The FBI director has warned of the risk of “potential armed protests” surrounding Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration next week, saying government buildings and officials in Washington and in state capitals appear to be the targets for extremist groups.
Christopher Wray said the bureau had seen “an extensive amount of concerning online chatter” since last week’s attack on the US Capitol, though he acknowledged it was proving difficult to distinguish which online threats presented real dangers and which were merely “aspirational”.
“We’re concerned about the potential for violence at multiple protests and rallies planned here in DC and in state capital buildings around the country in the days to come,” Mr Wray said at a security briefing for Mike Pence, the vice-president.
Areas around inaugural locations in central Washington have already gone on lockdown, including patrols of Army National Guard troops in and around the Capitol, where Mr Biden is due to be sworn in on Wednesday.
State capitals across the US are also on guard for protests at the weekend. Thomas Relford, special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in New York’s capital of Albany, said his team is expecting demonstrations leading up to Mr Biden’s swearing-in. As of Thursday, “there are no specific, no credible threats that there is going to be any type of armed protest” in the region, he added.
The heightened security posture comes as law enforcement is facing increasing scrutiny over failures to guard the Capitol last week. The US Capitol Police force has come under particular pressure over whether any of its officers played a role in aiding the violent mob to storm the complex.
The Capitol Police’s inspector-general, who reports directly to the force’s board, has suspended all other work to focus solely on conducting a sweeping review of the force, according to two people briefed on the investigation.
As well as committing all of their staff to the project, the watchdog’s office will invite independent experts in to aid the probe.
Several lawmakers have described fleeing for their lives and being forced to hide in secure locations after law enforcement lines collapsed in the face of the rampaging crowd. Since the attack, members of Congress have said they or their colleagues have been the subject of violent threats over votes to certify the election results or to impeach Donald Trump.
Chris Murphy, the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees the US Capitol Police, said it was “absolutely vital” that lawmakers understood how the breach occurred, adding that he was pleased the inspector-general would be launching a comprehensive investigation.
On Wednesday evening, Tim Ryan, Mr Murphy’s counterpart on the House of Representatives, told reporters that lawmakers were having “a hell of a time getting information from the Capitol Police oversight”.
“It’s a black box over there,” Mr Ryan said, adding: “They need to do a better job.”
Mr Ryan said that, in hundreds of conversations with “rank-and-file members” of the force, a lack of communication from command centres, leading to “a ton of confusion and lack of direction”, had been highlighted.
Capitol Police officers have also faced allegations of aiding the rioters. Two off-duty police officers from Virginia, charged with unlawful entry as part of the Capitol attack investigation, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that they had been allowed into the building and shown around by Capitol Police officers.
Thomas Robertson, an off-duty officer with Rocky Mount police department in Virginia, told the paper that he and his colleague Jacob Fracker had broken no laws.
“We were escorted in by the Capitol Police, shown around and told, ‘As long as you stay here, you’re fine’,” Mr Robertson said, adding that the pair had stayed in cordoned-off areas. He said that officers were handing out bottles of water to people upon entry.
However, prosecutors alleged in court filings that in now-deleted social media posts, Mr Robertson claimed that he “attacked the government” and “took the fucking Capitol”.
Images of Capitol Police officers seeming to open the gates to allow rioters on to the Capitol grounds, and posing for selfies with members of the mob while wearing Trump-themed MAGA hats, have prompted outrage on social media.
But other members of the force have been hailed for risking their safety to divert the mob away from the packed Senate chamber. A bipartisan group of lawmakers are seeking to honour one of the officers, Eugene Goodman, for his “bravery and quick thinking” during the attack.
The chief of the Capitol Police, Steven Sund, submitted his resignation in the wake of the attack. One Capitol Police officer died from injuries sustained during the melee.
Two Capitol Police officers have been suspended. Mr Ryan said he had been briefed that about 20 more were being investigated by the police’s office for personnel and management.
The mistrust inside the Capitol has also spread between lawmakers, with some suggesting that colleagues aided rioters by giving them tours in the preceding days.
Speaking at the impeachment proceeding against Mr Trump, Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chair of the House judiciary committee, said rioters’ “accomplices in this House will be held responsible”.
On Thursday Capitol Police announced that the Capitol building would be closed to the public on inauguration day.
Additional reporting by Sara Germano in Albany
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