Weapons are distributed to members of the National Guard outside the U.S. Capitol on January 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. Security has been increased throughout Washington following the breach of the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, and leading up to the Presidential inauguration. Credit - Stefani Reynolds—Getty Images
The deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 has prompted U.S. security officials to think the unthinkable as they scramble to secure Washington ahead of next week’s Inauguration: that the enemy is already inside the house.
More than a dozen law enforcement officers and current and former military officials are reported to have taken part in the violent Jan. 6 insurrection that killed a U.S. Capitol Police officer and cost four supporters of President Donald Trump their lives. One Navy and two Air Force veterans are among those being investigated by law enforcement for the attack, as is a junior Army officer by her superiors, while several U.S. Capitol Police officers have been suspended after video showed them appearing to assist some of the rioters who were spurred to action by Trump’s refusal to accept defeat.
Now the FBI is warning of planned armed protests at the Jan. 20 Inauguration in Washington, D.C., and in all 50 state capitals, current senior U.S. officials tell TIME. Current and former security officials say they are concerned that serving U.S. troops or law enforcement officers could pose a clear and present danger to the President- and Vice President-elect and other senior U.S. lawmakers on Inauguration Day. Federal investigators are also trying to track down military and law enforcement members or veterans who took part on Jan. 6, and trace their wider network of associates who may be plotting to turn next week into the mayhem being called for on far-right forums.
But there are too many people to look at, and too little time to do it, says Mitch Silber, former Director of Intelligence Analysis at the New York City Police Department. In Washington alone, up to 20,000 National Guardsmen and hundreds of city, federal and neighboring state police will be on patrol.
“We might be talking one or two bad apples here, not anything systematic,” Silber says. Rooting them out would take an internal affairs-style investigation, possibly of entire agencies that are involved in Inauguration security. “We just don’t know, and there’s just no time to conduct that type of investigation.”
The growing sense of urgency and anxiety was reflected in an unprecedented letter from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and all the service chiefs to military members on Tuesday. They wrote that the “violent riot in Washington, D.C.” was a “direct assault…on our Constitutional process.” The chiefs added that the “rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection.”
Their concern is shared by lawmakers who are incensed over the events of Jan. 6 and worried about security preparations underway for Jan. 20. After an FBI briefing on Tuesday, the Democratic chairmen of the Judiciary, Intelligence, Armed Services and Oversight committees released a statement that it’s “clear that more must be done to preempt, penetrate, and prevent deadly and seditious assaults by domestic violent extremists in the days ahead.”
“There is a crisis issue: the rise of extremism and white supremacy in the ranks,” retired Army officer Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) told Politico on Monday. That rise, he said, has been “fueled by President Trump, unfortunately. So that has to be dealt with right away and unequivocally.”
Extremist experts and former law enforcement officials can only guess at how many of the nation’s police and military are members of militia or other extremist groups, or even hold extremist views they might be willing to act on. Of the nation’s roughly 800,000 police, it’s probably far less than one percent, says Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “When you have a body that huge, you’re gonna find some people with ties to extremism in it. That’s just a given.”
Nevertheless, that tiny fraction could still mean a sizable number of trained professionals could have the means and intent to cause serious harm or damage to express their anger over Trump’s defeat and the loss of life among rioters at the U.S. Capitol, including military-veteran-turned-martyr Ashli Babbit. More worryingly, many troops seasoned from fighting terrorists overseas know insurgent tactics, such as communicating via encrypted apps rather than expressing their plots over the now-at-least-temporarily-defunct Parler app, says terrorism expert Mia Bloom of Georgia State University.
“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it’s extremely dangerous when you’re talking about people that have actual training in the military, or in law enforcement,” adds Colin Clarke, head of research for the Soufan Group. In reviewing video clips of the assault on the Capitol, he noticed rioters using specialized military tactics. “People were being commanded to move through a broken window in twos,” he noted, reminiscent of how U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan to enter a building.
Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence, has also watched the videos, and says while the “vast majority of those inside the building really have no idea of what they’re doing,” there were a handful of people that seemed “very personal purposeful and seemed to know where to go and what to do, and came equipped with flexi ties and other, and other kinds of tactical gear.”
Some who entered the building wore the militia patch of the Oath Keepers, a group he says brags about having a number of military and law enforcement members in its ranks. “When you have a President who holds campaign rallies called ‘Cops for Trump,’ and they are heavily attended…all of this makes the challenge of securing Washington, securing the inauguration, even more difficult than it already is.”
A disappearing target
Ironically, the Jan. 6 insurrection has handed the FBI the best possible blueprint to find future plotters, giving them legal cause to investigate not just those caught on camera storming the Capitol but associates who cheered them on and say they want to take part in up to four days of further, possibly armed insurrection before and on Inauguration Day. The Justice Department has already opened 170 case files with more on the way, officials said Tuesday.
One problem in their investigation, however, is that many of the would-be anarchists are erasing themselves online, according to Army veteran Jeff Bardin of private intelligence firm Treadstone 71.
Military members have always been careful not to use real identities online, but are becoming even harder to spot in the immediate wake of the Jan. 6 attack, he says. In the last week, he has tracked well-known neo-Nazis and other extremists deleting social media posts and taking their conversations “private” on encrypted apps like Telegram or moving to encrypted app Signal or GAB, a site popular with the alt-right, now that Parler has been taken offline.
“Everybody’s scrubbing their sites and trying to remove things if they participated in the insurrection last week,” Bardin says. “They’re running scared because they know the FBI is coming after them.”
Once the potential bad actors go dark, it’s harder for the FBI to trace their network, as the Constitution’s First Amendment arguably protects a wider universe of dark expression than an Islamic extremist sympathizer would be allowed under existing terrorist laws. The Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure by the government, means the FBI can’t run a wiretap on anyone who expresses a belief in, for example, the QAnon conspiracy that claims Trump is the embattled hero who will root out a cabal of cannibalistic child traffickers at the highest ranks of U.S. and global government.
“The FBI cannot open an investigation without a threat of violence or alleged criminal activity,” FBI Washington Field Office Assistant Director in Charge Steven D’Antuono explained Tuesday. “We have to separate the aspirational from the intentional and determine which of the individuals saying despicable things on the internet are just practicing keyboard bravado, or they actually have the intent to do harm.”
Separately, the U.S. military is on alert for signs of extremism in its own ranks, spurred in part by a call from Rep. Crow to the Army Secretary after Jan. 6, in which the lawmaker asked him “to ensure that deployed members are not sympathetic to domestic terrorists.” The Army is working with the U.S. Secret Service to “determine which service members supporting the national special security event for the Inauguration require additional background screening,” an Army spokesman tells TIME.
All troops have background checks that are periodically reviewed, and regular training on how to look out for insider threats. Now, the spokesman says, that training is also being given to members of the DC National Guard and other troops arriving to help secure the event.
Military personnel are prohibited from “actively advocating supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes,” says Defense Department spokesman Michael L. Howard, adding that commanders can discipline troops and even expel them for such activity. Howard says the military is piloting a program to monitor members’ social media accounts as part of the routine background investigation process, but that’s been complicated by the use of anonymous avatars and other means of hiding one’s identity, as is often the practice on extremist communication forums.
There’s a long history in this country of both active duty military and veterans becoming radicalized. Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War Army veteran, conducted the largest domestic terror attack killing 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Before that, in 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, indiscriminately opened fire atop a tower at the University of Texas at Austin killing 14 people. In 2009, violent Islamic extremist U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan opened fire and killed 13 people at Ft. Hood.
In recent decades, the Anti-Defamation League has helped provide evidence of dozens of white supremacists operating in all branches of the military, according to Congressional testimony by the ADL’s Pitcavage, from connections to the KKK in Texas the 1980s to a former military member taking part in the violent white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
Militia groups like the Oath Keepers draw in members from military and law enforcement ranks by playing on their patriotism and appealing to fears of federal government overreach like threats to gun rights, says Sam Jackson, an expert at the University of Albany in homegrown extremist groups. “Pro-constitutionalist is the way they would paint themselves,” Jackson says. “I call them anti-government extremists.”
The Oath Keepers, founded by former U.S. Army paratrooper Stewart Rhodes, claims to have tens of thousands of current and former military and law enforcement members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Those with security training are especially sought after to staff what Jackson describes as “an armed neighborhood watch program” that the group has modeled on U.S. special operations teams, with an expert marksman, an explosives expert, a medical expert and communications expert on each team. One of their missions? Armed resistance if the U.S. government tries to impose an assault weapons ban.
Membership to such an extremist group would be clear grounds for dismissal, but it can be harder to eject a soldier who simply expresses fringey, hardline views. Troops can “express their personal opinions on political candidates, make a monetary contribution to a campaign, sign a petition to place a candidate’s name on the ballot, and attend a political event as a spectator,” according to Pentagon legal guidance, but they can’t raise money for, sponsor or speak at a partisan event.
Army Capt. Emily Rainey of the 4th Psychological Operations Group is now being investigated for bringing a group of roughly 100 participants to Washington on Jan. 6 from Ft. Bragg, N.C., according to the Associated Press. She told the AP she was simply acting, as per regulations, as “a private citizen and doing everything right and within my rights.”
As with the military, no one really knows how many cops hold dangerous extremist points of view, but law enforcement officials with ties to white supremacist or far-right groups have been exposed in more than a dozen states since 2000, writes Michael German, a law enforcement and intelligence expert at NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. Many cops have expressed “racist, nativist, and sexist” views on social media, he notes, often with the knowledge of their bosses and only leading to dismissal if the postings spark a controversy.
Many police forces across the country have codes of conduct in place against making racist remarks or joining nationalist militia or white supremacist groups. While joining such a group is not explicitly illegal, the ADL’s Pitcavage says that “case law is pretty strong in permitting police departments to fire people involved with extremists causes.”
That doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Pitcavage says some law enforcement agencies are slow to discipline or eject members aligned with such groups because their leadership is “under the mistaken impression that the person was just engaging in First Amendment activities, and so they could not fire them.”
Other radicalized police officers intentionally to hide these activities. “We’ve known for a while that the extremist right wing has infiltrated into various police departments around the country,” says terrorism expert Bloom, who says some violent extremists have even encouraged their children to serve as a way of penetrating U.S. security services. “That was purposeful…and it’s been going on for at least 20 years.” She believes the decades-long infiltration campaign may have contributed to a spike in “violence against people of color.”
It is unclear whether there are any stepped-up measures to watch for insider threats among local and state police assigned to provide security during Inauguration week in Washington. Requests for comment to multiple police organizations were not immediately answered, including to the International Union of Police Associations.
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, says most members of the FBI and more than 60 federal law enforcement agencies he represents get background checks every five years. While membership of fringe groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers is not illegal, those officers who choose to take part must report if they see the groups they are part of planning “overt acts that are going to overthrow the government. Then you have that you have a responsibility as an officer of the law, not to be a part of that,” he says. His organization condemned the Jan. 6 attack as “an act of anarchy.”
Georgetown Law professor and defense lawyer Vida Johnson says a balance needs to be struck between rooting out extremist views fueled by Trump’s nativist, anti-immigrant views and demonizing those who are staunch conservatives and might make anti-Biden remarks. “We don’t want police” or other branches of law enforcement “to generally be able to surveil people based on…views that we express are non-violent and don’t cross any legal lines,” she says.
Still, Johnson also says with so many strong Trump supporters in many of the nation’s police departments, “it’s not a stretch to be worried about this.”
This story was updated on Jan. 14 with comment from Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
—With reporting from Alana Abramson and W.J. Hennigan