WASHINGTON — No one may be more familiar with the extraordinary security plan being readied for Wednesday’s inauguration than Joe Biden.
In 2009, Biden was the vice president-elect when the Secret Service rolled out a strategy specifically tailored for all of the racially charged contingencies that might accompany the swearing-in of the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama.
“The fact that this is an African American is not lost on us,” then-Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley said. “We understand that this is a historic event; we understand that this is different from other inaugurations.”
As the inauguration nears for President-elect Biden, security officials are confronting an even more daunting challenge laid bare by the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol involving a toxic mix of white nationalists and extremist supporters of President Donald Trump who have rejected his November election defeat.
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Not in modern times has an inauguration of a new president been staged amid such domestic turmoil and in such close proximity to a deadly attack – on the very ground where Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are set to be sworn in.
"We are on a wartime footing," said John Magaw, a former Secret Service director who has served on the Homeland Security Advisory Council. "You can bet that every angle is being considered and fighter jets will be on the runway with their engines running."
Already, the inauguration had been dramatically altered by the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic. Officials scrubbed the traditional parade as a concession to the surging health crisis in favor a largely virtual event. Yet the continuing threat of violence has never been more striking, triggering an unprecedented massing of National Guard troops, law enforcement officials and physical security that has transformed the capital to a city sheathed in iron fencing and concrete.
As many as 21,000 armed National Guard troops are being deployed to Washington, with thousands already taking up defensive positions around the city – about double the number for the 2009 inaugural. The force is being augmented with thousands more federal, state and local law enforcement officers, some being deployed from cities across the country.
The National Park Service Friday also announced the closure of the National Mall, a move that effectively shutters mass access to a signature event of American democracy to the public.
The Secret Service, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, is leading the security operation.
"The threat is real and has been building for a long time," Magaw said, referring to domestic extremists who have vowed to return to Washington and to expand their armed protests to capitals across the country.
Ray Mey, a former member of the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team who assisted in security preparations at seven Olympics, said the security footprint this week appears to dwarf any previous defensive plan.
"In my lifetime, I have never seen the country in such turmoil," Mey said. "The pressure has to be elevated."
The enemy within
In the nearly two decades since the 9/11 attacks, the threat of international terrorism has been the primary focus of intelligence and law enforcement officials.
And security plans for inaugurals, Olympics, Super Bowls and State of the Union addresses have been organized around the haunting scenarios made real by the 2001 strikes by al-Qaida suicide hijackers that left nearly 3,000 dead.
No one event has done more to alter that strategy than when extremists, some them carrying firearms and explosives, stormed the Capitol Jan. 6, seeking to overturn Trump's defeat in the November election.
The siege, the first mass breach of the Capitol in more than 200 years, has dramatically redefined the mission to secure the Biden-Harris inauguration – this time from an enemy within.
Apart from the necessary National Guard troops and miles of barricades, the success of the inaugural security plan also weighs heavily on federal law enforcement officials who are pursuing hundreds of potential suspects in the attack to both hold them accountable and stop any planned return to Washington to disrupt the inauguration.
Charges have been filed against more than 70 people, including some off-duty police officers who joined the mob and the battle against the badly outnumbered U.S. Capitol Police. Two Virginia police officers, Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson of the Rocky Mount Police Department, were charged Wednesday with violent entry and disorderly conduct.
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Separately, a Chicago-area man was arrested and charged Tuesday after allegedly lodging a direct threat aimed at the inauguration. In a Dec. 29 voice mail message left for a New Jersey House member, Louis Capriotti allegedly warned that Biden would not be allowed to "walk into that (expletive) White House on Jan. 20" without a fight.
“We will surround the (expletive) White House and we will kill any (expletive) Democrat that steps on the (expletive) lawn,” he said, the federal complaint alleges.
Federal authorities have briefed lawmakers on similar threats that have been timed to the the inauguration. In a separate FBI briefing this week with local law enforcement officials, Director Christopher Wray warned of the threat to state government buildings and lawmakers.
"We're concerned about the potential violence ... that could bring armed individuals in close proximity to government buildings and officials," Wray told Vice President Mike Pence in a separate briefing Thursday.
Assistant FBI Director Steven D'Antuono, meanwhile, has cast the pursuit of Capitol fugitives as "a 24/7, full bore operation."
"The significance of this investigation is not lost on us," D'Antuono said.
'We're really at a crossroads'
A collective awakening to the current domestic terror threat has drawn chilling parallels to the anti-government militia movement that launched Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that left 168 dead.
Mey, the former FBI official, characterized the Oklahoma strike as the "real manifestation" of extreme right-wing violence.
"But that movement largely produced lone attackers, now we're talking about thousands," Mey said, referring to the Capitol mob. "We're really at a crossroads."
White supremacists and other like-minded extremists conducted 67% of terrorist plots and attacks in the United States in 2020, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank also found anarchist, anti-fascist, and other like-minded attacks and plots made up 20% of U.S. terrorist incidents in 2020, an increase from 8% in 2019.
Law enforcement's response to the Oklahoma attack contributed to a noticeable decline in the anti-government and militia movemen, some of whom were taken aback by the bombing, which also claimed the lives of 19 children.
It is too early to know, analysts said, whether the Capitol attack will reverberate through the ranks of white nationalists and other far-right extremists in a similar way.
Federal authorities, however, believe that the aggressive pursuit of suspects in the Capitol assault and the early show of force to secure the inauguration may be prompting some extremists to reconsider plans to return to Washington, an official familiar with the investigation said Thursday.
The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, said some suspects who had planned to return have instead retained lawyers and turned themselves in, rather than risk joining new demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere.
The official cautioned, however, that the threat level remains very high as many extremists are not part of organized groups like the Proud Boys and others with designated leadership.
'Imagine the unimaginable'
The Secret Service, meanwhile, has expressed confidence in the far-flung security plan, describing it as a "zero-fail mission."
Michael Plati, the agent leading the effort, described a layered network of steel fencing, vehicle checkpoints and concrete barricades to repel potential threats.
Plati described the Capitol security collapse as a "poignant reminder" of the consequences for any breakdown.
"We have a zero-fail mission," he said. "We feel we are prepared to address the challenges presented by that day."
While Plati said the security plan has been a year in the making, it is impossible to ignore how the Capitol assault has dramatically altered the plan.
"Between now and Jan. 20, they (security officials) need to be able to imagine the unimaginable," said Terry Gainer, a former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police.
On Wednesday, DHS officials began locking down the city nearly a week ahead of schedule, acting on requests from anxious members of Congress and municipal officials.
"In light of these requests, recent events at the U.S. Capitol ... and planned events in Washington, D.C., prior to the inauguration, I have determined that extending the (enhanced security period) to begin on Jan. 13 is necessary to provide a unified command and control and ensure the safety and security of this special event," acting DHS Secretary Pete Gaynor wrote in a memo to department officials.
This week, the chief executives of D.C., Maryland and Virginia sought to close the door on public access to one of the most revered features of American government: the inauguration.
"Due to the unique circumstances surrounding the 59th Presidential Inauguration, including last week’s violent insurrection as well as the ongoing and deadly COVID-19 pandemic, we are taking the extraordinary step of encouraging Americans not to come to Washington, D.C. and to instead participate virtually," the leaders said in a joint statement.
D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee echoed the message in a briefing Wednesday.
And all over the city, there were stark images reflecting the urgency of the continuing security preparations, from Guard troops bivouacked at the Capitol building to a largely deserted downtown where blocks of glass storefronts and office buildings are now wrapped in protective plywood.
On a section of 16th Street near the White House, designated as Black Lives Matter Plaza following last summer's police clash with social justice protesters, concrete barriers were set in place as two demonstrators silently hoisted a placard calling for Trump's removal.
All the while, a nearby speaker played an eerie metaphor for the jarring street scene: the The Temptations hit "Just My Imagination."
"Clearly, we are in uncharted waters," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden inauguration 'on a war-time footing' over domestic terror threat