 9. –Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

WASHINGTON – The Secret Service and federal law enforcement agencies are spending the final days of the Trump administration bracing for a possible violent assault against the Jan. 20 inauguration, launching a security mobilization that will be unlike any in modern U.S. history.

On Wednesday, the Secret Service will take command of security preparations at the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings, backed by as many as 20,000 National Guard troops, thousands of police and tactical officers, and layers of eight-foot-tall steel fencing.

The high-alert security posture is starting six days earlier than planned to coordinate roles for the FBI, National Guard, U.S. marshals and a host of federal agencies that will fall under Secret Service command.

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“Everyone can just rest assured they are throwing the kitchen sink at this event,” said one Secret Service official involved in protective planning who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The accelerated timetable has also allowed authorities to fortify the city and deploy officers in anticipation of potential violence on Sunday, when pro-Trump groups are calling for armed marches in Washington and the 50 state capitals.

Veteran Secret Service and Homeland Security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share their worries described a level of concern unlike anything in their careers. Threats they fear include a plot by armed groups to encircle the White House or the U.S. Capitol and the inauguration event, as well as fears that gunmen could stage coordinated attacks against less-fortified targets in the city.

House Democrats were briefed by the new Capitol Police leadership Monday night about threats to the inauguration from groups supporting President Donald Trump, and the new security measures they are putting in place to avoid a repeat of Wednesday’s riot.

According to members who were on the briefing call, the threats included promises to execute members of Congress, with the most dangerous coming from extremist groups. They are surfacing amid calls for a million Trump devotees to flood the District of Columbia.

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On Tuesday, police in the Chicago suburbs arrested 45-year-old Louis Capriotti, charging him with making threats to lawmakers last year in which authorities say he promised to kill any Democrat who attempted to enter the White House on Inauguration Day.

If people “think that Joe Biden is going to put his hand on the Bible and walk into that . . . White House on January 20th, they’re sadly . . . mistaken,” he told one member of Congress in an expletive-laden phone message, according to a criminal complaint. “We will surround the . . . White House and we will kill any . . . Democrat that steps on the . . . lawn.”

Rep. Jim Hime, D-Conn., said in an interview that the threats are real but will not stop the transfer of power.

“We’re not talking about a 90-person ISIS cell. . . . We’re talking mainly about a bunch of yahoos who, yes, are very dangerous. People could wind up dead,” Himes said. “But there’s no danger that they’re going to overthrow the United States government.”

The sweep of the heightened security was illustrated by the decision of the House sergeant-at-arms to use metal detectors to screen everyone entering the House chamber, including members.

The siege at the Capitol has put Secret Service planners and their federal partners in feverish reassessment mode to consider all the ways they can mitigate anything like a repeat of last week’s riot — or something worse.

Starting Wednesday, the nerve center for coordinating inauguration security and locking down D.C. will be the Secret Service’s Washington field office. Known as the MACC, the Multi-Agency Command Center will bring together representatives from 50 to 60 different agencies or private companies for the next eight days, everyone from heavyweight players such as the FBI and the Defense Department to the gas company, rail company CSX and Amtrak. Most personnel will work in 12-hour shifts.

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“Unlike January 6, nobody has to ask for the National Guard anymore,” said one former Secret Service official who helped coordinate past inaugurals. “Nobody has to send out an emergency call for the FBI SWAT team. They’re all there, pre-positioned and ready.”

“It’s no longer game planning,” the former official added. “Radiation protection. Bomb detectors. Amtrak sweeps. All the security personnel — they’re all now in place.”

The Secret Service will coordinate all security decisions, including how to seal the Capitol, how to control the flow of demonstrations, which Metro stations are shuttered, and which roads will be blocked. The Secret Service, a relatively tiny agency in the federal government, will rely heavily on the muscle and expertise of its partners. It will look to the FBI, for instance, for intelligence-gathering, and the National Guard, Park Police and D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, as well as many other local police departments, to set up road blocks, patrol security perimeters along the inauguration route and help shield the Capitol and the White House.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who participated in the security briefing for lawmakers, said that if the extensive measures planned for the inauguration had been in place on Wednesday, “a fly could not have gotten into the Capitol.”

“Last week was a wake-up call,” Malinowski said in an interview, adding that rioters are not going to be allowed to stage a repeat because police at the Capitol are “not just playing defense, we’re playing offense.”

The Secret Service has overseen all national security special events since President Bill Clinton signed a presidential declaration in 1998 putting the agency in charge of all major gatherings that might be a target for terrorists. These have included Super Bowls, summits of world leaders, meetings of international organizations, presidential conventions and inaugurations.

While the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Secret Service, is lacking key leadership after the resignation of acting secretary Chad Wolf on Monday, officials say they can rely on the experience of some the major players involved in inauguration security planning. They include Matt Miller, the head of the Secret Service Washington field office, who is widely admired by his subordinates and was promoted in the wake of the seamless security planning he crafted for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in 2012; and D.C. Police Inspector Robert Glover, an incident commander who rushed to the rescue of Capitol Police on Wednesday and commanded the joint force to eject rioters from the grounds.

The Secret Service has asked all of its field offices to send agents to Washington for the week.

“It’s really, truly all hands on deck right now,” said one person familiar with the request.

Secret Service spokeswoman Justine Whelan said the service began preliminary planning for the inauguration a year ago, working more intensely in recent months. But several officials said the Capitol siege has forced the agency to reexamine its previous work.

“The events of Jan. 6 serve as a stark reminder of the criticality of comprehensive security planning,” Whelan said in a statement. “As is always the case, security during a National Special Security Event (NSSE) is a layered network of operations, seen and unseen, that run in tandem with federal, state and local law enforcement, military, and public safety entities.”

A law enforcement official briefed on inauguration planning said extensive fencing is being erected throughout D.C., including the area surrounding the White House. Those planning to attend the inauguration can also expect to barely be able to see the White House, because the perimeter will be expanded farther out than during past inaugurations.

Lamont Ruffin, the chief deputy U.S. marshal for D.C., said his office is planning to deputize between 3,000 and 4,000 local law enforcement officers from across the country who — at the request of the Metropolitan Police Department — will come into D.C. to help with security.

Ruffin said he has been asked to prepare to deputize members of the National Guard to give them law enforcement authority, though those plans have not been finalized. Pentagon officials have not confirmed that National Guard troops will carry weapons on the streets of Washington, but armed units will be on standby.

Ruffin said the officers who come into the city hail from all over the country — “all 50 states,” he said — have to fill out a form attesting that they meet certain requirements, including that they not are not under active internal affairs investigation, and that their departments are up to date with their certifications on using deadly and nonlethal force.

He said he was unaware of additional requirements this year. Some law enforcement officers who participated in the rally that precipitated last week’s riot at the Capitol have found themselves under investigation by their own departments, and the FBI has been investigating whether military or law enforcement members broke the law.

Inside the Secret Service, senior supervisors have long been worried about the ability of an armed or organized group to breach the White House.

An unwelcome reminder of that risk came on May 29. Protective detail agents rushed Trump to the White House’s underground bunker that night as crowds of demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd converged on the White House’s north side and many pushed over temporary barricades meant to keep them farther away from the fence.

One male protester made it over the heightened fence-line and into the complex near the Treasury building, and others got into an enclosed Treasury courtyard nearby. That’s when the Secret Service raised the threat level on the campus to “Condition Yellow” and spirited, Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron to the subterranean shelter. After that night, the Secret Service, pushed out the perimeter much farther and called in reinforcements from other federal law enforcement to hold the line.

“They know that that’s a huge vulnerability,” said one Secret Service official. “There’s one silver lining from the whole Capitol insurrection: I still believe the White House is a softer target than others, but you better believe it’s going get a really beefed-up security plan for the next couple of weeks.”

Another worry is that pro-Trump groups seeking permits for protests downtown include people who joined the violent demonstration on Jan. 6 at the Capitol and conducted some of their planning on encrypted apps. One pro-Trump group has applied to the National Park Service for a permit to protest in front of the White House. The National Park Service, working with the Secret Service, will need to decide whether to reject those permit applications or determine a way for those protesters to be corralled and blocked from threatening the Capitol or White House.

City officials in Washington continued to erect an inauguration perimeter throughout downtown on Tuesday, putting up barriers around the White House, the National Mall, the Capitol and other parts of downtown. People looking to travel inside the perimeter will have to provide proof of essential purpose to be within the inaugural grounds.

“This is similar to previous inaugurations — except the inauguration perimeter will be established and operational for several days,” a spokesperson for Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office said in a text message.

Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Fairfax County, Va., Police Department, said the agency planned to deploy extra officers at Metro stations that would be a primary conduit into the city, and was also beefing up security at courthouses and the county government center.

Guglielmi said that civil disturbance units and helicopter and boat teams would be on alert to provide support to police and the National Guard in D.C., and that the department was reviewing how to quickly get into the city in the event that roads are blocked.

“You are going to see the entire northern Virginia region [having] much more communication with D.C. police,” Guglielmi said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said D.C. could be subject to lockdowns and Metro shutdowns in the days surrounding the presidential inauguration.

The state, he said, will double the number of Maryland National Guard members in D.C. from 500 to 1,000. Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said the agency has a team of specially trained troopers on standby.

“There are ongoing discussions about securing the nation’s capital,” Hogan said Tuesday at a news conference in Annapolis, “not just the immediate site around the Capitol itself, but the entire city.”

The Washington Post’s Erin Cox, Matt Zapotosky, Dan Morse, Emily Davies and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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