Security Agencies Alter Strategies, Add Backup for Inauguration Week
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Authorities are organizing what appears to be the largest security operation ever for an inauguration, bringing in thousands of extra police, agents and troops to handle crowds as President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in.
Security officials are bracing not just for the ceremony and parade Jan. 20 but also for at least 70 concerts, balls and other events surrounding the inauguration. Those include the welcome celebration featuring Obama on Jan. 18 at the Lincoln Memorial, which could draw 500,000 people, according to the D.C. mayor's office.
"You've gone from a one-day event to a four-day event," said Joseph Persichini Jr., head of the FBI's Washington Field Office, which will bring in about 20 percent more employees than usual for the activities.
The expected record throngs pose daunting challenges to police. The U.S. Park Police, for example, typically check the bags of the half-million or so people at the annual Fourth of July celebration on the Mall. But with potentially 2 million people wrapped in bulky coats and blankets pouring onto the Mall for Obama's swearing-in, stretching to the Lincoln Memorial, police decided that it would take too long to funnel them through checkpoints.
Instead, Park Police are relying on a massive security force, including 1,300 unarmed National Guard soldiers, to detect problems. It is the first time in recent history that Park Police have sought military help at an inauguration, according to Chief Sal Lauro.
"There are a lot of different ways to screen people, to check people as they're coming onto the Mall itself or while they're on the Mall," said Sgt. Robert Lachance, a Park Police spokesman. They include using undercover police, officers on horseback and cameras mounted on raised platforms around the Mall, he said.
Joseph J. Funk, a former Secret Service agent who heads the Maryland-based firm US Safety & Security, said that even a large security force would probably be insufficient to fully screen an expected crowd of 2 million people.
"You have a finite amount of time to do this," Funk said. "What you do is you judiciously allocate your manpower to give yourself the best safety and security, knowing full well you do not have a sterile environment."
The Secret Service is overseeing the inaugural security plan, working with 57 other federal and local agencies. Twenty-three subcommittees are focusing on issues ranging from explosives to civil disturbances to the airspace.
The FBI has been scouring its intelligence networks to learn whether any suspected extremists might come to the inauguration, Persichini said. "We do not have a specific threat at this time," he added, but agents are on guard for anyone suspicious doing surveillance.
Every inauguration presents huge security challenges because of the large, open areas the new president traverses and the large number of visiting dignitaries. A massive crowd presents further complications. The Secret Service and other agencies must increase the number of undercover agents they have mingling among the spectators, officials said. And even if a small incident occurs, people could be trampled in a panic.
"There's no question: The more people you have packed into a small location, the greater the threat and the greater potential of damage if something does happen," said Louis R. Mizell Jr., a counterterrorism consultant and author.