By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
The threats aren't limited to violence or terrorism: Freezing or rainy weather could send people fleeing for shelter or medical attention. The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is among the many agencies across the region gearing up for demands. And the crush of traffic will put additional pressure on police and transportation officials.
Security officials might get one big break: Compared with some previous inaugurations, there are no indications that large numbers of demonstrators are coming to Obama's swearing-in, authorities said.
D.C. and federal officials have provided varying estimates for the anticipated size of the crowd that will turn out for the inauguration of the nation's first African American president. Lately, they've settled on between 1.5 million and 3 million. Predicting the turnout is difficult because of such unknowns as the weather.
The inauguration isn't the only event testing planners. For the Obama welcome celebration on the 18th, Persichini said, "How many people will decide, 'You know what -- I'm going to drive up to Washington to be part of it'? Those are the things you really can't measure until that day."
To be prepared for the crowds, security officials are bringing in reinforcements from the military and federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies across the country.
D.C. police are planning to field 8,000 officers Jan. 20 -- 4,000 of their own and another 4,000 from other departments, one-quarter more than the force borrowed for President Bush's inauguration in 2005.
The Metro Transit Police Department will have "an all-hands-on-deck day," Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said, for its 423 sworn officers and 106 special security police to patrol the system's 86 stations and 106 miles of track. And Metro is asking other transit police departments from cities including Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta for help. "The idea is that they are familiar with the transit environment," Asato said.
The Park Police, which normally deploys about 600 officers at an inauguration, will have 1,000, including those on loan from other agencies, Lauro said. "We plan to cover every square inch of our jurisdiction," the chief said.
The military will provide 11,500 people, compared with about 7,000 for the last inauguration, officials said. About 5,000 will be involved in ceremonial activities, similar to the number in 2005. The rest will help with crowd control, communications, security, medical care, logistics, weapons detection and other needs, military officials said.
The Capitol Police are expanding their security perimeter around the iconic dome by a block or two because of the throngs expected to stream through the area headed for the Mall or parade route, officials said.
"We've had to staff up to ensure people are given clear directions on where to go" as they approach the Capitol area, Capitol Police Chief Phillip D. Morse said.
Unlike at the Mall, people going to the parade or ticketed areas near the Capitol will have to pass through strict screening. Last week, officials urged those with tickets to the 11:30 a.m. swearing-in to arrive no later than 9 a.m.
The Federal Protective Service, which guards government buildings, will increase its staffing by 30 percent from the last inauguration, according to Brandon Montgomery, a spokesman for its parent agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The cost of all that security is not cheap. The Presidential Inaugural Committee had no estimate of the overall price tag, but the District believes it will spend $28 million on security for the events -- 60 percent more than its entire bill for the last inauguration. The D.C. government is asking Congress to increase the $15 million it has provided the city for such expenses.
Security planning began months ago, and officials tested some of their coordination and communication systems at the Group of 20 summit in Washington in November, said Chris Geldart, head of the D.C. area office for the Department of Homeland Security.
But the inauguration will feature some high-tech novelties.
One of planners' concerns is how to communicate with crowds in case of an emergency. Using a Homeland Security grant, the D.C. government is installing a $350,000 set of special loudspeakers, which use sonar technology, along Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall, according to District officials. Dozens of prerecorded messages will be ready to play for the crowds.
"We're of course hoping that things go in such a way we don't need to use it," City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said.
Staff writers Aaron C. Davis and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.