Next Wednesday will see the inauguration of Joe Biden as president, but between the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and security concerns after last week’s deadly Capitol riot and failed insurrection, the celebration will be far from typical.
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser and the governors of Virginia and Maryland have explicitly asked the public to steer clear of the event at the Capitol, which ordinarily draws crowds of hundreds of thousands of supporters—and, often, competing crowds of protesters—gathered to watch a new president get sworn in.
But this year, the Secret Service, multiple federal and local police agencies, and potentially more than 20,000 members of the National Guard are expected to keep a tight lid on anyone who does gather for the event, after the FBI warned of potentially armed right-wing protests in D.C. and at all 50 state capitols. Even Airbnb has closed its platform to reservations in the capital region for next week, amid concern that guests might include people planning violence around the inauguration.
Security experts generally say that the attack on the Capitol last week, when a mob egged on by incendiary comments from President Donald Trump overcame Capitol Police and ran rampant throughout the building, was a serious failure of federal police agencies.
“I think that what happened last week was an absolute catastrophe of historical proportions as it relates to the security of our Capitol building in Washington, D.C.,” says Alex del Carmen, head of the School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies at Tarleton State University in Texas. “We had individuals with ill intent who were armed, who were feet away from the vice president, the speaker of the House, and the vice president-elect.”
Despite signs that pro-Trump groups had planned a massive show of force in the nation’s capital, like people pictured wearing shirts that said “Civil War” with last Wednesday’s date, security officials were apparently unprepared for what happened, del Carmen says.
Taking right-wing violence seriously (for a change)
For years, critics of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have said they spent too much effort focusing on Muslims, Black activists, and other minority groups—often through questionable, if not unconstitutional, methods—and not enough effort preventing right-wing and white supremacist violence. And recent turnover at the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security combined with Trump’s own ambivalence toward confronting violence by his supporters likely didn’t help agencies coordinate as needed to prepare for the mob on Capitol Hill that left Capitol Police officers visibly isolated and overwhelmed.
“We’re getting a sense that just over the last few days that it was probably a function, at least in part of the fact, that really the Trump administration has effectively decapitated professional leadership at Department of Defense [and the] Department of Homeland Security,” says Brian Gerber, codirector of Arizona State University’s Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security. “I think the necessary coordination that should have been part of the preparations for January 6th didn’t take place.”
But now, he and other experts anticipate, agencies will likely be more prepared to handle threats emerging in the coming days. “We didn’t see that on the 6th, but Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense are obviously on alert now,” Gerber says. “I don’t think they’ll repeat the mistakes of January 6th.”
You might see things like an attempt to use drones or other things like that to try to disrupt the inauguration.”
That’s not to say that security experts and officials don’t expect violence in D.C. and around the country in the days ahead. CNN reports that officials suspect there will be violent protests, with people potentially armed with explosives such as pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails, similar to those seized around the riot last week. And other reports have indicated that law enforcement agencies are contemplating possibilities like suicide bombings and airplane crashes or attacks via unmanned planes.
“This is a really complex sort of problem, because in addition to the fairly crude attack of a mob overrunning a relatively insecure area that happened last week, the next time this is attempted I suspect if any potential attack is not disrupted earlier, you might see things like an attempt to use drones or other things like that to try to disrupt the inauguration,” Gerber says.
Roadblocks, including concrete barriers, are being set up around the restricted inauguration area, with transit stations and parking garages there also closed off. Armed National Guard members have already taken positions at the Capitol, in some cases even sleeping inside the building. While officials haven’t specified how they and law enforcement plan to respond to inauguration protests that turn violent, it’s quite possible they, too, will be quicker to turn to more violent measures.
“I think that having been burned one time by not being adequately prepared for the level of violence, they will more likely be ready to deal with the protest turning violent with plans to handle that,” says Kenneth Gray, a retired FBI special agent and senior lecturer in the University of New Haven’s criminal justice department. “I think you’ll potentially see the use of chemical gases, or rubber bullets, or more severe types of response.”
Expecting the unexpected
It’s also possible that livestreams of the inauguration or other digital systems related to the event will come under attack, although some experts say that’s relatively unlikely compared to physical attacks.
“I doubt a coordinated effort that utilizes disruptions to websites, email, or communications will be in use,” wrote Bill Sieglein, founder of the CISO Executive Network, a cybersecurity group, in an email. “I could be wrong. We have seen cyberattacks used in foreign political skirmishes, but it is usually the government attacking the communications of the resistance.”
Security officials are likely still working to ensure the safety of digital technology around the inauguration, says Theresa Payton, CEO of cybersecurity company Fortalice Solutions, in the wake of both the Capitol attack and the recent widespread cybersecurity breach using SolarWinds systems. That not only includes communications technology but also systems involved in the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations. Transitions are a hectic time for tech workers in the best of circumstances, and officials will likely need to hurry data and physical equipment to the National Archives for permanent storage and set up workstations for new arrivals, says Payton, who served as White House CIO under President George W. Bush.
“You’re literally pulling devices sometimes out of people’s hands because they’re trying to put a bow on the work and do a good job in transitioning to the new team,” she says.
And while it may be unlikely that the inauguration will be severely disrupted by a mob similar to the one that attacked the Capitol last week, experts don’t discount the possibility that there may be other disruptions that are hard to predict. “The one concern is that these seditionists will try some other technique,” Gerber says. “What that is, I don’t know.”