Federal law enforcement officials are examining threats aimed at members of Congress as the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump nears, including chatter about killing legislators or attacking them outside the U.S. Capitol, an official told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The threats, and concerns that armed protesters could return to sack the Capitol anew, prompted the Capitol Police and other federal law enforcement to insist thousands of National Guard troops remain in Washington as the Senate moves forward with Trump’s trial, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Similar to those intercepted by investigators before Biden’s inauguration, the threats law enforcement agents are tracking vary in specificity and credibility, said the official, who had been briefed on the matter. Mainly posted online and in chat groups, the messages have included plots to attack members of Congress during travel to and from the Capitol complex during the impeachment trial that begins Feb. 8, according to the official.
These threats are like other threat cases that “happen in the Capitol every day – on steroids,” says Todd Keil, an associate managing director of security risk management at Kroll, a global provider of risk solutions.
Keil, a former assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, also told USA TODAY that accurately assessing the potential danger of a given threat that surfaces on social media will be important.
Is the source “a keyboard commando … or someone with access to weapons and other material that we need to be concerned about?” he said. Keil added that investigators could have to sift through “an overload of information” in making a decision.
Keil and Daniel Linskey, a managing director of the company’s security risk management practice, compared the potential security plan to protect congressional members to the multi-agency operation that safeguards the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
“If this is not the time when everybody is on high alert and hyper-vigilant, then when is?” said Linskey, who referenced the Jan. 6 Capitol assault that left five dead and jeopardized members of Congress. “This is an all hands on deck time.”
Sketching out a potential security plan, Linskey and Keil said thousands of National Guard members who have remained in the Capitol area since last week’s inauguration could handle traffic control and roadblocks. That would free up the Capitol Police to focus on personal protection of congressional members and threat assessment. It would also assist the Metropolitan Police Department.
The FBI could assist with intelligence-gathering and analysis. The U.S. Marshals Service and the Diplomatic Security Service could help assist with personal security. And state and local police could provide security in the home states of congressional members as the federal officials go to Washington D.C. and return home.
“It’s an overlapping, layered security approach,” said Linskey, a former superintendent-in-chief of the Boston Police Department.
The heightened security could be in place for an extended time.
“It’s important for our government to be kept open. But there will probably be a widening of the (Washington, D.C.) security zone that has existed,” said Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Thousands of Trump’s supporters descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress met to confirm Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential race. More than 800 made their way into the Capitol during the violent siege, pushing past overwhelmed police officers. Capitol Police said they planned for a free speech protest, not a riot, and were caught off guard despite intelligence suggesting the rally would devolve into a riot. Five people died as a result of the melee, including a Capitol Police officer who was struck in the head with a fire extinguisher.
Though much of the security apparatus around Washington set up after the riot and before Biden’s inauguration – including scores of military checkpoints and hundreds of additional law enforcement personnel – is no longer in place, about 7,000 members of the National Guard will remain to assist federal law enforcement.
The Guard Bureau said the number of troops in Washington was less than 20,000 as of Sunday. The bureau said the number would decline in the coming weeks to about 5,000, who are expected to stay until mid-March.
At least five people facing federal charges suggested they believed they were taking orders from Trump when they marched on Capitol Hill. Those comments in interviews with reporters and federal agents are likely to take center stage as Democrats lay out their impeachment case.
More than 130 people have been charged by federal prosecutors in the riot. Others were arrested after posting threats against members of Congress.
They include a Proud Boys supporter who authorities said threatened to deploy “three cars full of armed patriots” to Washington, threatened harm against Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and stockpiled military-style combat knives and more than 1,000 rifle rounds in his New York home. A Texas man was arrested this week for allegedly taking part in the riot and for posting threats, including a call to assassinate Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Contributing: Kevin McCoy, USA TODAY; Associated Press