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Biden inauguration: Anxiety in Washington evident as false alarm interrupts rehearsal

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The U.S. Capitol building is seen as the "Field of Flags" are illuminated on the ground on the National Mall ahead of the inauguration ceremonies, Washington DC, Jan. 18, 2021
The U.S. Capitol building is seen as the "Field of Flags" are illuminated on the ground on the National Mall ahead of the inauguration ceremonies, Washington DC, Jan. 18, 2021   -   Copyright  Joe Raedle/Pool via AP
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The U.S. Capitol complex temporarily locked down during a rehearsal for President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration after a false alarm, underscoring the fear that has gripped Washington since the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters.

Biden transition officials held a videoconference on Monday with acting heads and career staff from national security agencies to discuss the security situation surrounding Inauguration Day.

Washington has become a fortress city of roadblocks and barricades before Wednesday’s inauguration, as security officials work to avoid more violence following the storming of the Capitol by far-right extremists and others who swallowed the lie put out by Donald Trump that the election had been "stolen".

Some 25,000 National Guard troops are being dispatched across the city to bolster security. Monuments are closed to the public until after Wednesday’s inaugural events.

Inaugural organizers on Monday finished installing some 200,000 small U.S., state and territorial flags on the National Mall, a sobering display intended to honor the nearly 400,000 Americans killed in the coronavirus pandemic.

First lady Melania Trump posted a farewell video in which she thanked Americans for the “greatest honor of my life," but she made no mention of the incoming Biden administration.

Her husband has already announced he will not attend the inauguration — he's the first outgoing president to skip the ceremony in 152 years — and will depart for Florida hours before Biden's swearing-in.

Fire causes security scare

Monday's false alarm came when a fire in a homeless encampment roughly a mile away from the Capitol sent a plume of smoke into the air and caused security concerns in an already jittery city.

The false alarm briefly interrupted Monday's rehearsal for Wednesday's inauguration ceremony, a quadrennial exercise in which stand-ins take the roles of Biden and other VIPs and the U.S. Marine Band goes through its paces, including practicing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Wednesday’s performance by Lady Gaga. Rehearsal resumed not long afterward, accompanied by frequent passes by a helicopter patrolling the skies over the Capitol.

Law enforcement officials said there was no threat to the public and the fire was not believed to be a threat to the inauguration. Local firefighters put out the blaze quickly. The evacuation of some participants and the lockdown were ordered by the acting chief of Capitol Police in an abundance of caution, officials said.

People involved in the rehearsal said security officials yelled “this is not a drill.” The lockdown was lifted about an hour later.

Capitol police spokeswoman Eva Malecki said there were currently no fires on or within the campus. “Members and staff were advised to shelter in place while the incident is being investigated,” she said in a statement.

National Guard troops vetted

U.S. Secret Service tightened security in and around the Capitol a week early in preparation, and the city center is essentially on lockdown with streets blocked, high fencing installed and tens of thousands of National Guard and other law enforcement officers stationed around the area.

But U.S. defense officials, worried about a potential insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing the event, pushed the FBI to vet all of the 25,000 National Guard troops coming into the area. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said in a statement Monday that vetting of National Guard troops continues and that the Pentagon has found no intelligence so far that would indicate an insider threat.

Still, the Secret Service issued a bulletin over the weekend about what it sees as an “uptick” in National Guard troops posting pictures and details of their operations online.

The Associated Press obtained the “all concerned” message sent to all the National Guard troops coming to Washington. Without getting into specific postings, the bulletin said, “No service members should be posting locations, pictures or descriptions online regarding current operations or the sensitive sites they are protecting” and urged them to stop immediately.

Asked about the bulletin, a spokesperson for the Secret Service issued a statement saying it “does not comment on matters of protective intelligence.”

Five people died in the Jan. 6 riot, including a police officer.

Even before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, inauguration festivities were expected to be muted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris plan to take part in an event Tuesday, soon after Biden arrives in Washington, at the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial to honor American lives lost to COVID-19.