Inauguration Day Security: Is a Police State Necessary?

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UPI / Landov

A security guard walks on the west steps of the Capitol

The nation may be waging two wars, but those coming to Washington for the Inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama can be forgiven for wondering if we're in the middle of a third one here at home. Roads in the capital are suddenly being blockaded. Concrete barriers are popping up overnight on sidewalks. The city is taking on a bluish cast as its police presence surges. Not surprisingly, the debate has already begun: Is the unprecedented security a wise move given the historic nature of Obama's swearing-in and the tempting target it provides or is it overkill, an indication that the terrorists have already won?

For the men and women charged with making sure nothing bad happens, that kind of debate is a luxury. Listen in as Air Force General Victor Renuart describes what sounds like top-secret war planning. "Our Chemical Response Force will be on alert," he says, describing what some of the 11,500 troops who are assigned inaugural duties will be doing on Jan. 20. "We'll use our NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] forces to increase the air-defense presence in the area," he adds. Renuart, chief of the post-9/11 U.S. Northern Command, is responsible for defending the U.S. from attack. F-16s and Patriot missile batteries will be ready to deter, and if necessary shoot down, aerial intruders. Military choppers and Marine landing boats will be primed for an emergency. "There is a Joint Task Force in the capital region," Renuart said, not at a war council meeting but a recent breakfast with reporters, "designed to provide large-scale medical response if you have an event." (See 10 things to do in Washington, D.C.)

Well, of course we're having an event — it's the Inauguration. What Renuart means is that he's prepared should terrorists strike while perhaps 2 million Americans jam together on the National Mall next Tuesday. "We ought to be prepared to respond if something does happen that requires the Defense Department to provide support," he said, for "an event this visible and this important and this historic." (See TIME's Person of the Year, Barack Obama.)

Despite the fleets and armadas, the U.S. military is playing only a supporting role in providing inaugural security. The Secret Service, charged with protecting the President–elect and his family, is calling the shots. In addition to the military, the agency will be reinforced by some 8,000 police officers, many of whom will begin pulling 12-hour shifts directing traffic and patrolling downtown starting Friday. The D.C. police department is helping nervous companies by posting on its website a list of more than 50 licensed security firms that have declared they "are available for entities seeking security assistance" (no mention of how many are run by former D.C. cops).

While federal officials say they know of no credible threats to harm Obama or disrupt the Inauguration, they're getting plenty of brickbats from Washingtonians upset by the security measures already in place and those yet to come. For the past week, taxi drivers and commuters have been complaining about the cordon set up around the Hay-Adams Hotel, where the Obamas have been living (they're set to move into the Blair House on Thursday). Barring traffic around the posh accommodations, just across Lafayette Park from the White House, has clogged the capital's arteries. It's also compounding the crosstown traffic crawl, which has only gotten worse since President Clinton shut down the nearby two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in 1995 following the Oklahoma City bombing.

Meanwhile, the Secret Service has infuriated Virginians just across the Potomac River by ordering all five bridges linking the state and capital closed to private cars on Inauguration Day. They say it's necessary to minimize congestion in the capital, but not everyone agrees. "The Secret Service, they're insane," James Moran, a Virginian Democratic Congressman, told the Washington Post about the agency's decision. "This is security on steroids." He fought — and succeeded in reversing — a Secret Service decision to bar pedestrians from the 14th Street bridge, which would give walkers the closest access to the Inauguration. However, major Virginia roads inside the Beltway encircling the capital will be reserved for official vehicles only.

Four subway stations near the Mall will be shut down during the festivities, and the subway system — which is likely to be overwhelmed — is encouraging passengers to carry as little as possible so left-behind items don't trigger police alerts. "On Inauguration Day," the system adds in a final indignity, "all Metrorail station restrooms will be closed for security reasons." (Luckily, the subway is setting up 146 porta-potties near its stations, and 5,000 will be located on the Mall and along the parade route.)

Obama, who is expected to give his inaugural address from behind a bulletproof shield, will be able to ride along the 1.7-mile parade route in his brand-new heavily armored Cadillac limousine. He'll be shadowed by Secret Service vans crammed with heavily armed SWAT teams and electronic-warfare gear capable of jamming detonators designed to set off certain explosives. Electronic devices — like those already in use in the D.C. subway — will be used above ground, to sniff the air for biological or chemical agents. They'll be aided by at least four Army dogs that will be sniffing for hidden explosives. Mike, a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois, has worked presidential details before, according to his handler, Staff Sergeant Daniel Konrardy. The dog is calm in crowds and the only thing that bothers him is gunfire. "Hopefully, we won't be hearing any gunfire," Konrardy says. Snipers will be discreetly sprinkled along the parade route, and along with a battery of surveillance cameras, they'll ensure that anything suspicious is quickly checked out.

Everyone attending the festivities will be subject to a "thorough security screening," the Secret Service says, warning that "lines may be long" outside the 13 entrances along the parade route that will open at 7 a.m. on Inauguration Day. Everything that you think might be banned is. The list of items ranges from the "duh" variety — firearms, ammunition, explosives, knives and Mace — to the more mundane: coolers, thermoses, umbrellas, strollers and backpacks.

Such precautions might seem extreme until one ponders the attacks in Mumbai two months ago. Ten terrorists killed 173 and paralyzed a city of 13 million for three days, armed with little more than automatic weapons, grenades and cell phones. "Certainly, the Mumbai attacks ought to be understood clearly down to the local level," said Renuart. What got his attention — and that of everyone planning security for Obama's inaugural — is how quickly a band of terrorists could "hold a fairly large city hostage." Banning umbrellas to help keep AK-47s off the Mall, the Secret Service believes, is a worthy trade-off, even if the public disagrees.

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