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Pandemic, Capitol Breach Force Biden's Inauguration Team To Adapt

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One week from today, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the next president of the United States. And it's going to be an inaugural like none we have ever seen. Ten thousand National Guard soldiers will help provide security. The National Mall will be closed off with 7-foot fencing, similar to what is now wrapping the Capitol grounds. The inaugural parade is going to be scaled down, no inaugural balls. Some of this is because of the pandemic, but a lot of it is the result of security concerns after the riot last week at the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead.

Joining us now is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So before we get to the inauguration plans, you were reporting from the Capitol when the riot happened, when the mob broke in. And there is still a dispute among officials, including the military, about what happened and who's to blame. What do we know?

BOWMAN: Well, Rachel, this really starts and ends with the Capitol Hill police and their bosses. They said before the Trump rally, no help was needed from the military, which could have provided National Guard troops. Now, Capitol Police have sole authority at the Capitol and its grounds, and they said they had a good plan, according to military officials I spoke with. So small numbers of Guard soldiers only helped Washington, D.C., police at intersections and metro stops.

But shortly after 1:30, there was an urgent call from both D.C. and Capitol Police for help from the military. D.C. officials say the Pentagon either refused or were dragging their feet. The Pentagon says, listen; there was no refusal, but rather they needed more detail about how many Guard soldiers were needed. Then they had to get approval from the defense secretary.

Now, the guard was on the scene two hours and 40 minutes later. Civilian officials say that's - you know, took too much time. The Guard says that was pretty fast. They have to get people and equipment. They can't just show up in minutes, you know, like an ambulance or firefighters. But the bottom line is it was completely bungled. It was a mess.

MARTIN: So, I mean, have those communication problems been fixed? I mean, what's to say the inauguration is going to be safer?

BOWMAN: Well, they say it's all been fixed. And the other thing is, the Secret Service is going to be in charge for the inaugural, as they are for all inaugurals. And they're much more professional than Capitol Hill cops. And as one official says, they're the adults in the room. They'll have a command center in downtown D.C. They're also - clearly, there's a lot more planning, more agents, soldiers, police because of what happened at the Capitol last week. There was a meeting at the FBI field office yesterday with all the agencies that'll be involved - Pentagon, FBI, Secret Service, Homeland Security, Parks Service, D.C. and Capitol Hill police. They'll work out a plan. And they're still trying to determine, for example, how many Guard soldiers will be needed. As we've said, 10,000 will deploy - could go up to 15,000. And also, the Army will work with the Secret Service to see which servicemembers working at the inaugural - get this - will require additional security background screening. That's an astonishing level of security concern.

MARTIN: Wow. What do we know? Do we know specifics about the threat, Tom?

BOWMAN: As far as the threat, they're saying they expect hardcore groups this time. They don't think they'll be the numbers we saw last week, you know, tens of thousands. But they're worried about armed groups, armed hardcore groups.

MARTIN: We have to talk about the statement that the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued yesterday. This is just remarkable. These are people, as you know, they don't want to wade into politics. They don't want to have to affirm an election. And yet that's what, essentially, they were doing - acknowledging Biden's win and calling the riot on the Capitol a direct assault on the constitutional process.

BOWMAN: That's right. It was an extraordinary memo, signed by all of the eight Joint Chiefs. It referred to what happened at the Capitol as violence, sedition and insurrection. And it reminded all servicemembers, Rachel, that any act to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against traditions and values and an oath of the military, it's against the law. The fact that you would have to say that in this day and age is absolutely remarkable.

MARTIN: Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.