Editor's Note: The following piece is part of an occasional series in which Fred Burton, our vice president of intelligence, reflects on his storied experience as a counterterrorism agent for the U.S. State Department.
By Fred Burton
The world will be watching in two months when Donald Trump takes the oath of office and becomes the 45th president of the United States. A laundry list of luminaries and thousands of well-wishers will converge on Washington, D.C., for the latest edition of the quadrennial ceremony, making it the ultimate special event from a security perspective. But U.S. Secret Service agents have long been working on the plan to ensure everyone's safety on Jan. 20.
Their job is made somewhat easier by the fact that inaugural events have, with a few exceptions, been held in the nation's capital since Thomas Jefferson took his oath of office in 1801. That means that the basic physical geography that must be considered remains relatively static, as do the venues and the parade routes that must be secured. In addition, the Secret Service does not bear the protective burden alone. A number of agencies — including the FBI, the State Department and its Diplomatic Security Service, the U.S. Park Police, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia — all serve roles in the mammoth undertaking.
From my experience as an agent working on several inaugurals, I know that every conceivable security issue and contingency is discussed and gamed out several months in advance. The mountain of work to be done includes running background checks of staff, also known as credentialing, and setting emergency evacuation locations, motorcade routes and staging areas. There are also countless discussions about potential threats, from known terrorists to mentally disturbed individuals. The plan is a marvel of technology, teamwork and law enforcement cooperation made especially remarkable in a city where agencies guard their turf with a vengeance.
This year, the challenges surrounding the inaugural extend beyond Washington. The polarization that Trump generates across all parts of society has already spawned demonstrations throughout America, leading to concerns that agitators could attempt to disrupt his swearing-in. Plus, the businessman's numerous ventures offer a variety of potential soft targets that must be protected. An attack on a Trump-branded property as an expression of discontent or terrorism cannot be ruled out.
Once security plans are finalized, they will have to be put into operation. On Inauguration Day, which has routinely been scheduled in January since 1937, weather invariably seems to play a part. Most assignments for the cops and agents on watch are outdoors. But if you are lucky enough — or senior enough — you are stationed inside. Keeping warm in the often frigid conditions is important, because agents must be nimble enough to respond to a potential threat.
The logistics of moving VIPs present another challenge. Hours before events get underway, motorcade routes must be swept for bombs, then shut off from traffic and guarded. Unauthorized vehicles parked on the route are towed. Secret Service sniper teams are perched on rooftops at chokepoints, ready to neutralize potential threats. The U.S. Park Police helicopter keeps watch from above while hazardous materials teams patrol below for chemical, biological and radiological threats. Meanwhile, joint interagency command posts are established to deconflict logistics and coordinate responses to threats. Counterassault, SWAT and hostage rescue teams are briefed and on standby.
The national intelligence community adds another layer of security. Before the big day, its analysts issue threat assessments that might make you want to stay home. As the event takes place, those agencies monitor potential threats in real time. If one is detected, any information, such as pictures of suspects or vehicles, is funneled quickly to agents on the ground. Despite the extensive intelligence networks tapped by analysts, in the back of your mind is always the possibility that something might have slipped through the cracks. As a result, you must always be ready to react if plans go awry or an eleventh-hour threat surfaces.
One year, during the holidays preceding an inaugural, the National Security Council dispatched my Stratfor colleague Mike Parks, then a State Department special agent, overseas. His assignment was to vet the story of a person who claimed to have knowledge of a threat to the ceremony. In that case, fortunately, he was able to debunk the person's tale, with the help of a polygraph technician.
A Chance to See History
Even for seasoned agents and cops, taking part in the historic event generates excitement. Special badges manufactured for the event become cherished mementos. I still have one of mine from the inaugural of President Ronald Reagan. And in my mind's eye, I can still picture scenes from previous inaugurals, including the sight of the Clintons and the Gores together on stage with the entire foreign diplomatic corps during President Bill Clinton's first inaugural.
Come January, like millions of my countrymen, I plan to watch on television as Trump takes the oath of office. But nothing can compare to being there in person, even if you are on the job. As I look back on the inaugurals I have worked, I realize how lucky I am to have witnessed history firsthand. And I am proud of my role, no matter how small, in helping keep everyone safe.