US Capitol ramps up security as Congress weighs impeachment

Federal and local officials are drastically tightening security to prevent a repeat of last week’s deadly riot that left five dead ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Members of the US National Guard were seen sleeping in the corridors of the Capitol building, which they have been guarding around the clock, marking the first time the seat of American democracy has been used as a barracks since the civil war.

Law enforcement and the National Guard are also in place to protect members of Congress, who are launching an unprecedented second impeachment effort after accusing Donald Trump of inciting the violence that erupted in the heart of the capital. 

Several lawmakers have described fleeing for their lives on Wednesday last week as pro-Trump rioters stormed the corridors of their workplace as Congress moved to vote on certification of Mr Biden’s presidential election victory. Five people, including one Capitol police officer, died as a result. 

The events have led to several resignations by senior officials in charge of security at the Capitol complex, and a bipartisan group of leaders across Washington clamoured for an investigation into how law enforcement failed to stop the rioters despite multiple warnings of a potential threat.

Members of the National Guard rest in place while guarding the Capitol © AFP via Getty Images

In the aftermath of the rampage, the Washington DC National Guard also confirmed that its men and women will be armed following authorisation from the Pentagon at the request of federal authorities, a spokesperson said. 

Mark Cancian, an expert in the National Guard at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that although arming the National Guard was not unusual, it was rare for them to serve in an armed capacity in Washington. Mr Cancian said they had not done so “for a long time”, probably not since the riots of the late 1960s.

A Washington DC National Guard spokesperson said personnel were given lodgings for when they were off-duty, but that the Capitol had been designated as a place where forces could rest and sleep during the 24-hour operation.

New metal detectors have also been placed at the entrance of the House chamber, which has provoked pushback from some members of Congress.

Robert Contee, chief of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, said that “you can expect to see somewhere upwards of 20,000” National Guard members in Washington for next week’s inauguration. “This is a major security threat,” he said. 

In the past week the Department of Justice has charged more than 70 people as federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, said they were moving as fast as they could on an “unprecedented” investigation to catch people involved in the storming of the US Capitol.

The FBI is seeking information about the Trump supporters who participated in the Capitol rampage © Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty

Among those so far arrested and charged are armed men who threatened to kill Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House; Muriel Bowser, the Democratic mayor of Washington; and Mr Biden. The FBI has set up a separate team to investigate threats made against journalists.

Many of those arrested have been charged with carrying illegal firearms. Prosecutors have said charges of sedition and conspiracy could be pursued.

On Tuesday the top federal prosecutor for Washington, Michael Sherwin, confirmed that pipe bombs found outside both the Republican and Democratic national committee headquarters, near the Capitol in Washington, were “real devices” that could have gone off. 

US officials said they had identified about 170 people who they were investigating for potential crimes. 

Amid fears of further unrest in the days ahead of Mr Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday next week, many US state capitols are tightening security, while parts of Washington have already been locked down.

In a video statement released on Tuesday night, Jeffrey Rosen, the acting US attorney-general, warned that prosecutors would have “no tolerance whatsoever for any attempts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power on January 20 that our constitution calls for”.

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