Protecting Pope Francis when he travels to the United States this month will be a particularly arduous task for the Secret Service and other security officers given this pontiff’s spontaneity and propensity to plunge into crowds.
"He's a guy that has challenged the bad guys, ISIS, people like that,” said Steven Bucci, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “There are people who just don’t like Catholics. There’s a whole bunch of potential threats that the pope faces.”
But vigilance has to be balanced against allowing access because Francis’ purpose in visiting is to interact with the people who throng to see him, Bucci and others say.
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He is the spiritual leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and has been known to pose for selfies with fans on occasion.
"For the pope not to go into crowds, not to see people, is a no-go," said Andreas Widmer, who as a member of the Swiss Guard served Pope John Paul II and is now at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "You could make the pope 100 percent secure by putting him in a bunker somewhere but then he's not the pope any more."
Francis is expected to draw millions of people over five days beginning Sept. 23 when he visits Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. More than one million alone are expected to attend one of the main events, an outdoor Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to conclude the World Meeting of Families around which his visit was planned. At his Philadelphia events, selfie sticks will be banned for security reasons.
He will also address Congress and the U.N. General Assembly, deliver a speech on immigration at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, take part in two processions along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, attend a multireligious service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York, and travel through Central Park, a late addition to his itinerary to allow even more people to see him.
AN "UNPRECEDENTED" CHALLENGE
His visit to New York City will come as the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly gets underway, a meeting attended by more than 160 world leaders. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton told NBC New York that the challenge of guarding the pope would be unprecedented. New Yorkers could see gridlock, closed subway stations, additional vehicle checkpoints and other security measures, police warned.
"We won't shut down New York during this — business continues, people come and go," John Miller, the New York Police Department's head of counterterrorism, told The Associated Press. "It's going to be unprecedented, but we're going to make it work."
The pope’s visit has been designated a national security special event, meaning the U.S. Secret Service is in charge of planning for his security while working with the FBI and local agencies. The Secret Service has met multiple times with Vatican security officials in Washington and in Rome to learn more about Francis' interactions with crowds, the AP reported. Philadelphia police also traveled to the Vatican.
Francis travels with his own detail of security agents and with the bulletproof Popemobile, which will be a Jeep Wrangler already in Secret Service hands.
He has been famously reluctant to embrace some security measures, comparing the Popemobile to a sardine can and telling the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia that if something did happen to him at his age he did not have much to lose.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO SECURITY
Widmer said the Swiss Guards take a fundamentally different approach to security than other security agencies. They are trained in close hand-to-hand combat, to use their bodies as shields as they protect a religious figure with whom the crowds want to touch or speak. Even if someone threatens the pope, a gun is not always the best response, he said.
"We’re protecting the pope so the first reaction is not violence," he said.
He added that Swiss Guards "have 500 years of experience, and we do things very discretely."
New York and Washington, D.C. frequently are called on to protect presidents, prime ministers and other dignitaries so more attention has focused on how well Philadelphia is doing as it gets ready for the pontiff. Adding to the city’s difficulty: Francis’ appearances in Philadelphia will be larger and more exposed.
Fences and metal detectors will go up around security zones at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Independence Hall, schools and courts will be shut and traffic will be restricted downtown. Twenty-five miles of highway and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge will be closed to vehicles. The National Guard and 1,000 state troopers will be brought in to help, the AP reported.
Access to the pope will be restricted by tickets, which have been allocated to Catholic parishes throughout the Philadelphia region. Even at the large outdoor events, spots closest to the pontiff will require tickets. But the Archdiocese of Philadelphia emphasized that the vast majority of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway would be open to everyone.
NO SPECIFIC THREATS
Philadelphia’s preparations were plagued by weeks of rumors and then criticism that the city was going overboard compared to New York and Washington, D.C. Scott White, a former Canadian security officer and now a professor of homeland security at Drexel University in Philadelphia, was among the security experts who told The Philadelphia Inquirer last month that traffic restrictions and other measures seemed disproportionate.
But as more information was released, White said that only those in charge of the security arrangements and familiar with threats received would know whether preparations were appropriate.
“There’s a vast array of potential threat to anybody who is a high profile individual so I wouldn’t really want to speculate," White said when asked who might pose the greatest threat to Francis.
The AP reported authorities have reported no specific threats related to Francis' visit, but also noted that when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in 2008, security officials warned that terrorists could focus on targets such as hotels, restaurants or trains.
Last month, when Francis was asked whether he approved of unilateral U.S. airstrikes on militants from the Islamic State or ISIS, he said it would be permissible to stop an unjust aggressor. Earlier in the year, ISIS made threats against Italy and the Vatican, with a photo showing its flag flying above the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square and the headline, “The failed crusade.”