The proceedings that will take place on the morning of Jan. 20, in public view on the west front of the United States Capitol, just steps from the insurrection that killed five people, endangered Congress and the vice president, and led to the resignation of the Capitol Police chief, amount to what is known in Washington, DC, as a “National Special Security Event.”
You will hear a lot more about National Special Security Events, aka NSSEs, in the next eight days. Joe Biden’s inaugural officials, eager to allay security concerns after President Donald Trump’s supporters broke into the Capitol last Wednesday, tick off the letters in quick succession, N-S-S-E, in conversations about the implications of the acronym. In many cases, NSSEs can take more than a year to plan. When something is an NSSE, it means that multiple federal agencies are involved — not just the local police and fire department, though they are as well, but the United States Secret Service (which serves as the lead agency), the Department of Defense, the FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Officially, there have been fewer than 75 NSSEs in the history of the United States. NSSEs are not events so much as occurrences of great national interest, identified at the discretion of the sitting secretary of Homeland Security: the visit of Pope Francis, the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, certain Super Bowls, the funeral of Ronald Reagan, G8 summits, and every inauguration since President Bill Clinton created the NSSE designation in 1998 as part of a security framework for marshaling “the full protective and consequence management capabilities of the Federal Government.”
To compare the security footprint of even a “normal” inauguration to what was in place ahead of the violence in the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to interviews with people involved in the planning of the event, former government officials, and security experts, would be to underestimate the sheer scale of an event like the inauguration and the confidence of Washington in at least some of its own systems.
Chief among them, they say, is the NSSE.
“The alphabet soup of federal agencies, working with local counterparts, is a very carefully choreographed Kabuki dance,” said Jon Wackrow, the head of security at Teneo, a global advisory firm, and a former USSS agent of 14 years who worked more than a dozen NSSEs.
The USSS, which lists NSSEs as a key component of its mission statement, declined to answer questions about the planning of an NSSE. The government’s main public document on NSSEs, a fact sheet assembled by the Congressional Research Service, was updated in the public record on Monday to note that while the inauguration is an NSSE, the joint session of Congress that met on Jan. 6 was not.
Asked for an example of a security failure at an NSSE or similar event, former government officials cited two examples: the tunnel outside Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 where more than 1,000 people with purple tickets were stuck waiting for hours (called the “purple tunnel of doom”), unable to get into the event due to poor planning, and the 2009 state dinner (not technically an NSSE) that was successfully crashed by a couple from Bravo’s Real Housewives of DC. The Obama years also saw multiple instances of misconduct and scandal by USSS agents.
In the case of inaugurations, planning begins as soon as the previous one has concluded, starting with an after-action review. There are different levels of an NSSE, depending on its Special Event Assessment Rating, aka SEAR, which is a scale of 1 to 4 based on the “threat, vulnerability, and consequences” of an event. Inaugurations are a SEAR Level 1 event.
The phrase in Clinton’s 1998 order — “full protective and consequence management capabilities” — suggests something unseen and significant about the reach of the federal government, and there is something to that: “What it means is you plug and play all the different law enforcement and public safety entities to manage different pieces: crowd control, surveillance, maritime security, aviation security, cybersecurity,” said Juliette Kayyem, a senior official in the Obama administration at the Department of Homeland Security. Preparations also encompass air quality control, monitoring for chemical or biological agents, and supply line security, ensuring access to food, water, and a working electrical grid.
“The fact that I can just list all that right there shows it’s sort of well known. I don’t want to minimize the uniqueness of the situation in which the president might have the capacity to unleash something, but the prepositioning and the preplanning will go far in minimizing the threat,” Kayyem said.
In the case of the inauguration next week, it will also involve the hard but simple physicality of bodies and barriers across Washington. Capitol Police will join at least 10,000 members of the National Guard across the district. Tens of thousands of feet of anti-scaling fencing, a tightly made wall of wire reaching 8 feet in height, also came up this week across the security perimeter — part of the original plans for the event. It is an expensive operation: Fencing alone can cost upwards of $5 million, according to a review of federal contracts.
After the attack on the Capitol last week, new measures are also in place.
On Monday, following a written request for new security measures from District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, Trump’s then–acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf said he would expand the NSSE “event period” to a wider window, beginning on Wednesday, initiating certain security protocols six days earlier than planned, including the period of time in which the USSS serves at the lead agency.
Wolf cited the “events of the past week” and an “evolving security landscape.” It was one of his last acts in office before announcing his resignation. Wolf is the third member of Trump’s Cabinet to step down since the attack on Wednesday. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned last week.
The new NSSE window now covers Jan. 17, when other possible attacks or protests are being planned, as Twitter warned in the company’s statement banning the president from their service.
Bowser has also asked for daily threat briefings, increased protection of the district’s federal property, and the cancellation of any public gathering permits until four days after the inauguration. She also unveiled a new SMS alert system for DC residents to deliver public safety updates in real time. “Thanks for signing up for updates on the 59th Presidential Inauguration,” the SMS safety bot greets new subscribers.
What those updates might be has been a source of natural anxiety after hundreds of Trump supporters successfully took over the Capitol in support of the president’s baseless campaign to overturn the election results. On Thursday, at a meeting the day after the attack, the members of Congress on the Joint Inaugural Committee weighed the possibility of an all-virtual inauguration that would conduct the proceedings indoors, according to two Democrats briefed on the meeting. The inauguration has already been scaled down because of the pandemic.
The all-virtual idea was never serious enough to derail original plans for the event. On Thursday night, the Presidential Inaugural Committee released a statement saying they looked forward to the swearing-in of the president- and vice president–elect on the west front of the US Capitol. Days later, Biden’s team unveiled the “theme” of the inauguration: “America United.”
At a press conference on Monday, when Bowser told reporters she had asked the Department of the Interior to cancel public gathering permits, one asked why she didn’t just request to cancel the inauguration’s public events, too. “The transition of power happens when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are sworn in, and that event in my view should be public,” Bowser replied.
“I’m less worried about DC,” said Wackrow, the former USSS agent. “To me, I’m more worried about the secondary targets: Democratic statehouses, Michigan, Wisconsin, everybody that is drawing the attention of far-right extremists — that’s what I worry about.”
This week, the FBI released a bulletin warning of “armed protests” planned for all 50 state capitals from Jan. 16 to Jan. 20 and of at least one group calling for the “storming” of government buildings. The FBI bulletin also warns of threats against Biden and Harris.
“One way to interpret the FBI bulletin is telling states to preposition: Do not think this is nothing,’” said Kayyem, the former Homeland Security official. “You simply don’t want to be in a position again where you are caught so flatfooted.”
A senior official for the Presidential Inaugural Committee said they supported new efforts by the mayor and federal agencies to “make this inauguration and the days leading up to it as safe as possible.” But organizers seem confident in their original security plans. Asked whether preparation for the event had been substantively affected by the events of Jan. 6, an inauguration official only pointed to the recent addition of two elements to the day’s proceedings — a visit to Arlington National Cemetery and a public art installation on the National Mall — as evidence they are moving ahead as planned.
The art installation will feature approximately 191,500 flags of varying sizes scattered across the mall as well as 56 “pillars of light,” representing the states and territories to honor “the American people who are unable to travel to Washington, DC,” according to the press release, “and reflect PIC’s commitment to an inclusive and safe event that everyone can enjoy from their home.”
The flag spread will serve an added purpose, one organizer said: preventing crowds, be they friendly or not, from gathering on the lawn.