By Whitney Wild, Geneva Sands, Gabe Cohen and Oren Liebermann, CNN
The Defense Department on Tuesday approved the use of 700 National Guard members and 50 large tactical vehicles ahead of possible trucker convoy protests descending on the Washington area in the coming days, according to the DC National Guard.
The guard members, activated on two separate missions, will provide command and control and support at traffic points, but they will not be armed and they will not be authorized to conduct law-enforcement or domestic-surveillance activities. The DC Guard also is not approved to use helicopters or other aircraft, according to the statement.
The Defense Department had received two separate requests for guard support. The first request, last Wednesday, came from the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved 400 members of the DC National Guard and 50 large tactical vehicles for that mission. The vehicles will be placed at designated traffic posts around the clock starting no later than 1 p.m. on Saturday or as soon as possible. This mission is approved to continue until March 8.
The second request came from US Capitol Police on Sunday. Austin approved 300 members from National Guard units outside DC to enter the city and assist with traffic control, as well as manning certain entrances to the Capitol. That mission is to start no later than 7 a.m. on Saturday. The statement did not say which states would provide guard members to support the mission.
Area law enforcement, including the Maryland State Police, Metropolitan Police Department in DC and the US Capitol Police, are closely monitoring the situation and in some cases ramping up security to deal with the possibility of major disruptions in the days leading up to and around President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office said Tuesday that Bowser is being briefed by public safety officials as her office continues “to monitor the situation closely.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has also “been monitoring this closely” and that it was working through its homeland security channels to prepare for potential disruptions. Efforts, Psaki said, include “enhanced intelligence sharing, a critical incident response plan for the US Capitol, a regional security assessment, (and) a simulation experiment that developed data-driven recommendations to bolster regional security.”
“So we are closely monitoring, closely watching, and working with state and local authorities,” she said.
It’s unclear if any of the trucker convoys will materialize. One group says they are planning to head from Pennsylvania to the District of Columbia on Wednesday morning, arriving in the afternoon after a stop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, according to Bob Bolus, a trucker from Scranton, Pennsylvania. They are hoping to disrupt the highways around DC and put a “stranglehold” on the DC economy, Bolus said.
Another group says it plans to convene in Adelanto, California, starting on Tuesday with a sendoff on Wednesday. “The People’s Convoy,” which has more than 140,000 Facebook followers, says participants will then head to Arizona before making their way to Washington, DC.
Mike Landis, one of the trucker organizers, said it will be a peaceful protest but added: “If they get ignored, you never know what could happen from there.”
The Department of Homeland Security is “tracking reports of a potential convoy that may be planning to travel to several US cities,” a spokesperson said Monday, noting that they have not seen specific calls for violence associated with this convoy.
But federal officials remain concerned about the potential of “significant public safety issues” around government buildings or other critical infrastructure and about the potential for extremist groups to take advantage of the situation, a US law enforcement official told CNN.
The State of the Union is a “National Special Security Event,” a designation that puts the US Secret Service as the lead agency responsible for security planning.
Online discussions about convoys started as a way for people to demonstrate their displeasure with Covid-19 vaccine mandates but “morphed” to include talk of shutting the government down and protesting the 2020 presidential election result, the federal law enforcement official said.
There has been involvement from extremists online, the official said. On Monday, for example, a neo-Nazi accelerationist Telegram channel posted a video encouraging violence against police in response to officers using force to deter Canadian convoy protesters, according to SITE Intelligence Group.
This headline and story have been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
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CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.