Smaller Crowd Doesn’t Lessen Threat Focus at Inauguration

The parties may be less lavish and the crowds thinner for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration compared with four years ago. The security and logistics effort is undiminished.

More than 40 federal and state law enforcement, transportation and public services agencies, along with military units, are set to be deployed for the Jan. 21 public ceremony and officials have been preparing for a range of threats from inclement weather to a lone gunman.

At this point there has been no credible threats to the inauguration, said Jacqueline Maguire, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Washington field office.

With dates and events fixed and well publicized, inauguration day provides a ready target for terrorists and other troublemakers.

“As a nation, we put a mark on the wall and say we’re going to conduct the inaugural ceremony for the president of the United States at noontime on the west steps of the Capitol,” said retired Army Major General Richard M. Rowe, the military commander during the 2009 inauguration who is now a vice president at risk management firm IEM in Washington. “For someone who might have a hostile idea, we give them information that’s of value to them, and then we go through with it.”

Obama, who won re-election in November, will be officially sworn in on Jan. 20 in a private ceremony at the White House, according to spokesman Jay Carney. He will then take the oath of office for the public on the steps of the Capitol Building the next day.

Secret Service

Maguire said the resources devoted to this inaugural are no less robust than in 2009, when an estimated 1.8 million people showed up to see Obama sworn in as the nation’s first black president. Officials predict this year’s crowd may be less than half that.

Overseen by the U.S. Secret Service, the security effort will be run through a central command communications center supplemented by outposts throughout the city. The Potomac and Anacostia rivers and the skies over Washington will be shut down to outside traffic. Representatives from the U.S. Capitol Police and the FBI as well as the city’s police and fire departments will be involved.

Local police and the FBI will monitor the crowds with dozens of closed-circuit cameras. Law enforcement and inauguration organizers will watch social-media platforms such as those of Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. for disruptions or complaints from the crowd.

Traffic Restrictions

Access to three bridges that lead into the city will be restricted and the central part of Washington will be cleared of vehicle traffic. Spectators will be subject to security screenings, with backpacks, coolers, bicycles and glass or thermal containers prohibited inside the parade route.

The U.S. military, while participating in a ceremonial role, took part in planning and will have has more than 1,500 representatives lining the parade route, according to the Joint Task Force National Capital Region, the joint service command charged with coordinating all military support for the event.

“The partner agencies are not strangers,” said Maguire, citing multiple Washington events such as the president’s State of the Union address and visits from foreign dignitaries that bring federal and state authorities together. “We know them quite well.”

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been working together for months to identify potential threats against the president or other high-profile officials that may come from terrorist organizations or radical groups, according to Jayson P. Ahern, a principal at The Chertoff Group, a risk management and consulting firm based in Washington.

Lone Wolf

So-called lone wolf attacks -- those carried out by an individual acting independently -- may represent one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement, he said.

“You have to be concerned, certainly when you look at some of the events that have happened in recent months with the school shootings, with lone wolf-type activities when you have someone who isn’t on your radar at all,” Ahern, the former acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in an interview.

The 2009 event was the largest in the history of the nation’s capital, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. From a security perspective it was a major success, according to Joseph Persichini Jr., the head of the FBI’s Washington Field Office at the time.

While the four days of events resulted in “not one major security incident, arrest or injury reported,” according to a March 2009 multi-agency report on the inauguration’s security, it wasn’t without hang-ups.

2009 Incident

Several thousand ticket holders found themselves trapped in a street underpass because of backups at security gates and missed the ceremony. That incident and complaints about lax security for VIP ticket-holders received congressional scrutiny and a joint agency investigation.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials also spent the days leading up to Obama’s first inauguration tracking reports of a potential plot by a Somalia-based Muslim extremist group, Persichini said.

The possibility of an attack on inauguration day remains a top concern for law enforcement, said Persichini, the former FBI official.

“We’d all be rich if we can predict human behavior, but we can’t,” he said.