WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is deploying scores of National Guard troops to secure a fenced-off Capitol during a rally on Saturday for defendants charged in connection with the Jan. 6 riot, bracing for violence as the authorities toil to correct the security failures that led to the deadly assault eight months ago.
In what the Capitol Police chief called the “new normal” of security amid rising threats from domestic extremists, the administration will deploy 100 unarmed National Guard troops to downtown Washington on Saturday. The additional military presence comes after intelligence officers tracked online threats made against members of Congress and reported that some rally attendees supportive of former President Donald J. Trump “may seek to engage in violence.”
“We are aware of a small number of recent online threats of violence referencing the planned rally, including online discussions encouraging violence the day before the rally,” intelligence officers from the Department of Homeland Security wrote in an assessment obtained by The New York Times.
The officials are preparing for violence to erupt with “little-to-no warning,” although they have not identified any “specific or credible plot associated with the event,” according to the document, which is dated Thursday.
Still, the report points to concerning chatter on social media, noting that intelligence officials have found that some people had discussed storming the Capitol on Friday night, “and one user commented on kidnapping an identified member of Congress.” Others on the internet have mentioned targeting elected officials, Jewish institutions and “liberal churches.”
“We would be foolish not to take seriously the intelligence we have,” J. Thomas Manger, the chief of the Capitol Police, told reporters Friday on Capitol Hill. “The chatter we heard before Jan. 6, many of those threats turned out to be, in fact, credible. We’re not taking any chances.”
The changes are an about-face for a police agency that has long been known as secretive and was caught flat-footed by the violence of Jan. 6. Instead of dismissing threats and keeping intelligence to a small group of analysts, as they did before the January riot, Capitol Police leaders have spent the past week distributing warnings of even unconfirmed threats to rank-and-file officers, lawmakers and the news media. The agency has canceled time off for the entire force and asked for help, early and often, from other police departments and the National Guard — something officials had been reluctant to do in the run-up to Jan. 6. They also reflect a shift by the Biden administration to focus on far-right extremism, which officials agree is one of the most lethal threats to the United States, after decades of prioritizing terrorism overseas.
The “Justice for J6” rally, slated for Saturday, is being organized by Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign operative, and his organization, Look Ahead America. The organization has demanded that the Justice Department drop charges against what the group calls “nonviolent protesters” facing charges stemming from the Jan. 6 riot. Organizers have secured a permit for 700 attendees at the rally, according to the document.
Chief Manger said his officers had also been in touch with rally organizers and their security team, and in preparation for the event, security officials have restored a security perimeter around the Capitol including a high fence like the one erected in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot.
The rally is the latest effort to rewrite history of the deadly mob attack on the Capitol, which sought to disrupt Congress’s count to formalize President Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, and which prosecutors say led to as many as 1,000 assaults against police officers. Federal authorities have issued multiple intelligence reports this year warning that the attack on Jan. 6 may not have been an isolated episode, and that domestic extremists have been emboldened by the mob attack and false narratives around the 2020 election.
Mr. Trump issued a statement from his office on Thursday, with no mention of the rally, but saying, “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the Jan. 6 protest concerning the rigged presidential election.” He added: “Justice will prevail!”
The Biden administration has made a point of drawing a contrast between its strategy on domestic extremism and that of the previous administration, which redirected resources toward countering leftist groups despite advice from some top law enforcement officials that militias and white supremacists were the most lethal threat to the United States.
Federal officials had a call on Thursday with police agencies across the country to prepare for violence on Sept. 18 and in the days ahead, according to an administration official.
The latest report, titled “Prospects for Violence at ‘Justice for J6’ Rally in Washington, D.C.,” warns of possible violence both by participants in the rally and by counterprotesters — a possibility that Chief Manger alluded to on Friday.
“If they decide they want to breach the fence, if they decide they want to attack law enforcement, we’ll be ready for those kinds of violence,” he said.
Those seeking to commit violence could use encrypted communication platforms, making it difficult for law enforcement to disrupt any plans, according to the document.
Still, homeland security officers have found fractured support for the rally among those who have supported the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Some individuals sympathetic to those who breached the Capitol have claimed online that the event is a “‘false flag’ planned by authorities to target potential attendees for arrest and have encouraged like-minded individuals to not attend,” according to the document. Users of Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, have referred to the rally as a “clout trap,” an event where organizers are trying to make a name for themselves on the backs of the true believers.
Members of Congress and law enforcement officials have said the security preparations for the rally on Saturday are a stark contrast to the planning in the weeks before Jan. 6. A report by two Senate committees found that authorities failed to adequately warn law enforcement officials and share intelligence before the riot earlier this year.
Unlike the riot of Jan. 6, where the Capitol Police were severely outnumbered, the agency plans to be at full staffing for the Sept. 18 rally, and has issued an “emergency declaration” that allows officers from other agencies to be deputized with police powers on Capitol grounds.
On Jan. 6, officers at the Capitol waited for hours to receive help from the National Guard. But for the Sept. 18 rally, the department has already asked the Defense Department to be ready to send in the National Guard.
Chief Manger said Saturday’s rally was an opportunity to practice the agency’s new security protocols.
In addition to restoring the fence, the Capitol Police has installed new security camera technology to better monitor a wider range of activity around the complex, and has streamlined its intelligence-sharing and planning processes after the attack.
Elizabeth Neumann, the former assistant homeland security secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention under Mr. Trump, welcomed the preparation. But she said when dealing with groups focused on targeting government facilities and officials, sending additional camouflaged troops and federal officers could also carry the risk of emboldening the extremists.
“It creates a target,” she said. “As a security official, what you’re making the bet against is that if you don’t protect, are you opening yourself up for another Jan. 6 repeat.”
Congressional leaders have said they are encouraged by briefings they’ve received from the Capitol Police about preparations for Sept. 18.
“I believe that they are well prepared, thorough, professional, and I think they are better prepared than people were before Jan. 6,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said after receiving a briefing on the precautions.
Adam Goldman contributed reporting.