President Bush will be sworn in next month for a second term amid the tightest security in inaugural history, with police planning to search every one of the tens of thousands of people expected to line the parade route.
Behind the scenes, thousands of specialized law enforcement and military personnel will stand ready to respond to any emergency.
Security planners say they have seen no intelligence indicating terrorists will attempt to target the first inauguration since al-Qaida’s attack against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. But authorities are preparing for the worst, even as they strive for as open and accessible an event as possible.
“We are aware we are at war,” said Terrance W. Gainer, police chief at the Capitol, where the ceremony will be held. “The whole world will truly be watching. We have to be on guard.”
The Jan. 20 inauguration is the latest in a string of major events highly symbolic of U.S. democracy — the Democratic and Republican party conventions last summer and the election itself in November. Counterterrorism officials have warned since spring that al-Qaida operatives are interested in disrupting the democratic process.
To the millions watching the inauguration on television worldwide, the ceremony and parade will look much as it has in the past. But each person attending the swearing-in and parade will be subjected to a search by metal detectors, security personnel or both. And there will be more Washington streets closed and more security fencing than ever to create a large buffer zone.
“We have it as well covered as it can possibly be,” said Michael A. Mason, head of the FBI’s Washington field office.
The inauguration is designated a National Special Security Event, giving the Secret Service the lead among about 40 federal agencies involved in security planning and execution. A joint command center has been set up in suburban Virginia to enable top officials at these agencies to make quick, coordinated decisions in the event of an attack, violent protest or other problem.
“We’re going to work as a team,” Secret Service spokesman Tom Mazur said.
The extra security measures include bomb-sniffing dogs, sophisticated sensors to detect chemical, radiological or biological material, and expanded use of police helicopters and military aircraft. Thousands of police officers from the Washington suburbs and other cities will arrive to help with traffic, crowd control and other duties.
More will be ready to respond behind the scenes. The FBI, for example, will have investigators, evidence technicians, hostage rescue teams, heavily armed SWAT personnel, hazardous materials experts and bomb technicians in place.
“Our whole focus is a smooth operation if something does happen,” Mason said. “We will be able to bring quite a robust force.”
The military will have a heightened security role. This inauguration is the first since creation of the Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region, set up after the Sept. 11 attacks to protect the Washington area. It includes all branches of the military.
Based at Fort McNair, Va., the command has access to all manner of military assets, from fighter jets to military police to mobile medical units. As many as 4,000 troops will be available to provide assistance with the inauguration, said Army Col. Nelson McCouch.
“Our role is, ’What do you need?’ We will find the appropriate force to meet that requirement,” McCouch said.
Prepared for protesters
Officials also are prepared for demonstrators, who have turned up in numerous past inaugurations. At Bush’s first in 2000, there were egg-throwers. So far no mass demonstration is planned for next month, though some protesters are organizing a campaign to turn their backs on the president as his motorcade passes by.
“We’re not panicky about this at all,” Gainer said. “It’s usually more bluster than negative action. I hope people will protest peacefully.”
Overall, security planners said they have learned a great deal about how to prepare for the inauguration through their experience in dealing with other major events since the Sept. 11 attacks. Mason said there have been numerous “tabletop” exercises to consider various possibilities attended by officials from all the key agencies, something that did not always happen in the past.
“It is in our minds to be as unobtrusive as possible and still get the mission accomplished,” Mason said. “This is the people’s event. That’s what it’s all about to me.”