Video: Last-minute inauguration security

  1. Transcript of: Last-minute inauguration security

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host (Washington, DC): Everything here in Washington unfolding under the tightest security this city has ever seen. No vehicles, not even bikes will be allowed within two miles of the Mall today. NBC 's justice correspondent Pete Williams has more on that part of the story. Pete , good morning to you.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Meredith , good morning. Federal agents this morning are still chasing down new reports of threats, though so far nothing they consider serious enough to lead to any change in plans. Just a few minutes ago the screening began for those already in line to watch the parade . And in less than an hour the checkpoints open for ticketholders to the swearing in. At the Capitol and along the parade route, everyone goes through airport-style metal detectors today. But no metal detectors for the hundreds of thousands expected on the National Mall . Even so, all will pass through security checkpoints.

    Mr. MARK SULLIVAN (Director, US Secret Service): There's going to be other type of technical and human countermeasures out there that you may or may not see.

    WILLIAMS: At this downtown Washington command center, FBI agents monitor threats that continue coming in. Every single one, says the local FBI man in charge, must be checked out.

    Mr. JOSEPH PERSICHINI (FBI): If an Internet threat comes in, that lead will be pursued until we can determine that it is not viable.

    WILLIAMS: So far, officials say, no specific, credible threats. Helicopters and military jets are enforcing a strict no-fly zone today. One of the pilots is Commander Jacob Brown of the Coast Guard .

    Mr. JACOB BROWN: Our job is to go out there, intercept that aircraft and escort it out of the national capital region .

    WILLIAMS: Barack Obama will take the oath behind thick, bulletproof glass , and he'll ride in the parade in the new heavily armored presidential limousine with slightly bigger windows . Along the parade route, only essential personnel are allowed in government buildings . And they've been told to leave the shades open and not to stand in the windows , because that would arouse the concern of countersniper teams. And military units are nearby, ready to respond to chemical, biological or even nuclear hazards. If there's an emergency, the JumboTron TV monitors and loudspeakers on the Mall will tell the crowd where to go. But even though extra cell phone capacity was brought in, those phones may not work if use is extra heavy. As the crowds build, we'll find out in the next few hours whether they have enough checkpoints out today to deal with everyone so that all can get in place to watch history being made, Matt.

    LAUER: All right, Pete Williams . Thank you very much , Pete .

updated 1/20/2009 10:00:00 PM ET 2009-01-21T03:00:00

Authorities monitored a rush of intelligence leads Tuesday at the largest security operation in presidential inauguration history, including a possible threat from an East Africa radical Islamic terrorist group.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials received information that people associated with a Somalia-based group, al-Shabaab, might try to travel to the U.S. with plans to disrupt the inauguration, according to a joint FBI/Homeland Security bulletin issued Monday night. The information had limited specificity and uncertain credibility, said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke.

U.S. counter-terror officials have grown concerned in recent months about the threat posed by the militant al-Shabaab group and a cell of U.S.-based Somali sympathizers who have traveled to their homeland to "fight alongside Islamic insurgents," the alert reported.

Attractive terror target
Authorities stressed that the warning was posted as a precaution as part of the massive effort to monitor intelligence traffic and check out all leads in advance of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. Officials have warned that the inauguration poses an attractive target for terrorists because of the large crowds descending on the nation's capital and the historic significance of the country swearing in its first black president.

"As always, we remind the public to be both thoughtful and vigilant about their surroundings, and to notify authorities of any suspicious activity," Knocke said.

A senior law enforcement official familiar with the security operations said the Somali alert had been posted to make sure no effort was spared. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about security matters.

The official said authorities have been monitoring suspicious chatter referring to the inauguration in recent days, but as of early Tuesday, they felt comfortable with security preparations.

There was an unprecedented amount of security Tuesday, with thousands of law enforcement officers from 58 federal, state and local agencies working together. Sirens keening, squad cars and utility vehicles swept along downtown streets even before dawn, racing to cordoned checkpoints as crowds gathered.

No change in threat level
Knocke said officials consistently monitor all threat information, as they always do.

There has been no change in the terrorist threat level, which remains at yellow — or elevated.

Just before 9 a.m. the U.S. Park Police closed the mall between 4th and 14th streets and were directing people to the grounds of the Washington Monument due to the crowd size, Park Police spokesman Robert Lachance said.

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In addition, subway service was disrupted on one of Washington's main Metro arteries after a woman fell on the tracks at a downtown station. She was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. The Metro subway system was running at crush capacity since 4 a.m.

D.C. fire and EMS department spokesman Alan Etter said medical personnel were having trouble getting to people quickly around the National Mall because of the throngs of people, but that everyone who has needed help has eventually received treatment.

"Obviously the crush of people downtown is making it very challenging," Etter said. "We're doing the best we can."

Dozens affected by cold
Between 4 a.m. until 10 a.m., the fire department responded to more than 60 calls from people falling down or complaining of the being cold, Etter said. About 20 people have been hospitalized.

Two of those hospitalized were teenage girls with breathing problems who came from the First Aid tent at the Natural History Museum. A volunteer at the aid station said subfreezing weather and the long wait had begun taking its toll.

Two soldiers helped a woman into the tent where she was also treated for breathing problems, then was allowed to lie on a cot. About 10 others had come in for warmth and for a chance to lie down. The volunteer, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said dozens had come for footwarmers and handwarmers.

And just after 10:15 a.m., police stationed near the Agriculture Department began diverting the gridlocked crowds toward the Washington Monument because that section of the mall was inundated with spectators. Frustrated visitors at one point began clambering over concrete barriers, ignoring outmanned police, until a group of military security officials arrived and secured the area.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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