The Pope's Visit

Papal security shines spotlight on information sharing

Department of Homeland Security components have been preparing for months for Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, including the establishment of communications and information exchange operations involving federal, state and local agencies in Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

But, given the sensitive nature of the security surrounding the papal visit, DHS isn’t saying much about the specifics of their preparations.

A Sept. 15 a statement by the Secret Service concerning the Papal events in Washington illustrated the logistical complexity of the visits, listing more than 30 organizations, local and federal agencies involved, as well as  inventory of more than 120 street closures for various masses, parades and other activities in the two-day visit to Washington alone.

In Philadelphia, DHS and the Secret Service showed off a new Multi-Agency Communications Center (MACC) that will be used by most of the more than 70 agencies cooperating on securing papal events in that city. News organizations invited for a pre-visit tour of the MACC had to promise not to divulge the facility’s location. Similar facilities were set up in Washington and New York.

At the Philadelphia facility, almost 100 people will coordinate information in meeting facilities equipped with telephones, and video feeds from around the city displayed on five projection screens and two mega-screen televisions, according to the Secret Service.

"Part of the reason for this very facility is information sharing," DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters in remarks during the MACC tour in Philadelphia. "It's something we do all the time in connection to events like this, and on an ongoing basis. And it's something that, frankly, we are becoming better and better at."

Johnson has declared the visits to all three cities as National Special Security Events, which require coordination and planning by multiple law enforcement agencies, headed by the Secret Service.

The Secret Service didn’t respond to FCW inquiries about general details of the MACC or other facilities related to the Pope’s tour. DHS deferred all questions about the events to the Secret Service, a component agency.

The silence isn’t surprising. Ahead of the visit, various media reports said ISIS and other terror groups could see it as a chance to strike, although federal law enforcement agencies have said that there are no known credible threats.

The specter still looms, however. ABC News reported on Sept. 15 that the FBI and DHS had arrested a 15-year-old boy in Philadelphia in late August who had been planning a “homeland attack … targeting a foreign dignitary.” The identity of the dignitary wasn’t mentioned in a DHS/FBI bulletin distributed to law enforcement, but ABC News said it was Pope Francis. A memo quoted by the network said the boy was “inspired by [ISIS] and looked to mount an assault that included multiple attackers, guns and explosives.”

On another front, the Federal Aviation Administration sent out a notice on Sept. 21 reminding the public that the air space around Washington, New York and Philadelphia and surrounding communities would be “No Drone Zones” from Sept. 22 through Sept. 27.  

“If you plan to attend any of the Papal visit events, please leave your drone at home,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in the statement. “Anyone flying a drone within the designated restricted areas may be subject to civil and criminal charges.”

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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