- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2015

Ahead of Pope Francis‘ first visit to the United States, law enforcement agencies in the District, Philadelphia and New York are preparing for what authorities are calling one of the largest security events in the nation’s history.

The pope is set to arrive Tuesday in the District, requiring a heavy security detail headed by the Secret Service and creating a barrage of traffic woes.

Hundreds of thousands of onlookers are expected to gather at various points along Francis’ trip to catch a glimpse of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church — even as he travels in the famed Popemobile along the National Mall and later through New York’s Central Park.

The pontiff’s fondness for personal engagement with the masses is expected to bring unique security challenges, but local and federal law enforcement say they are prepared.

“This is going to be one of the largest lifts in the nation’s history for national security events,” said James Yacone, assistant director of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, which is leading the bureau’s security efforts during the pope’s visit. “There are three major metropolitan areas that are going to all have to seamlessly receive and send off the pope.”

James Murray, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Washington field office, likened the security challenges and traffic closures for the pope’s visit to that of a presidential inauguration and noted that security throughout the city will be noticeable.

“There will be multiple layers of screening, including magnetometers and bag searches at all venues,” Mr. Murray said.

Security also will be tight in New York, where the pope will meet with the United Nations General Assembly. More than 170 heads of state from around the world will be in New York at the same time as Francis for the 70th session of the General Assembly, creating “the largest security challenge the department and this city have ever faced,” said New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

Francis will arrive Tuesday in the United States at Joint Base Andrews, where President Obama will great him at 4 p.m. During his stay in the District, the pope will reside at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States, bringing with him extra security to the Vatican diplomatic quarters near the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue.

By far, the biggest transit disruptions in the District are expected Wednesday, when Francis will visit the White House, travel by motorcade along the National Mall and later hold a canonization Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Roads around the White House Ellipse, including 15th Street and 17th Street and Constitution Avenue from 12th Street to 23rd Street, will be closed Wednesday morning in preparation for the motorcade. Those hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope will be able to enter the secured viewing area as early as 4 a.m.

Among the challenges for security personnel during the motorcade will be to balance Francis’ desire to interact with people along the route while keeping him safe.

Metro challenges

“The pope will travel on an open-roof Popemobile to be in touch with the people, as he always does,” a Vatican spokesman told reporters last week.

To prepare for that particular challenge, members of the Secret Service, including Director Joseph Clancy, traveled to Italy this summer to meet with the papal security detail.

“I went out to Rome to see firsthand how their detail works, protecting the pope and what he likes to do and how he travels within the crowds,” Mr. Clancy told ABC News.

D.C. and federal officials have encouraged workers to consider telecommuting during the pontiff’s visit to ease traffic. But Metro is expecting significant challenges of its own when thousands of passengers descend on the Brookland Metro Station, the closest stop to the Mass at the basilica.

Transit officials have warned subway riders to factor in extra time because the station is the smallest on the Red Line, able to accommodate about 5,000 boardings per hour under normal circumstances. The Mass is open to 25,000 ticket holders, but thousands more are expected to travel to the basilica to listen to the event outside.

On Thursday, Francis will make the first-ever papal address to Congress. U.S. Capitol Police have stressed that his speech before the joint session of Congress is a ticketed event and there will be no public viewing area. As a safety precaution, all public tours of the Capitol will be suspended from 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through 1 p.m. Thursday. All streets within a three-block radius of the Capitol will be closed for 12 hours beginning at midnight Wednesday.

Despite all the moving parts in play during Francis’ visit, law enforcement officials say they believe security will be seamless.

“I’m absolutely confident that we will have a very, very successful visit by the pope, and we won’t have any issues,” said Peter Newsham, assistant chief of the Metropolitan Police Department.

The FBI has set up command centers to monitor the huge crowds expected to gather in all three cities for the pope’s visit, giving authorities the ability to sit side by side to share real-time intelligence.

Despite reports last week about a teenage boy arrested on suspicion of threatening to launch an Islamic State-style attack against the pope during his visit, law enforcement officials have said there is no specific or credible threat to Francis during his six-day trip.

The Department of Homeland Security has designated the pope’s visit a “national special security event,” meaning it is a potential target for terrorism or criminal activity. State of the Union addresses and the Winter Olympics also have received such designations, according to the FBI.

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