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WASHINGTON: When thousands of Americans pack the National Mall for US President Barack Obama’s January 21 inauguration, sophisticated security will be in place, but it can’t protect against an unknown threat.
Two months ahead of this massive challenge, US authorities acknowledge their concern with the “lone wolf” scenario — an isolated person who could be in the crowd without having been identified earlier as a risk.
“The bigger threat, the thing that keeps you awake at night, are the lone offenders, regardless of their affiliation,” Michael Clancy, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counter-terrorism division told AFP in an interview.
“Those are the ones that scare me the most, folks that we don’t have on our radar. It’s the Timothy McVeighs of the world,” Clancy stressed, referring to the American whose attack on an Oklahoma City federal building killed 168.
As happens every four years, the president will take his oath of office on the steps of the Capitol building, home to Congress, with former presidents, lawmakers and members of the Supreme Court looking on.
In January 2009, 1.8 million Americans poured in for the swearing in of their first African American president, braving bitter cold on the national Mall, a vast grassy esplanade stretching before the Capitol.
For this 57th US presidential inauguration, the Secret Service, which is in charge of protecting top officials, has been working for some time with the FBI, military and Homeland Security.
“Our goal is to develop and implement, with the numerous participating agencies, a seamless security plan,” Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary said.
Just as in 2009, the command center for inaugural security will be set up at FBI headquarters in Washington. On the big day, agents will monitor a collage of massive flat screens and cutting-edge surveillance, while staying in contact with teams on the ground.
There were tens of thousands of police and military staff deployed four years ago near the Capitol and on the Mall. While authorities will not release figures in advance, the numbers will be similar.
Under quiet siege, the US federal capital will have sharpshooters on roofs along the parade route, while weapons of mass destruction-detection units will fan out across downtown Washington.
Ahead of Obama’s second inauguration, the evaluation of potential security threats is already gathering pace, Clancy says.
“We’re very vigilant along with Secret Service in reporting those threat streams and addressing them very aggressively, which we will do approaching the inauguration,” he said. “It’s a challenge for us to separate those talkers from the actors.”
“Thankfully, the number of actors that we have, the number of people that are willing actually to do something towards the president, for example, is a very small number of people.
“We don’t investigate people for belonging to different groups or clubs, we don’t investigate people for speech,” Clancy stressed, promising that security officials will protect free speech along with the president’s life.
“It might be a militia group that thinks ‘Oh my God, this president is going to take our guns,’ it might be another group who thinks ‘Oh my God we have an African-American in the White House; what’s coming to our world?’,” he said.
“Another one might think: the president is such a big believer in international community and all of a sudden we’ll be spending euros here or we’re going to look like the United Nations,” he explained.