Secret Service gears up for inauguration

The Secret Service heads a group of almost 60 law enforcement agencies responsible for ensuring President-elect Barack Obama remains safe throughout the inaugural events on and around Jan. 20. With an unprecedented number of attendees expected for the inauguration -- nearly 4 million, by some reports --the agency undoubtedly faces a daunting task not seen at previous ceremonies. Malcolm Wiley, an agent of 17 years and a spokesman in the agency's public affairs department, recently spoke with NationalJournal.com's Amy Harder about what the Secret Service is doing to prepare for the historic event. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ: How far-reaching is the Secret Service's leadership in terms of the security efforts surrounding the inauguration?

Wiley: This event has been designated a National Special Security Event; that's a designation given by the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. And basically what that designation means is that the Secret Service assumes its mandated role as the lead agency responsible for the design and implementation of the operational security plan. It's something that we do, however, with lots of partners.

NJ: The Secret Service is the lead law enforcement agency out of nearly 60. Is it typical to have so many groups participating?

Wiley: Absolutely. Any time we have a National Special Security Event, we have to rely on the expertise of our partner agencies. That's how you get such a large number. It's because of those partnerships that we're able to make our plan as strong as it possibly can be.

Certainly people hear our name and they understand our mission, but there are 57 other agencies outside of the Secret Service who are working on putting this together. The security of this event is as important for them as it is for us. And we can't do our job without them. Without the help of the Metropolitan Police Department and Capitol Police and Park Police and the FBI and FEMA and the military and all of the D.C. public safety and law enforcement agencies, we would not be able to put as comprehensive a plan together.

NJ: How do you go about coordinating security for such a large event with so many different agencies?

Wiley: We have a template in place.... One of the first things we do is to create a steering committee. That steering committee is made up of command-level folks from the different agencies who are going to have a hand in putting together the plan. What's done after that is we create a set of subcommittees. For this particular event, there are 23 different subcommittees, each who have a piece of the security puzzle. So for instance, we have subcommittees that are responsible for air space security, for civil disturbance, for prisoner processing, for credentialing.

NJ: How have you altered the NSSE template to this particular inauguration?

Wiley: In several ways. One of the ways that people continue to speculate about is the size of the crowd. And we understand that this may be a more well-attended inauguration than those in the recent past. There are some adjustments that we need to make in our planning with our partners to make sure that we are able to not only accommodate the crowd, but to make sure that it is still a safe and secure event.

NJ: Can you name examples of potential security threats that you are preparing for?

Wiley: Not specifically. Some of those things, I don't want to get into the means and methods of how we do things. But for instance, one threat would be a gunman. That's a threat that we always look at when you're in a security environment. Another threat could potentially be biochem hazards.... We think about it as a 360-degree plan, which means that we want to protect everything around us, everything above us and everything below us. So, if you think in those terms, we're thinking about anything that could approach us from any of those directions.

NJ: Nick Trotta, assistant director of the Secret Service's Protective Division, was quoted in a recent article saying that race is a factor, but not a security factor. How has Obama's race factored into the Service's approach to this inauguration?

Wiley: The fact that Barack Obama is an African-American is something that's not lost on us as an agency. We understand the historic nature of this event.... But again, what that means is that we look at it as just a part of our larger security puzzle. There are several things that we look at, and several things that we consider when putting together a plan. Him being an African-American and factors related to that are just a piece of that larger puzzle.

NJ: Reports say that more of the National Mall will be opened up to accommodate the 3 million-plus people projected to attend. What kind of additional security challenges does this create?

Wiley: First of all, we don't as an agency and really no one in law enforcement can estimate or should be estimating the crowd size. We understand that this will probably be more well-attended, but from a law-enforcement prospective, we're not putting out any particular numbers as to what it is that we expect. We're leaving that to others to estimate.

Given the National Special Security Event designation, we're not only responsible for those we protect -- for instance, the president-elect as he's being sworn in -- but those people who would fall within the confines of the National Special Security Event designation. Just the fact that there are more people present means that there will be more resources necessary to have in place. For instance, January in Washington, D.C., is typically cold, so we need to plan with our EMS folks to make sure we have more resources available if people are suffering from any issues related to the cold. There need to be more restroom facilities available. Those are not necessarily security matters, but something that we have to take into account when putting together the plan.

NJ: Will you require people attending only the parade to go through security?

Wiley: Absolutely, yes. Anyone attending an inaugural event should expect to go through some level of screening. That's true of the swearing-in ceremony, and that's true of the parade, and that's true of any of the NSSE-designated inaugural balls. But folks who are standing along the parade route should expect to go though screening to include magnetometers, metal detectors and other screening to stand there on Pennsylvania Avenue and watch the parade go by.

NJ: Are you screening people who live along the parade route?

Wiley: I don't want to get into specifics. There are not a lot of residences along the route, but we have been in touch with the tenant associations and the management of those buildings to make sure that we are able to accommodate people who live along the route. The thing is, people who live along the route who come outside and want to enjoy the parade -- they're going to have to submit to the same screening as any other member of the public who stands along the parade route. But we have made accommodations for people who actually live in residences immediately adjacent to the parade route so that they are able to move about with some level of freedom during the course of the parade.

NJ: What can you tell us about possible cyber threats to the inauguration?

Wiley: One of the subcommittees that we have is our critical infrastructure group. They're tasked with developing plans that monitor and safeguard all computer systems -- telecommunications systems, electrical systems and other utility services. Not only does that group work to prevent cyber threats, they're also poised to immediately respond to anything with a cyber nexus to the inauguration.

The thing is, in this computer age, all of those systems are cyber-based. So [if], someone, let's say, were to try to affect the electrical grid of the city, that could have effects as far-reaching as airport towers with the ability of the air traffic controllers to be able to communicate with planes in the air if the electrical system were tampered with. That would be an example. If our protectees were in the Capitol, and they were on an elevator, or they were moving about and the lights and the power went out, that could potentially affect us.

NJ: One article reported that the Secret Service "has acknowledged a surge in hate groups and threats against Obama higher than any other president-elect in history." What specific measures are you taking to ensure he remains safe that you haven't taken in past inaugurations or other similar events?

Wiley: The Secret Service always prepares at the highest level. It's very difficult for us to go to an even higher level, because given our mission, we always have to be preparing at the highest level. Now, that doesn't mean that we're not able to take new information and incorporate it into our plan and make adjustments, but it's not a matter of, "OK, we're going to move from level 9 to level 10," because we're always preparing at level 10. Any information that we've got related to what you're talking about is something that is just factored into our plan.

It's similar to what we talked about earlier about President-elect Obama's race being a factor. It is just that. It's a factor in our planning, but it is not the main factor. It is not the only factor. It's one of several things we look at when putting our plan together.

NJ: Do you acknowledge that there have been hate-group threats against Obama?

Wiley: Do I acknowledge that we have received threats that are based on his race? Yes, I'll acknowledge that, but I won't speak specifically to any particular groups.

NJ: Has there been an increase in threats to Obama compared to past presidents?

Wiley: I won't quantify how many threats he's gotten compared with other presidents. But it's obvious that because he is an African-American, that there have been threats based just on that fact. That's not something that we would have seen with a prior president, because we did not have presidents prior to this who were African-American. So yes, just based on common sense, we have received some threats just based on his race.

NJ: Will you allow the president-elect to walk at any point during the inauguration, like presidents have in past inaugurations?

Wiley: You have to understand that all presidents receive threats. All of the people that fall under the Secret Service protection receive threats -- that's part of the reason that the Secret Service is protecting them.... Our highest investigative priority is to investigate threats against those people that we protect. I don't at all want to make it seem that just because of race we're doing things differently. That is absolutely not the case. What I'm saying is that it is a factor, but one of many factors that we look at when we're putting together our security planning. So just the fact that he's an African-American and... someone has uttered a threat that includes race as part of the threat doesn't mean that we are vastly changing what we do. It is something that we incorporate into our larger plan.

As we talk about the walking along the parade route, that is a decision that the president will make.... But rest assured, if the president decides to walk all of the route or a portion of the route, we will be prepared. That is the reason that we have such stringent security measures in place, is to make sure that we're prepared for any eventuality.

Check out the new blog Lost in Transition, a joint effort of Government Executive and National Journal.

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