The most secure ceremony in U.S. history

Organizers and participants debate the level of protection needed for Bush's inauguration next week.

By Julian Borger

Published January 14, 2005 5:18PM (EST)

A few square miles of central Washington will be transformed into an armed camp next week for George W. Bush's inauguration, the biggest security operation in the city's history. When he and Vice President Dick Cheney are sworn in for the second time on the steps of the Capitol building at midday on Jan. 20 the U.S. government will be at its most vulnerable. Just about every member of the executive branch, Congress and the Supreme Court will be in the same place.

To protect them 6,000 police officers, 2,500 soldiers and hundreds of Secret Service agents will flood the area around Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue, the route of the parade, scanning the expected crowd of 750,000. Air traffic will be restricted to fighter jets and Black Hawk helicopters. Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, overseeing the last grand event of his career, promised it would be the most secure ceremony in history. "We're as prepared as possible to thwart any attempts at terrorism," he said.

Troop-carrying helicopters have been flying over Washington for days, but the security operation will begin in earnest on Jan. 18 when fireworks, parades and parties -- costing a total of $40 million -- begin. The government has not yet put a price on the security, but it will cost tens of millions more.

There have been complaints about civil liberties. The Secret Service has banned anything that could hide or be used as a weapon, including placard poles, the coffins demonstrators wanted to bring to symbolize the Iraqi war dead and the crosses and American flags the faithful intended to wave.

Kristinn Taylor, head of the Washington branch of the conservative group Free Republic, disagrees with the bans. "If we're allowed to hold our American flags, then they can hold their hammer and sickle flags or whatever." But others believe the danger has not been taken seriously enough. Conservative commentator Norman Ornstein wrote in the New Republic magazine that the inauguration was "the single most vulnerable moment for our constitutional system -- far more dangerous than the conventions or general election." He said a big terrorist attack on Jan. 20 would plunge the country into chaos, since no clear contingency plan had been made for everyone in the chain of succession being killed at once.

The cost is controversial, too. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams says the city will have to spend $17.3 million on security. The federal government normally reimburses the city for such expenses, but this year it has told Williams to take most of the money from Washington's homeland security budget, draining its defenses for the rest of the year.

Democrats have called the celebrations a tasteless display of excess, saying tradition dictates that wartime inaugurations are restrained affairs. Republicans reply that the whole event is dedicated to U.S. soldiers serving abroad: It is subtitled "Celebrating Freedom and Honoring Service." They also point out that the bill will be paid entirely by private contributions. Direct campaign donations to candidates for office are not allowed and there are strict limits on individual contributions, but these do not apply to inaugurations and corporations have lined up to demonstrate their support. Their limit is $250,000.

Some companies, such as Marriott Hotels, have got around that by arranging donations from subsidiaries. Other big givers include Ford, ExxonMobil and defense contractor Northrop Grumman. In return, company executives will get tickets to the ceremony and balls. Political watchdogs are asking what else they will receive once the administration gets down to making policy.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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