Federal authorities are mobilizing one of the largest security operations in U.S. history ahead of Pope Francis’s arrival Tuesday, an effort that is straining law enforcement resources in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.
Hundreds of thousands of onlookers are expected to gather in all three cities for a glimpse of the Catholic Church leader. Thousands of federal and local personnel will be deployed to keep the pontiff and the public safe.
The challenges are immense.
The pope’s five-day tour, his first in the United States, will include appearances at the White House and Congress, a parade on Constitution Avenue in Washington, a Mass at Madison Square Garden, a procession through Central Park in New York, and an open air Mass with up to 1.5 million people in Philadelphia.
His Big Apple visit coincides with the 70th U.N. General Assembly, where more than 150 foreign delegations are also expected, creating a virtual lockdown in portions of midtown.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has designated Francis’s stops in each city a National Special Security Event, a rare designation to streamline the federal response that had previously been used for presidential inaugurations, State of the Union addresses, political conventions, NATO summits, the 2002 Winter Olympics and Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002.
The U.S. Secret Service is in charge of coordinating the massive intergovernmental operation on counterterrorism operations, crowd management, crisis response and air and vehicle traffic control. The FBI, Capitol Police, Coast Guard, Pentagon and Federal Emergency Management Agency are closely involved in the planning, along with local police departments.
Federal agencies in Washington are encouraging employees to work from home Tuesday through Thursday to cut down on congestion in the city. But further adding to the security planning challenges, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the White House next Friday for a state visit.
“They’re standing up one of the largest security programs for an individual in U.S. history over three cities,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent who assisted in security preparations for Obama’s 2013 inauguration. “The level of protection afforded to Pope Francis is equal to or exceeding that provided to the president of the United States.”
At a news conference in Philadelphia on Friday, Johnson said that federal and local authorities have been planning for months. Officials offered reporters a glimpse of the Multi-Agency Communications Center where up to 90 staff members from 50 agencies will gather around the clock to monitor video, radio and other communications.
“I want to stress the level of preparation and planning and coordination,” said Johnson, flanked by Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D). “We have worked hard to achieve what we believe will be a safe and successful event and visit by the Holy Father and a safe and successful time for all those who wish to be here and see him. We believe we have struck that right balance for the public.”
Read more at the Washington Post.