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Security Leadership: Behind-The-Scenes Planning Will Limit Inauguration Day Risks


You're going to hear this a lot in the next few days. Parts of Washington, D.C., have taken on the trappings of a city under siege as the inauguration gets closer, with tall black fencing around the Capitol, the National Mall closed and thousands of National Guard troops in the city, and more expected. The U.S. Secret Service is in charge of the massive security apparatus, and its director says they are ready for whatever the next few days might bring. NPR's Brian Naylor has this report.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: At a briefing for Vice President Pence last week, Secret Service Director James Murray got right to the point.


JAMES MURRAY: I imagine the question on everybody's mind is, why is it we think that what happened on January 6 can't happen again next week? And I would point very keenly to the level of planning and coordination we've been carrying out for more than nine months.

NAYLOR: Of course, what happened on January 6 was a pro-Trump mob overran U.S. Capitol Police and stormed the building, leaving at least five dead in its wake and scores injured. The FBI has warned extremists are plotting more violence, aiming not just at Washington and the inauguration, but at all 50 state Capitols. It's a security nightmare, but former Secret Service agent Jonathan Wackrow says he believes those taking part in the inauguration ceremonies on Wednesday will be safe.

JONATHAN WACKROW: Yes. Because of the protective methodology that the Secret Service and their law enforcement partners deploy, President Biden, Vice President Harris, all of the attending dignitaries, they will be safe.

NAYLOR: Wackrow, now COO of Teneo Risk, a security consulting firm, says the Secret Service began planning for this inauguration shortly after the last one ended, and they quickly ramped up their preparations after the Capitol riot. They set up a command center where the Service, along with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, can communicate. It's something Wackrow says the U.S. Capitol Police lacked on January 6.

WACKROW: One thing that we saw on January 6, the attack on Capitol Hill, was really a fractured command and control system. The incident command structure seemingly had fallen apart. Communication between different entities, whether it was the Capitol Police requesting for mutual aid and assistance from other law enforcement entities, from the National Guard, that had broken down.

NAYLOR: The FBI and the Justice Department have announced the arrests of dozens of participants in the January 6 riot. And officials say the total may well number in the hundreds. Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, says those arrests send an important message.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: It is a way for the FBI and law enforcement agencies to say, you think this is a joke, you think that this is, you know, just playing around or, you know, that you get to do this stuff and there's not going to be consequences or that - or the president will save you. None of that is true anymore.

NAYLOR: She says aside from all the visible security preparations underway in Washington, there is a lot going on behind the scenes as well.

KAYYEM: What you're seeing is only a part of what's happening. The arrests, the surveillance, the monitoring of flights, who's coming in, the social media monitoring, the deplatforming of a lot of these really toxic right-wing sites - all of that is also contributing to trying to minimize the risk. We're not going to get the risk to zero. This is simply to minimize the risk.

NAYLOR: Jonathan Wackrow says he believes that with all of the highly visible and publicized security measures in Washington, extremists may seek other targets.

WACKROW: Trying to attack the Capitol, there'll be no level of success. It's going to be put down immediately. So I have to find secondary targets to guarantee my success.

NAYLOR: That includes other capitals, and, he says chillingly, even the homes of elected officials. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.