Pope's security faces Capitol test after parade incident

AP News
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Posted: Sep 24, 2015 10:08 AM
Pope's security faces Capitol test after parade incident

WASHINGTON (AP) — Five-year-old Sophie Cruz made her way through a security fence and was just feet from Pope Francis' popemobile during a short parade around the White House when she hesitated.

Clutching a yellow T-shirt and a note about immigration, she was someplace she wasn't supposed to be. The uniformed security officer and another in a suit coming toward her probably seemed intimidating. It wasn't until Francis himself motioned to her that she relented and let a security agent carry her to side of the open-air Jeep.

Standing in the popemobile, the pope did what this pope so often does: He gave her a hug and kiss. And Cruz made sure she stuck around long enough to give the pope the shirt and her message.

The scene, broadcast live on cable television outlets and captured by multiple photographers, is something of a routine for Francis, well known for freely wading into crowds, kissing and blessing hoisted children and eagerly accepting gifts from well-wishing strangers.

But for the start of his trip in the United States, where he is being surrounded by a phalanx of security trying to keep most onlookers at a distance, it also quickly revealed the balance security officials are trying to strike to keep the pontiff safe while letting Francis be Francis. Security procedures will be tested further Thursday as the pope wraps up his visit to Washington and heads to New York City.

"This is a pope who likes to be close to the people. And God bless him for that," Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN. "That's who he is, and that's part of why he's beloved all over the world. So we'll provide the security, but we're also going to recognize that he calls the shots. As I like to say, he answers to a higher authority."

Still, his trip to the U.S. has been a far cry from the freewheeling motorcade routes of many of Francis' past pilgrimages, where he would hop on and off his popemobile to kiss babies and catch soccer jerseys thrown his way from ordinary folks who had done no planning other than to show up early to get a good spot.

For the first time, tickets were required for most of Francis' popemobile processions, and those lucky enough to get one through lotteries or their parishes still had to pass through metal detectors to get into position. Francis' first parade in Washington was open to the general public and people lined up before dawn Wednesday to pass through security gates and stake out a spot along the route.

In New York, security screening will be just part of "layers and layers and layers of protection" the pope will receive during his visit, including a deployment of 6,000 extra police officers and specialized counterterrorism units, said John Miller, the NYPD's top security official.

Police will also be "looking for, in the Boston Marathon example, where is the potential terrorist threat, not to the protectee, but to the crowd. And we have layers behind that," Miller said.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that despite the tight security Francis "intends to move around as he usually does."

Nearly all the pope's movements have been scripted well in advance and Secret Service agents are prepared for his inevitable spontaneous decisions to get closer to crowds along parade routes or outside other events in Washington, New York and Philadelphia, said Arnette Heintze, a retired senior Secret Service agent who worked on protection details for Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

Agents "adapt and work to accommodate the needs and issues" of whomever they are protecting, whether they are political candidates wandering along a rope line or a pope who likes to mingle with fans, Heintze said.

As for Cruz's encounter with Francis, which appeared to surprise security officers stationed nearby, Heintze said it wasn't something to worry about.

"That's a great moment, not a security risk," said Heintze, who helped with advance planning before Pope John Paul II held an open-air mass in New Orleans in 1987.

Planning for Francis' visit has been in the works for nearly one year and included at least one visit to Rome by Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy and two senior agents assigned to the protection details.

Before any foreign trip by the pope, the Vatican's security team always engages in detailed negotiations with local security forces as part of the trip preparations. Local security forces typically seek to seal off the pope as much as possible for fear that anything happen to him on their watch; Francis, though, insists on being able to mix with the crowds, requiring a balancing act between the perceived threat levels and Francis' wishes.

Those negotiations have had wildly different results on the ground, at least to onlookers: In Rio de Janeiro in 2013, on Francis' first foreign trip, his car was mobbed by the crowd after the driver took a wrong turn off the motorcade route and got stuck in traffic. Rather than recoil in fear, Francis rolled down the window to high-five the crowd. He freely waded into crowds along Copacabana beach, and even sipped mate — a South American tea — handed up to him from well-wishers.

In the Philippines, however, the capital Manila was on virtual lockdown when Francis visited in January: Cellphone service was jammed over vast parts of the city for his entire stay, measures far more extreme than the usual electronic countermeasures employed at airports when he arrives and departs.

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Associated Press reporters Colleen Long, Jonathan Lemire and Tom Hays contributed to this report from New York.