Among the most shocking images to emerge from Wednesday’s attack on the US Capitol were members of the pro-Trump mob wielding baseball bats and bearing “Keep America Great” banners rampaging over the inaugural platform on the West Front of the building where four years ago Donald Trump took his oath of office.
The sight of rioters running amok amid clouds of teargas on the very spot where their cherished leader swore to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States” was not just symbolically chilling. It underlined the massive security challenge now facing the US government as it hurtles towards the next inauguration – that of Joe Biden – just days away.
As with any inauguration in modern times, Biden’s ascendancy to the presidency on 20 January has been declared a “national security special event”. That awards it the highest level of security preparation, with all the phenomenal firepower that federal agencies led by the Secret Service and FBI can muster.
In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, that already elevated security level is now being ramped up significantly. The risk of the incoming president and vice-president, three former presidents, the nine members of the US supreme court, and most members of Congress – all of whom are expected to attend the inauguration – being exposed to a repeat attack by the Trump-incited mob is beyond contemplation.
“There’s going to have to be major, major reviews of what happened and changes made in terms of beefing up security,” Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic senator who sits on the joint congressional committee overseeing inauguration ceremonies, told CBS News.
Within hours of Wednesday’s carnage, that beefing up was already in plain sight. A 7ft-tall “non-scalable” fence is being erected in a giant circle around the Capitol grounds where it will remain for at least 30 days.
A state of emergency has been declared in Washington DC that will last until the day after the inauguration. More than 6,200 national guard personnel will be in the city by this weekend, according to the mayor, Muriel Bowser.
Driving the scramble to increase security is the realization that what happened on Wednesday amounted to a security failure of immense proportions. The chief of the Capitol police and the Senate sergeant-at-arms both resigned in consequence.
But the phrase “security failure” itself fails to come close to the threat contained in the storming of the Capitol. The most dangerous aspect of it was not in the mob itself, but in who stood behind it.
Never before has sitting president incited his followers to attack the heart of American democracy.
As Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary under George W Bush, put it: “What Donald Trump did was a betrayal of public trust and a violation of his oath of office. There’s no question that what we saw this week was incited by the rhetoric that he has been using now for weeks and that inspired and mobolised extremist rightwingers and conspiracy theorists.”
Chertoff likened the riot at the Capitol to 9/11. “On 9/11 we worried that one of the planes was going to hit the Capitol building. In this case, the Capitol building was hit. It was domestic terror, and absolutely shocking.”
Chertoff was central in the preparations for Barack Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009. That event held its own enormous challenges, given Obama’s status as the first black president in a country with a long history of racial violence amplified by the vast crowds of almost 2 million people that assembled in Washington to cheer him on.
But he said that the nature of the threat had changed significantly since then. The focus has shifted away from foreign terrorism planning big-scale attacks like 9/11 towards domestic incitement chaneled through social media.
“Getting people wound up through conspiracy theories or ideological extremism, and encouraging them to use whatever they have to hand to carry out a terrorist act. It creates a different kind of security challenge – you have to screen for a lot of different kinds of people and threats.”
The change presents the Secret Service with a tough task, Chertoff said. “As we are now unfortunately aware, there are people who are prepared to engage in domestic terrorism. Unlike dealing with foreign terrorists who you can exclude from the country, in this case you don’t know whether your next-door neighbor might be a threat.”
A boon has been handed to the current acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, and the Secret Service as they seek to get a grip on this year’s inauguration from an unexpected quarter – the pandemic.
Roy Blunt, the Republican senator who chairs the congressional committee preparing for the inaugural ceremonies, has estimated that the number of participants who will be allowed into secure perimeter areas at the inauguration will be dramatically reduced to below 3,000, down from the 200,000 or so who are normally included.
With these greatly diminished numbers, the key will be to keep anyone who has not been fully vetted away from the newly ensconced president and vice-president.
Given the scale of resources available to the most powerful government on Earth, that task should not be insurmountable. But Chertoff warns that the inauguration will be just the start of it.
“There is going to be a persistent challenge over the next months, depending on how active Donald Trump is when he’s out of office, in terms of domestic terrorism inspired by him directly or by rightwing extremist and conspiracy groups. This is going to be the security challenge for the foreseeable future.”