Papal visit presents unique security challenge

PHILADELPHIA — On Friday, led by Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, top national and regional security officials filed into a high-tech command center inside a secret location in northern Philadelphia. They gathered with media there to discuss a papal visit that will present an unprecedented challenge.

Pope Francis arrives 4 p.m. Tuesday and leaves 4 p.m. Thursday.

In an interview, Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy told WTOP that the agency is preparing to coordinate and for something it has never had to do before.

Four National Special Security Events (NSSE) will take place all at once. The Secret Service has never handled more than one at any given time.

“Philadelphia has been designated as an NSSE and New York, as well as Washington,” Clancy said. “All three have been designated separately as National Special Security Events, and then the 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) has been designated as well.”

A number of factors are taken into consideration when designating a National Special Security Event. According to the Department of Homeland Security, those factors include:

  • Anticipated attendance by dignitaries — Events that are attended by officials of the United States Government and/or foreign dignitaries also may create a federal interest in ensuring that the event transpires without incident and that sufficient resources are brought to bear in the event of an incident.
  • Size of the event — A large number of attendees and participants generally increases the security requirements.
  • Significance of the event — Some events have historical, political and/or symbolic significance and generate significant attention.

Clancy acknowledged the events will stretch the agency, but he told WTOP that the Secret Service is counting on partnerships to secure all of the events.

“This is a tremendous challenge for the Secret Service, but we are working very closely with all of our federal and local partners in Washington, Philadelphia and New York,” Clancy said.

The Pope’s visit, which includes a speech at the UNGA 70th anniversary, will add to the complexity in securing that event.

“In light of that fact the pope will be addressing the General Assembly, we will have upward of 160 or more heads of states as well as their spouses,” said Clancy.

He said almost 100 spouses are expected.

Speaking at Friday’s press event, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said, “there is no specific credible the threat” to the papal visit.

When the last of the four special security events concludes Sept. 29, there will have been 51 NSSEs since the authority was established in 1998.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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