Security at the Inauguration: Preparing for Anything

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Mark Wilson / Getty

K9 police patrol the lawn in front of the Inaugural platform at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington

The security net covering Barack Obama's Inauguration will comprise more than 20,000 law-enforcement officers focusing on a 3½ sq. mi. secure zone that includes the White House, the Capitol and the National Mall. There will be metal detectors, 155 two-person FBI teams dressed in plain clothes, 5,000 surveillance cameras, eyes in the sky and a 40-ft. bomb truck for dealing with suspicious items — in other words, the works.

And should the event succumb to Murphy's Law — which says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong — nobody can accuse the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of failing to warn that it might happen. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)

On Monday night, a joint FBI/Homeland Security bulletin stated that law enforcement and intelligence officials had received information that people associated with a Somalia–based radical group, al–Shabaab, might try to travel to the U.S. in an effort to disrupt the Inauguration. The information had limited specificity and uncertain credibility, according to Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke. U.S. counter–terror officials have grown concerned in recent months about the threat posed by the militant al–Shabaab group and a cell of U.S.–based Somali sympathizers who have traveled to their homeland to "fight alongside Islamic insurgents," the alert reported.

Before that bulletin came out, the latest joint threat assessment report by the DHS and several security agencies urges law-enforcement officers to watch out for almost everything short of an asteroid strike. (The assessment is not classified but is marked "for official use only." It was posted on, the controversial site that posts government documents not released to the public.)

The report had said there was not a single credible terrorism threat, domestic or foreign, to the Inauguration. That covered the whole gamut of threats, from a cyberattack on sensitive computers to the use of weapons of mass destruction. Top officials have echoed these findings. "I don't anticipate anything disruptive," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told CNN. But, he added, "part of my job is to hope for the best but plan for the worst."

In doing so, the assessment report left no base uncovered. It noted that there are "scenarios of concern": the use of Iraq-style improvised explosive devices, Mumbai-style armed assault and hostage-taking, and suicide bombing. It said law-enforcement agencies should be watchful for lone offenders, attacks on soft targets (hotels, restaurants, transport, etc.) near the Capitol and explosives placed in "heavily trafficked areas."

In other words, anything could go wrong. And if it does, the DHS can say, "We told you so." Or, as Joe Funk, a former Secret Service agent who now runs the private firm U.S. Safety & Security, puts it, "Somebody is covering their ass."

National-security experts say the cover-all-bases approach is justified because of the sheer scale and prestige of the Inauguration. "It is the most challenging national-security event in the world," says Edward Clark, a former director of Homeland Security. "You're talking about a huge volume of people, and of dignitaries, so it is potentially a target for every kind of extremist, domestic or foreign." Besides, says Clark, the authors of the assessment report also need to cover themselves for every untoward possibility. "This is as much a political situation as it is a security situation," he says.

Both Clark and Funk are sympathetic to the department's predicament, pointing out that it couldn't not put out a general alert before such an important event. "In situations like these, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," says Funk. "On balance, I think it's better to put out this report, and afterward we can have a discussion on how useful it was."

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