Troops at Inauguration Pre-Screened for Extremism, Says DC Guard Commander
“We will use the minimum force required to protect ourselves,” said Maj. Gen. William Walker, in an exclusive interview.
The roughly 25,000 National Guardsmen deployed to the U.S. capital to ensure President-elect Joe Biden is able to be sworn in peacefully went through an additional background check to weed out any whiff of domestic extremism.
Added for one of the most fraught deployments in the history of the Guard, the screening is “about the same” as the standard background check that Guardsmen go through when they initially enlist, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard said in an interview on Saturday. It is intended as “another layer” of security on top of continuous monitoring of the force, he said.
“For this deployment everybody is screened additionally, but it’s more of a reassurance, because we do everything we can do know our Guardsmen, our soldiers and airmen,” Major General William Walker said.
A spokesman for D.C. Guard declined to say how many Guardsmen were rejected for the deployment during the screening process, citing operational security.
The Defense Department broadly has struggled to get a handle on the problem of extremism, including white supremacy, in its ranks. A senior official told reporters on Thursday that the Pentagon has seen an increase in white supremacist beliefs among both active duty service members and veterans, but was unable to provide concrete figures. Several people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol were current and former military members and at least one person arrested is a member of the Virginia National Guard.
Walker, who commands the 25,000 troops who have streamed into the nation’s capital in advance of the Wednesday inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, denied that the Guard has a problem with domestic extremism in its ranks.
“No, I can say no — but the National Guard is made up of the community, like any police department or federal agency,” Walker said. “I don’t sense or see or even perceive a problem of any level that we need to be overly concerned about.
“But we do try to know our people and when we identify somebody that disqualifies themselves from the honor and privilege of serving this great nation, then we take steps to separate them from our ranks.”
The thousands of Guardsmen, who have been drawn from states across the country, can already be seen building out a hardened security perimeter around the capitol and nearby Senate and House office buildings. Metal fencing has been erected and, in some places, barbed wire put up, while images of hundreds of camo-clad Guardsmen staging inside areas of the Capitol usually teeming with tourists have gone viral. The Guardsmen, who are armed, are there to offer support to the U.S. Secret Service, the lead agency for inauguration security, as well as the Capitol Police and other federal law enforcement agencies tasked with ensuring Biden’s inauguration goes forward — even as right-wing extremist groups have continued to threaten violent action to prevent Biden from taking office.
What is known as the Guard’s RUF card — their rules for the use of force that dictates under what circumstances Guardsmen may use force in the course of their duties — mandates that Guardsmen are armed only for their personal protection, Walker said. Some images of Guardsmen patrolling perimeters near the U.S. Capitol have shown them armed with M4 rifles, but with the magazine stowed safely in pouches on their vests.
“We will use the minimum force required to protect ourselves,” Walker said. “We will not be making arrests. We will only defend ourselves if we feel our lives are in jeopardy.”
Still, it’s a shocking militarization of the United States capital, and the third high-profile and politically fraught deployment of the National Guard in the district in less than a year. In June, the D.C. Guard faced fierce criticism for its use of force during the Black Lives Matter protests surrounding the police killing George Floyd. On Jan. 6, at the request of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Guard presence in the city numbered in the low hundreds and reinforcements did not arrive to respond to the crisis at the Capitol until hours after the siege had ended, further embroiling the Guard in perilous national politics.
It’s also not clear when the deployment might end. Walker said that he will start releasing Guardsmen “as soon as possible” but when that might be will be “conditions-based” — the now-boilerplate term that military leaders have used for years to describe any potential withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan.
“The inaugural period runs until 24 January,” Walker said. “But it all depends on the conditions on the ground after the 20th... We want things to get back to normal as soon as possible.”
Walker declined to speak in detail about the events of Jan. 6. Some lawmakers have questioned why it took reinforcements from the D.C. Guard so long to arrive on the scene, although most accounts appear to place the blame on security leadership at the Capitol or Trump administration officials in the Defense Department and the White House, not the Guard. Unlike in other states, the D.C. Guard is under the ultimate authority of the president, through the Department of Defense and specifically the Secretary of the Army.
Former Capitol Police chief Steven Sund, who retired in the wake of the attack, has claimed that he was told by his superiors leading up to Jan. 6 to reach out informally to his Guard contacts to ask them to “lean forward” and be on alert in the event the Capitol Police needed help. An internal Capitol Police intelligence report on Jan. 3 had warned that “Congress itself” could be a target of thousands of enraged Trump supporters who were expected to pour into the Capitol to protest lawmakers’ certification of the election results, the Washington Post reported Friday.
Walker declined to say whether he heard from Sund specifically before the invasion of the Capitol.
The D.C. Guard “received a formal request from the mayor on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Department,” Walker said, and “jointly we came up with the number that [D.C. Mayor Bowser] requested to do traffic control points in anticipation of any event.”
“We did not receive any other form of request,” he said. “That was the only request we acted upon, that’s the only request we received.”
Walker on Saturday sought to tamp down the fears of a nation on edge.
“What I want Americans to know is that the National Guard is here in direct support of federal and District of Columbia law enforcement to assure that the peaceful transfer of presidential power occurs on the 20th of January,” he said.
Guardsmen, he said, are “disciplined. They’re motivated and they’re professional. That’s what I tell them. And the eyes of the world are upon them. This is their moment.”