WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has formally approved an extension of the National Guard deployment at the U.S. Capitol for about two more months as possible threats of violence remain, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
According to a statement issued by the department, close to 2,300 Guard troops will continue to provide security in Washington until May 23, at the request of the Capitol Police. Officials have been scrambling in recent days to determine if and how to fill the request, as the original March 12 deadline for them to leave Washington loomed.
There are currently about 5,100 Guard troops in Washington, and they were scheduled to leave this weekend. It was unclear if any of those forces will have to stay an extra day or two while any new troops arrive and get trained and settled in. The Pentagon said defense officials will work with the Capitol Police to incrementally reduce the number of Guard needed in the city as time goes on.
The decision to keep Guard members in the city underscores concerns about security at the Capitol, two months after rioters breached the building in an attack that left five people dead. Law enforcement has remained in a heightened security posture in response to intelligence suggesting possible threats to the Capitol by militia groups.
The request to extend the deployment met resistance last week, as some governors expressed reluctance or flatly refused to commit their troops to more time in the city. There now appear to be enough states willing to provide Guard troops for the mission, said defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Earlier Tuesday, chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the decision on maintaining a Guard presence would be based on local law enforcement concerns along with the needs of the Capitol Police.
“It’s not just about a threat assessment, it’s about assisting and supporting capabilities that the Capitol Police may now lack and may need to look at improving,” Kirby said, adding that the extension request was based largely on using the Guard to make up for gaps in the capabilities of the Capitol Police.
Army leaders had also initially questioned whether the Capitol Police had exhausted all other options to fill the need, such as asking other federal law enforcement agencies to provide security. But officials said military leaders thought it was important to find ways to work out the details.
The threat was tied to the far-right conspiracy theory promoted by QAnon supporters that former President Donald Trump would rise again to power on March 4, the original presidential inauguration day. That day passed with no problems, but law enforcement has said threats to buildings and personnel remain.
The Guard’s deployment to the Capitol has been troubled. Early on, Guard members were briefly forced to take rest breaks and meals in a nearby cold garage, sparking outrage within the Biden administration. Officials quickly found new spaces within congressional buildings for the on-duty breaks.
In addition, Guard members complained of bad food, and some said they became sick. On Monday, Kirby said about 50 Guard troops had been treated for gastrointestinal issues, out of the 26,000 that deployed to Washington. He said six sought outpatient medical treatment, while the rest were treated at aid stations set up for the Capitol Hill mission.
Kirby said Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, has been visiting the troops several times a week and eating with them to ensure that they were getting good food.
Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman made the request to have the Guard members stay on, setting off a series of discussions with the Pentagon and National Guard leaders.
In a statement late Tuesday, the Capitol Police force said it is “extremely grateful for the Department of Defense’s continued commitment to support our critical mission to protect Congress.”
U.S. military officials have said the cost of deploying about 26,000 Guard troops to the U.S. Capitol from shortly after the Jan. 6 riot to this Friday is close to $500 million. No cost estimate for the next two months has been released. The costs include housing, transportation, salaries, benefits and other essentials.