All routes to D.C. guarded for Obama inauguration

Jan. 12, 2009
Security tightens ahead of ceremonies

Jan. 11--WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. Secret Service, Washington Metropolitan Police, U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies prepare for an unprecedented level of security around Barack Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, they may be leaving out one piece of advice for the public:

Get used to it.

Obama's election has law enforcement in overdrive leading up to the events nine days from today in the nation's capital, with Potomac River restrictions on boats; street and bridge closings that effectively treat Virginia as if the Civil War were still being fought, and a restricted airspace zone reaching as far as Baltimore and halfway out into the Chesapeake Bay.

A 3 1/2 -square-mile chunk of downtown Washington will be closed to traffic, and Obama is getting a brand, spanking new (and heavily armored) Cadillac limo to tool around in.

"It's an unprecedented level of security," said David Heyman, director and senior fellow of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Now, no one expects inaugural-type levels of security to attend Obama's every move for the next four (or eight) years. But his popularity -- a recent Gallup poll showed 65% of Americans believe he will make a good president -- plus his historic standing as the nation's first African-American president, mean big crowds are expected to follow him everywhere.

And big crowds need big security.

The inauguration is a case in point: Officials expect as many as 2 million people to attend his swearing in and the inaugural parade up Pennsylvania Avenue -- far more than the 1.2 million who lined up to see Lyndon B. Johnson get sworn in by Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1965.

Add to it the heightened security in place around presidents, cabinet members and other top officials since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it explains why so much protection is in place. At this month's inauguration, there will be thousands of law enforcement officials at the ready (the Secret Service won't talk about how many) and 13 tightly controlled access points to even get to the Mall or to see the parade.

The Department of Homeland Security's color-coded advisory system is at yellow, indicative of an elevated risk. But they say there is no "credible, specific intelligence suggesting an imminent threat" involving the inauguration.

Meaning that for any event with this many people, where the president -- and many other luminaries -- is involved, in this wide-open of a venue, this is the new normal.

Standard operating procedure.

Skilled countersnipers

The Secret Service protects the president, and it does so in relative silence. It doesn't talk about the threats it's investigating, generally, and it avoids any discussion of personnel numbers on any given detail, how many cameras might be watching an event, or even what its agents can do.

Asked to verify a news media report that its sharpshooters could hit a teacup from 1,000 feet, spokesman Edwin Donovan would go no further than, "Our countersnipers are very skilled and highly trained."

He made one thing perfectly clear, however: The public -- and the news media -- may worry that Obama faces greater threats because of his historic standing, but it doesn't change how the protection is provided. Threats are investigated, regardless of who the president is. Credible ones bring more security.

Venues are secured. Crowds are dealt with.

"In terms of preparation, it's the same methods. It's no different than any other inauguration," said Reginald Ball, president of iSekurity -- an identity theft protection service based in Washington and Auburn Hills -- who retired from the Secret Service after 30 years and was part of security for George H.W. Bush's inauguration.

A former agent in the Detroit Field Office, Ball said for Secret Service personnel, every day of protecting the president is like the Super Bowl, a game they can't lose. That said, the blueprint for security is already known -- and is just improved upon.

That blueprint has been built through many successes and a few failures. A president hasn't been injured in an assassination attempt since John Hinckley Jr. tried unsuccessfully to kill Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton in 1981. (Reagan was shot and recovered.) But there have been threats, including against Obama. For instance, before this year's election, a couple of men in Tennessee were accused of planning widespread violence against blacks to be capped with an attempt on Obama's life.

The Service is always monitoring such threats, investigating each.

"The assets that are at the disposal of the Secret Service are unbelievable," said Ball, declining to say what they are capable of in terms of security.

Still, there is reason to believe that Obama could present more of a security task than, say, George W. Bush. Obama's events on the campaign trail attracted huge crowds, for instance. His populist politics could keep big numbers of people coming, too. His children now go to school in Washington, requiring protection.

A Secret Service detail was attached to Obama on the campaign trail earlier than usual.

Meanwhile, some news media reports immediately after Obama's election in November suggested an increase in the threats against him -- though there has been no recent indication of credible threats.

In fact, if anything, the last few weeks have shown Obama trying to escape the news media spotlight -- such as when he ducked the journalists covering him during his holiday vacation in Hawaii -- an early indication perhaps that he could be having a hard time living inside the bubble that now contains him.

There are times, says Ball, when the protective unit may urge a president to cancel an event, feeling it can't be secured. But they can't tell him what to do -- like getting out of his car during the inaugural parade, for instance.

So the Secret Service designs what security it can provide and makes situations as safe as possible -- like getting the president to walk on a particular block of the parade route that it can secure.

"You talk about being hyped up and your adrenaline pumping? You're ready," said Ball.

Contact TODD SPANGLER at 202-906-8203 or at

Copyright (c) 2009, Detroit Free Press Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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