The first inauguration since Sept. 11, 2001, will be conducted under what appears to be the most sophisticated security in history.
Concerned by threats of bombs in limousines and other vehicles, police have announced they will close off most of downtown Washington on Thursday to anything other than emergency and official traffic during the events of President Bush’s second inaugural.
Thousands of security agents are checking out buildings along the route that will take the president, members of the official party, and marchers from the Capitol to the White House.
Anyone with any possibility of even a long-range view of the inaugural stand, parade route or parade-reviewing stand in front of the White House will have to pass through metal detectors, and many will be behind wire mesh fences.
Closed-circuit television will constantly sweep the crowd and security agents in plain clothes will be on patrol, as will uniformed officers with bomb-sniffing dogs.
The same conditions will apply to the official invitation-only inaugural parties that have already started and will continue throughout the downtown area on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Security officials said that for several hours Thursday there will be a no-fly zone around Washington, with military aircraft aloft to enforce it. The Federal Aviation Administration said it would expand the no-fly zone to a 23-mile radius around the Washington Monument, a move that will affect Reagan National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington Airports for about eight hours.
“You can never come up with a fail-safe system,” said Ron Keefer, a former security official at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“It is almost impossible to provide absolute certainty in an era when terrorists are willing to give up their own lives and freedom to achieve their goal,” Keefer, now a business staff member at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., said in a telephone interview.
Further complicating security, he said, is the reluctance of politicians to appear that they are inaccessible to the public and under control of law enforcement officials. “Security is a fine line,” he added.
And the inauguration, Keefer noted, will draw large numbers of wealthy and powerful donors who will bristle when they’re held back from events they helped bring about.
“The Secret Service has security down to an art form,” said Keller, who worked with the agency on presidential travel while in Washington. But participants and spectators will outnumber the agents, he said, and it will only take one to bring disaster.
“The security for this occasion will be unprecedented,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has declared. “Our goal is that any attempt on the part of anyone in any group to disrupt the inaugural will be repelled by multiple layers of security.”
What’s new in 2005 is the attention being given to potential suicide bombers in vehicles on hundreds of streets near government facilities and aboard the Metro subway system, and in buildings along the parade route.
While it has been customary for decades for police to lock down underground utility entrances and devices along the motorcade routes and to restrict access to rooftops and windows that have a vantage point on passing dignitaries, the tightness and scope of the surveillance are unprecedented.
Most government employees will be cleared from their offices by midday Wednesday, and private employers have been encouraged to shut down by then also so that agents can check out potential trouble spots, begin to limit access and bring in concrete barriers and other devices.
The Metro will not be permitted to stop at several stations that cross over and border the main streets, including Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall.
It is at the eastern end of the Mall, on a platform erected on the sloping west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, that the president will take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address.
“Security will be at the highest levels of any inauguration,” said Ridge. Authorities will be “as prepared as possible” to deal with threat and disruptions, he said.
The security force will number in the thousands, with the Secret Service taking the lead of 60 federal, state and local agencies.
One area of dispute that has surfaced is who is going to pay the estimated $12 million or more cost of the overtime and other expenses of the District of Columbia police force. The White House says the money should be taken from anti-terrorism funds appropriated by Congress to the district government. The district has received $240 million in homeland security aid over the past three years.
However, local officials, including members of both parties in Congress from the Washington suburbs, say the federal government and the inaugural committee should chip in.