National Guard troops near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 21, 2021.

National Guard troops near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 21, 2021. (Robert H. Reid/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has approved a plan that would keep some 5,000 National Guard troops in Washington for several months at the request of federal law enforcement agencies concerned about the potential for violence in the national capital.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved a plan to retain 7,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen in Washington through March 12 and then 5,000 indefinitely beyond that date, Army and National Guard officials said Monday. The troops' continuing presence in the city, where a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, was requested by the U.S. Park Police, the Secret Service, the Capitol Police, and metro police, acting Army Secretary John Whitley said.

National Guard forces in D.C. drew down from nearly 26,000 for President Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20 to about 13,000 over the weekend, said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. They are expected to draw down to about 7,000 troops by the end of the week.

Most of the remaining troops — many of them armed — will provide security at the Capitol as the FBI has warned officials of several forthcoming demonstrations that they are concerned could turn violent.

Army Maj. Gen. William Walker, the D.C. National Guard commander, declined to provide specifics about the potential threat, but he said law enforcement officials were keeping the Guard abreast of any threats to troops in the area.

He and other officials have declined to say how many troops have been authorized to carry firearms since the Army first said it would arm some National Guard members in the days before the inauguration.

“We are posturing our forces to respond to those threats if they emerge,” Walker said Monday, adding he was comfortable with the number of troops carrying firearms given the current risk assessment. “If there needs to be a shift in our security posture [the FBI] will let us know, and we will adjust accordingly.”

Walker also confirmed news reports that about 200 National Guard soldiers — many from out of state — had tested positive in recent days for the coronavirus.

The D.C. Guard commander said he was “deeply troubled” by the outbreak, but he added the 200 cases was a small fraction among the 25,600 troops deployed in the national capital in recent weeks.

Soldiers and airmen who tested positive have been quarantined and the Guard is conducting contact tracing and testing others who might have been exposed, Hokanson said. Any troops who test positive will remain isolated in Washington for at least 14 days before returning to their home states, he said.

Whitley, who took over last week as the Army’s top civilian until Biden selects his own Army secretary, defended the prolonging of the National Guard deployment as necessary while also warning the Pentagon cannot provide military troops to defend the Capitol indefinitely.

He said the Army was working with federal officials to determine when all the Guard troops will be sent home.

“We believe that military forces should be used as a last resort,” Whitley said. “We faced an unprecedented crisis over the last three weeks, and our … National Guard responded in an exemplary manner, and we will always do that if there's a need for the security of our nation.”

But, in the long term, protecting the Capitol is a job for Capitol police, he added.

“We want to continue to emphasize to our partners that we should be the he last resort, and that every step should be taken to use appropriate law enforcement personnel before we're called upon,” Whitley said. “In the short run, you use the forces you have, but in the long term we’d like to work with [law enforcement] and ensure in the future we are the last place you call.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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