Twelve National Guard personnel who deployed to the nation’s capital to support the presidential inauguration have been sent home after they were vetted by the Army and Federal Bureau of Investigation, though only two were pulled over concerns about extremism, defense officials confirmed in a Jan. 19 Pentagon press briefing. The number of Guardsmen removed from inauguration duty may grow as their deep-dive continues.
“We’re, out of an abundance of caution, taking action and immediately removing them from the line of duty at the Capitol and the events taking place, and then we will address them—whether it’s through law enforcement, if necessary, or through their own chain of command,” outgoing Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Rath Hoffman said in his final Pentagon briefing.
Of the two troops sidelined due to potential extremist activity or ties, one was flagged by their command, and the other raised alarms during the FBI vetting process, Hoffman explained.
“All I would say with those two individuals is inappropriate comments or texts that were put out there.” National Guard Bureau Chief Army Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson said during the same briefing. Neither Hokanson nor Hoffman would provide further details about the nature of those communications.
Earlier in the day, the Associated Press reported that neither service member’s communications contained threats against President-elect Joe Biden.
The other 10 troops were disqualified from supporting the inauguration for reasons unrelated to the inauguration or extremist or militia concerns, Hoffman said.
However, U.S. officials reportedly contradicted this assertion in conversations with the AP.
“Two U.S. officials told The AP that all 12 were found to have ties with right-wing militia groups or posted extremist views online,” the outlet wrote, noting that all of the potentially implicated troops were members of the Army National Guard. “The officials, a senior intelligence official and an Army official briefed on the matter, did not say which fringe groups the Guard members belonged to or what unit they served in.”
Hoffman wouldn’t detail the vetting process, but said it involves “a lot of looking back at anything that could potentially flag in a criminal history check, anything that could come up in a civilian database that’s being scrubbed by our partners.”
“These are vetting efforts that identify any questionable behavior in the past or any potential link to questionable behavior—not just related to extremism,” he clarified.
Hoffman also stressed that the things that might flag a service member for removal from inauguration duty—which he said would be standard deal-breakers for anyone looking to attend the event—might not be indicative of illegal activity. However, he explained, the tight timeline leading up to Inauguration Day meant that the military and FBI weren’t taking any chances, and were preemptively sending these service members home.
The vetting is still underway, Hoffman said, but the Pentagon is confident the 25,000-plus Guard troops currently on the ground in D.C. can be screened in time for the Jan. 20 ceremony.
“This is obviously an unusual situation in which it is all hands on deck and we’re leaving no stone unturned, but we are confident that there will be no opportunity to identify any potential threat left un[turned],” Hoffman said. “And so we’re going to do all we can. We’re gonna partner with the Secret Service, and the FBI, and others to ensure that we’re all doing everything we can. We’re all rowing in the same direction, and that is to ensure that the President-elect and vice president-elect have a safe and secure inauguration tomorrow at 12 noon.”
Air National Guard personnel account for almost 2,150 of the Guard troops currently working in the nation’s capital, with “nearly 23,200” Army National Guard troops comprising the remaining end-strength, NGB spokesperson USAF Maj. Matt Murphy told Air Force Magazine on Jan. 19.
“After the inauguration, we’ll look at the conditions, and the environment, and the mission set that we’re asked to perform,” Hokanson said of the current Guard presence in D.C. “And if that is below the number of personnel that we have, then we’ll start identifying those folks to get ’em home as quickly as possible.”
The FBI regularly investigates reports of troops across the DOD services as well as the Coast Guard who might “be making questionable comments or inappropriate associations,” Murphy said in a call following the press briefing.
“The FBI notifies the branch of service, the branch of service notifies the chain of command, [and] the chain of command investigates the allegations,” he explained of the process, which he said applies across the services. “If they’re substantiated, then the member is entitled to due process.”
When questioned about whether he felt the vetting process’ findings might warrant a future re-screening of the entire Guard force for potential insider threats, Hokanson said he believes current policies and processes should suffice.
“We’ll continue to do those and also, really looking [sic] across the chain of command and their coordination with their Soldiers and Airmen at every level, but I don’t see any current change of policies,” he said. “If there are, obviously, we’ll enforce them. But I think the policies are already there in place, and we’ll continue to utilize those to identify any concerns that we might have.”