The nerve center for the most heavily guarded presidential inauguration in history will not be in Washington, where President Bush will take the oath of office, but 25 miles away in a futuristic command post in Northern Virginia.
Inside a gleaming steel-and-marble complex, the Secret Service and 50 federal, state and local agencies will monitor action in the sky, on the ground and in the subway system. Giant plasma screens will beam in live video from helicopters and cameras at the U.S. Capitol, along the parade route and at other potential trouble spots. Officials will be able to track fighter jets patrolling the skies, call up three-dimensional maps of downtown, even project the plume of any chemical release.
One top police official likened the new facility to a set from the “Star Wars” movies. It is one of many signs that Bush’s second inauguration Jan. 20 will take security in Washington to a new level, using expertise and equipment developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“This is the Super Bowl for us,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent James W. Rice II. “Everyone on every team is dressed up and playing in the game. And the bench is very, very deep.”
The agents and officers at the swearing-in and along the parade route will have access to the latest tools. “Every piece of technology that exists will be a part of this,” said Rice, who oversees the National Capital Response Squad.
Law enforcement officials are building on their experience from other recent high-security events, including the presidential nominating conventions in New York and Boston, dedication of the National World War II Memorial and the state funeral for former president Ronald Reagan.
“If this was the January after 9/11, there would be a lot more angst,” said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer. “But we have been continually ratcheting up our ability to prepare for large events.”
Led by the Secret Service, authorities began planning eight months ago for the first post-9/11 inauguration. They have an array of resources that were not available four years ago, including new communications technology and advanced methods of screening.
Officials say they know of no specific threats relating to the inauguration and the evening balls, and some leaders, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C), have urged that the city be kept as open as possible. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said last week that intelligence monitors are picking up less terrorist threat chatter, in general, than a year ago. But authorities are equipped for a wide range of potential scenarios.
Fear of truck bombs
On Thursday, for example, law enforcement and intelligence officials gathered for four hours on Capitol Hill to “war-game” how they would respond to a fire at the Capitol, a suicide bomber or another crisis. Security officials say the most likely terrorist threat is a truck bomb—one of the reasons they are barring vehicles on Inauguration Day from a wide swath of downtown Washington. One federal official said that Pennsylvania Avenue, and streets within four blocks of it, will be closed to traffic between 20th Street NW and the east side of the Capitol.
Ridge and other officials are expected to provide more details about street closures and to announce some of the other security measures tomorrow.
D.C. police and federal officials are meeting daily to hammer out the final security details, including everything from decisions about where police will stand to the size and location of security fences and the arrival and departure of dignitaries.
The noontime swearing-in at the Capitol and the parade that follows on Pennsylvania Avenue will draw tens of thousands of people, including large numbers of protesters. They will have to pass through unprecedented layers of security.
D.C. police plan to erect roadblocks and screen pedestrians around an area covering more than 100 square blocks in the center of official Washington. People will have to pass through at least one of the 22 checkpoints along the parade route and through metal detectors.
Protesters will be allowed to demonstrate in seven areas, but signs cannot be attached to anything that could be used as a weapon. No large backpacks, camera bags, thermos bottles, coolers, picnic baskets, strollers or umbrellas will be allowed on the parade route or the Capitol grounds.
Some people will be watched closely even before getting near a police checkpoint. Metro Transit Police officers have been trained to identify suspicious riders by looking for certain characteristics and patterns, such as people who avoid eye contact or loiter in the stations.
More than 4,600 law enforcement officers will be posted along the parade route. They will include hundreds of undercover officers mingling in the crowds, as well as sharpshooters with rifles on rooftops. An army of Secret Service agents will be inside and on top of buildings along or off Pennsylvania Avenue.
Some of the most critical components of the security plan will be less evident to the public.
John P. Malone, special agent in charge of the Washington field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said his agency is bringing in certified bomb technicians and about 20 explosives-detecting dogs from across the country to sweep cars and buildings.
Chemical, biological sensors
The military will have bomb jammers—devices that have been used in Iraq and can block or delay someone using a cell phone or other remote gadget from detonating an explosive. Other military assets will be in place, such as engineering companies specializing in rescuing victims of building collapses and forces equipped to deal with a chemical or biological attack.
The anti-terror preparations include the use of mobile and stationary chemical and biological sensors that will sniff the air in subway stations, on the Mall, from buildings and on the streets.
In case of a biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear incident, scientists at Department of Energy laboratories, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologists, Environmental Protection Agency cleanup crews and military and NASA experts will be placed on standby across the country.
Software models developed by the agencies will be tied to the biological and chemical sensors across the city and to wind and radiation monitors downtown, providing detailed alerts and airflow monitoring.
“If we had a release of sarin gas on the Mall, not only will the sensors on the Mall pick it up, we will know the height and density, its direction and how far it has spread,” said one federal official. “We did not have this in place before 9/11.”
Military radar will monitor the Washington skies from ground stations throughout the city and aircraft aloft.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced that it will triple the no-fly zone over Washington that now prohibits small aircraft within 16 miles of the Washington Monument.
Private flying will be banned from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Inauguration Day over the Baltimore-Washington area, defined as the region within 23 miles of Reagan National and Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports.
Violators may be intercepted by military fighter jets or customs aircraft and diverted for questioning by agents at regional airports in Easton or Carroll County, Md., or Stafford.
Increased air patrols
The dramatic expansion of flight restrictions is designed to avoid a repeat of the June 9 incident in which an errant transponder beacon aboard a plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) prompted security officials mistakenly to evacuate the Capitol an hour before the memorial service for Reagan.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command will have increased air patrols over Washington by multiple jet fighters. The inability of one pair of fighters to identify the Fletcher aircraft in time contributed to the June incident.
Before, during and after the inauguration, D.C. police and U.S. Park Police helicopters will hover overhead, able to beam live images from the scene. Those images will complement the video from several hundred surveillance cameras.
The surveillance will be monitored by authorities at various command centers run by the many agencies working on security.
The main one is the Multi-Agency Coordination Center in Fairfax County, the new facility that is being used as a joint field office by the Secret Service for the inauguration. It is one example of the hundreds of millions of dollars invested by the federal government since 2001 in information technology for homeland security.
Laid out over one floor, the center is jammed with plasma television screens and other visual and information technologies, along with classified and unclassified computer networks and communications equipment, according to several federal security officials.
The Secret Service, Capitol Police and other agencies will be able to view three-dimensional maps of downtown derived from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a Department of Homeland Security official said.
“It’s pretty spectacular,” said Gainer, the Capitol Police chief. “It is as big and glamorous as anything I’ve seen in the business.”
Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.