- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

Heightened security

We regularly have prominent visitors to The Washington Times for question-and-answer sessions with editors and reporters, loosely called “editorial board” meetings. On the foreign side, the visitors include ambassadors, foreign ministers and the occasional head of state.

Most such visitors arrive in one or at most two cars, usually accompanied by the press attache from his or her country’s embassy and perhaps one or two other aides.

For heads of state, the delegations tend to be larger, including the ambassador, sometimes the foreign minister and a number of other advisers. In these cases, there are usually a couple of tall, good-looking men in suits hanging around our lobby with earphones poking out of their collars, a sure sign that the Secret Service is on the job.

Occasionally, a national leader will arrive with a full-fledged motorcade — two or three black limousines and a couple of black SUVs with aerials sticking off the roof, sandwiched between two or more police cruisers with flashing lights.

The size of the motorcade doesn’t seem to have much to do with the size or importance of the country the visitor represents; it seems rather to be a function of how concerned the security services are about a threat to the visitor’s life.

If that’s the case, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has a lot to worry about: The precautions surrounding his visit to The Washington Times on Thursday involved a 19-vehicle motorcade and more than 30 Secret Service agents.

“I think in the 21 years I have been here, that is the biggest security operation I have ever seen,” said Ron Clarke, the chief of security at The Washington Times, who spent two weeks working with the Secret Service to prepare for the visit.

The preparations included walkthroughs of the building and a careful mapping of potential escape routes.

Initial plans to hold the luncheon session in the office of our editor-in-chief, Wesley Pruden, were quickly ruled out because of its plate glass windows overlooking our newsroom.

Apart from concerns about breaking glass, the agents were going to insist that every drawer in our newsroom be searched and that the room itself be evacuated for about three hours in the middle of the day. Mr. Pruden nixed that, so the session was moved to a meeting room off our front lobby.

“A nice exit”

On the day of the meeting, bomb-sniffing dogs checked out not only the meeting room, but all adjoining rooms and those on the floors above and below.

One elevator was taken out of service to be available in an emergency. Our staff was barred from using a hallway leading to the washroom nearest to the meeting room in case Mr. Musharraf had to use it while he was here.

Most dramatically, a security agent was even assigned to watch the preparation of the food (roast breast of chicken, carrots and green beans, and a fruit tart, with bottled water) we were to serve Mr. Musharraf and his large retinue of high-powered aides.

“Everything was looked at with a microscope. No stone was left unturned,” said Mr. Clarke, who described the 15 minutes before the president’s arrival as a period of “controlled disruption.”

Quite appropriately, Mr. Clarke is proud of the success of the event and the professionalism shown by his own security staff, several of whom were called in on their day off to help.

The Secret Service “said the operation was extremely smooth,” he confided. They told him that security for a similar editorial board meeting elsewhere in Washington last week had been considerably more confused.

“This is a nice exit for me,” said Mr. Clarke, who is retiring from the paper in three weeks, ending a career that includes not only 21 years at the Times, but 23 years with the Metropolitan Police Department before that.

Mr. Clarke is getting ready to hit the road. He has had a 40-foot Greyhound Scenic Cruiser bus converted into a mobile home, and he and his wife will spend some time touring the country, traveling wherever their whims take them.

But he will not be getting out of the security business altogether. He has already qualified to perform background checks on candidates for federal jobs requiring security clearances, a job that can be done on a free-lance basis, and expects to pick up enough work to nicely supplement his retirement income.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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