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Unprecedented security in the nation’s capital on the eve of the inauguration

Ensuring the security of an inauguration like no other continues on an unprecedented scale. Tens of thousands of National Guard and security personnel turned downtown Washington, D.C. into a fortress less than two weeks after a mob of insurrectionists attacked the U.S. Capitol. Amna Nawaz spoke with former FBI special agent Tim Gallagher and extremism expert Heidi Beirich to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have three major stories tonight: how law enforcement and the military are working to secure a peaceful transfer of power on the eve of the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

    The U.S. passes the grim milestone of 400,000 deaths for COVID-19. We will see how those deaths are being recognized tonight in the nation's capital.

    And a marathon of confirmation hearings for president-elect Biden's incoming Cabinet began today.

    Senators heard from five crucial nominees, amid security concerns on the eve of the inauguration. The choice to head the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, vowed to prevent a repeat of the attack that gripped the U.S. Capitol.

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    If I should have the honor of being confirmed, I will do everything I can to ensure that the tragic loss of life, the assault on law enforcement, the desecration of the building that stands as one of the three pillars of our democracy, the terror that you felt, your colleagues, staff, and everyone present, will not happen again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meantime, ensuring the security of an inauguration like no other continues on an unprecedented scale.

    Tens of thousands of National Guard members and security personnel have turned downtown Washington into a fortress, less than two weeks after a mob of insurrectionists attacked the U.S. Capitol, and all of this amid a raging pandemic.

    Amna Nawaz has this report on how the Capitol complex is being made secure for the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Beyond the flags and the bunting, the U.S. Capitol looks more fortress than festivities. A seven-foot metal fence surrounds Capitol Hill. The National Mall is closed to visitors.

    In and around the complex, National Guardsmen keep watch, all to avoid this:

  • Rioter:

    It's over! You better run, cops!

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Another January 6, when thousands of rioters, incited by President Trump, breached police barricades and broke into the Capitol. The inauguration presents a high-profile opportunity for those seeking to do more harm.

  • Heidi Beirich:

    And there are probably some out there who think that there is no bigger moment in American politics with more cameras turned on to commit an act of violence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Heidi Beirich is the co-founder of The Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. The Capitol assault, she says, brought together previously disparate groups, like white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and anti-government militants, all finding common cause in their support for President Trump.

    And the president spurred them to action, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.

  • Heidi Beirich:

    The nature of the threat that we face in the United States now, with all these extreme right factions joining up together, is, we have a movement in the country that is — doesn't believe in the democratic system, doesn't believe in voting, and basically is against our form of government. And some of these folks are violent.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The FBI has so far fielded more than 140,000 tips, opened more than 200 suspect files, and arrested more than 100 people.

    FBI Director Chris Wray briefed Vice President Pence last week.

  • Chris Wray:

    Right now, we're tracking calls for potential armed protests and activity leading up to the inauguration.

  • Tim Gallagher:

    Get these people off the street. That's a great disruption strategy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Former FBI special agent Tim Gallagher is now managing director at Kroll, a risk management firm. He led intelligence-gathering for the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.

  • Tim Gallagher:

    The difference between what happened on the 6th and the inauguration is that the inauguration is a national special security event, and this had been planned for several months. And because of that, there are many resources that are available to law enforcement and intelligence which were not available on the 6th, the National Guard presence, the concentric rings of security, the checkpoints that are being set up right now.

    They were set up an extra week in advance to not give bad actors an opportunity to pre-stage and to put their plans into place.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The U.S. Secret Service has essentially cut off access to downtown Washington, including the White House and the Capitol.

    And experts say all of these measures, the arrests, the troop presence and the barriers, they will all help to deter inauguration threats here in Washington, D.C. But they also worry those same measures could push the threat to other places.

  • Tim Gallagher:

    Bad actors will figure out where the event is going to take palace, where the perimeters will be put up, and pre-staging weapons, whether that be pipes, bricks, hammers, you name it, or, if they put it right outside the perimeter to create a diversionary device, where they could possible draw out forces that should be on the perimeter.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Added to that is the new concern of a so-called insider attack by a member of the armed services, after several were arrested following the Capitol attack.

    The FBI announced it's vetting each of the 25,000 National Guardsmen deployed for inauguration security. On Tuesday morning, two National Guard members were removed from the post, reportedly because of ties to right-wing extremist groups.

  • Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson:

    Let me be clear. Extremism is not tolerated in any branch of the United States military.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But Beirich says the Pentagon, like many institutions, has long failed to take seriously extremism in its ranks.

  • Heidi Beirich:

    It's pretty late in the game to be figuring out if you have got a committed white supremacist who's already inside the security barriers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Fears of Inauguration Day violence also have state capitals across the country on high alert. More than a dozen have activated their own National Guard. But the FBI's previous warning of potentially violent activity leading up to the inauguration has not borne out.

    A Sunday protest at the Michigan Statehouse was attended by heavily armed members of the Boogaloo Boys, a right-wing extremist group, but remained peaceful.

    Here's one of their members, 22-year-old Timothy Teagan:

  • Timothy Teagan:

    The 6th changed everything for us. It made us really worried about coming out here. The FBI stopped by my work three days ago to talk to me about coming out here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Beirich says online chatter shows many of these groups are now hesitant to mobilize for Inauguration Day with the same force they did on January 6.

  • Heidi Beirich:

    On the one hand, it's a positive that lots and lots of these groups are probably not going to show up on January 20. And yet the big threat, just like it was in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue or the El Paso at the Walmart, is a lone shooter.

    But the problem here is that we have a lot of radicalized people in the United States because of years and years of being exposed to these ideas. The threat is not going to go away just because we're having a change in administration.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For Gallagher, who 20 years ago was on the FBI team responding to the Flight 93 crash site, today's threat is hard to process.

  • Tim Gallagher:

    The individuals on that plane took down that plane to save the U.S. Capitol. Fast-forward 20 years, we have U.S. citizens, Americans, attacking that very Capitol that was saved by those individuals who sacrificed their lives on 9/11.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Biden/Harris team has been getting regular briefings on Inauguration Day threats and, despite concerns, are committed to maintaining much of the tradition.

    In a video message, Harris urged supporters to savor the ceremony.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris:

    So, I know this Inauguration Day may look a little different from years past, a lot different, but let's take a moment, let's all take a moment to celebrate, and then let's get to work building the America we know is possible.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those two National Guard troops who were relieved of their inauguration-related duties have been sent ohm from here in Washington, D.C., and officials say they were removed because of inappropriate texts and comments.

    One of those had been flagged within the chain of command, another by an anonymous tip.

    On top of that, our colleague Nick Schifrin has confirmed that 10 additional National Guard troops have also been removed from their inauguration-related duties, not, officials say, because any of inauguration-specific threat, but, rather, they say, because of other reasons, suggesting perhaps the FBI vetting process revealed some kind of concerns.

    Judy, all of this, though, shows just how seriously they're taking security here and how security officials are not willing to take any chance on the eve of the historic inauguration tomorrow — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Certainly very different from January the 6th.

    Amna Nawaz, thank you. And you will be reporting tomorrow for us on the Mall in Washington.

    Thank you.

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