The Pentagon has authorized up to 15,000 National Guardsmen to deploy to Washington D.C., ahead of next week’s inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
The decision to approve additional Guardsmen follows criticism over the deployment of the Guard amid deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol last week.
Both Democrats and Republicans have questioned delays in the deployment of troops amid the attack on Congress, with defense leaders defending their timelines in the days following the incident.
Last week, leaders from several states with long histories of supporting inaugurations said their troops would be ready to provide security and fill other roles during the event.
At the time, they said there were no major changes to the planned missions, other than deploying to the nation’s capital sooner than normal.
Many Guardsmen are now standing watch over government buildings around Capitol Hill, including congressional office buildings.
As of Monday morning, more than 6,300 Guardsmen were in D.C. They included members of the D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia National Guards.
On Monday, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, said the additional Guardsmen were requested by the Secret Service, Capitol Police and Park Police, and will provide security, logistics, liaison and communications support to law enforcement up to and through the inauguration on Jan. 20.
Their help comes as the city readies for the threat of more violence. Credible threats have already led to the closure of some D.C. fixtures, including the Washington Monument.
Hokanson said authorities have not determined if some or all of the Guardsmen will be armed and outfitted with riot gear.
“My highest priority is not only the protection of our citizens and our property but my highest priority is the protection of our National Guardsmen and women,” he said. “I work very closely with our adjutants general to make sure that we never put a soldier or an airman where they do not have the proper equipment or the ability to protect and defend themselves.”
Some of the states sending Guardsmen are already familiar with Washington, D.C, having sent soldiers and airmen to support the city amid widespread protests over racial inequality last year.
Maj. Gen. Timothy Gowen, the adjutant general of Maryland, said Guard leaders have done everything they can to mitigate risks to their troops. He said the Guardsmen being sent to the city are the best in the nation for the type of missions they’ll be asked to undertake.
Officials have stressed that Guardsmen will be in support roles, with local law enforcement in the lead. In all cases, they will be looking to de-escalate tensions whenever possible.
They also defended the response to support the defense of the Capitol, with leaders from several states stressing that the unique make-up of the Guard means they cannot deploy at a moment’s notice.
Instead, Guardsmen must take leave from their civilian jobs, coordinate with family and take other steps before reporting for duty. That process can take hours or more in some cases.
“Where was the Guard?” Gowen said. “The Guard was being a plumber or a carpenter or a doctor or working at the grocery store.”
“The National Guard is not a first responder force,” he added.