Miles from the Capitol where President Bush will take the oath of office, dozens of officials from 50 federal, state and local agencies will work side by side in a high-tech command center keeping close tabs on the security situation for the first presidential inauguration since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
At 120 work stations in the northern Virginia center and using giant video screens, law enforcement and security personnel will be able to watch from cameras that monitor downtown Washington streets, keep track of aerial surveillance flights and check sensors scanning for evidence of deadly biological or chemical agents.
“If there is a piece of technology that exists, we’ve put it to use for this event,” said Jim Rice, the FBI supervisory agent for Thursday’s inauguration.
For the first time, all the federal agencies that deal with security, law enforcement and crisis response will be housed in a single Joint Field Office for a presidential inauguration. Also new this time, under a post-Sept. 11 presidential order, the federal agencies will be under the command of a “principle federal officer” reporting directly to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
For this event, that officer is Tim Koerner, a top deputy in the Secret Service, which is the lead agency for the inaugural security effort.
The idea is to improve coordination among the various federal agencies, especially if there is a terrorist attack or other major disruption and there is an immediate need for such things as medical attention for casualties, hostage rescue or SWAT teams and investigative specialists such as FBI bomb technicians.
Law enforcement officials say that locating all officials under one roof will eliminate confusion and duplication, as well as enable them to quickly determine whether there’s a real threat or problem or if it’s just a false alarm.
“When an incident first happens, in the first 30 minutes probably about 75 percent of the information you get is wrong,” Rice said. “Being able to look the guy in the eye that you’re talking to, that eliminates a lot of problems.”
The field office will command Coast Guard cutters and helicopters, canine bomb-sniffing units, customs aircraft, bicycle patrols, crowd control and a host of other security and law enforcement assets.
Immigration, terrorism and criminal databases will be closely watched for any suspicious matches of people arriving in the United States or placed under arrest somewhere in the country. Commercial air traffic will be watched closely.
No specific threat
Despite all the preparation, U.S. officials say they have no indications that al-Qaida or any other terror group intends to attack Bush’s inauguration. If anything, officials have been saying that terrorist “chatter” picked up in intelligence channels about potential attacks is at a low point compared with previous major events.
A bulletin circulated within the U.S. government on Jan. 11 by the FBI, Homeland Security Department and Defense Department cited “no credible information domestic or international terrorists” are planning to attack the inauguration, according to a federal security official with access to the bulletin.
The bulletin goes on to say, however, that al-Qaida remains determined to mount another major attack on the U.S. homeland and that Washington is obviously a prime potential target. As a high-profile symbol of American democracy, officials involved in the inauguration’s security are taking no chances when it comes to preparing for the worst.
The FBI, for example, has stationed command personnel and other assets in concentric circles around Washington, each a greater distance from the nation’s capital, in case terrorists manage to detonate a nuclear device or other weapon of mass destruction. That would enable the FBI, which has about 1,500 agents working the inaugural event, to remain operational to respond to such a disaster if its headquarters were wiped out.
“There are contingencies for everything,” Rice said.
Officials also have thought about the possibility that terrorists might try to strike a more lightly guarded target or targets outside Washington. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, has disaster teams activated around the nation and the FBI is on greater alert as well.
Even so, the goal is to make the inaugural event appear much as it has in the past, with an open-air swearing-in ceremony and an opportunity for the president to get out of his armored limousine along the parade route from the Capitol to the White House.
“This is probably the heaviest security we have ever had in D.C.,” Rice said. “The president is going to get out and walk down the middle of the street, and we’re at war. Security is going to be airtight.”