Ring of steel as Bush sworn in
A few square miles of central Washington will be transformed into an armed camp next week as the biggest security operation in the city’s history is mounted for President Bush’s inauguration.
When Mr Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, are sworn in for the second time on the steps of the Capitol building at midday on Thursday, the US government will be at its most vulnerable. Just about every member of the executive, 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 officers will flood the area around Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue, the route of the inaugural parade, scanning the expected 750,000-strong crowd of supporters and protesters.
Air traffic into the city will be restricted, replaced by fighter jets and Black Hawk helicopters.
The 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 Tuesday when fireworks, parades and parties - costing a total of $40m (about £21m) - begin. The government has not yet put a price on the security, but it will cost tens of millions more.
There have been complaints from both ends of the political spectrum about civil liberty. The secret service has banned anything that could conceal, or be used as, a weapon. That includes poles supporting placards, the coffins some demonstrators had wanted to bring to symbolise the Iraqi war dead, and the crosses and American flags that the faithful had intended to wave.
Kristinn Taylor, the head of the Washington branch of a conservative group Free Republic, disagreed with the ban, for the left and the right: “If we’re allowed to hold our American flags, then they can hold their hammer and sickle flags or whatever.”
But others believe the security threat has not been taken seriously enough.
The 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 either the conventions or the general election”.
Mr Ornstein said a catastrophic terrorist attack on Thursday, such as a nuclear suitcase bomb, would plunge the country into chaos, as no clear contingency plans had been made for the possibility that everyone in the chain of succession was killed at once.
The cost of the event has also provoked controversy.
Washington’s mayor, Anthony Williams, has complained that the city will have to spend $17.3m to help pay for security. The federal government normally reimburses the city for such costs, but this year it has told Mr Williams to take most of the money from Washington’s homeland security budget, draining its defences for the rest of the year.
Democrats have criticised the $40m celebrations as a tasteless display of excess, saying tradition dictates that wartime inaugurations are restrained affairs. The Republicans’ response has been that the whole event is dedicated to US soldiers serving abroad.
The inauguration has been officially subtitled “Celebrating Freedom and Honouring Service”. The party also pointed out that the bill would be paid entirely by private contributions.
That sponsorship has, in its turn, attracted scrutiny. Election rules do not allow firms to make direct campaign donations to candidates, and they place strict limits on individual contributions.
These restrictions do not apply to inaugurations, and a host of corporations have lined up to demonstrate their support. They are permitted to give up to $250,000.
Some companies, like the Marriott hotel chain, have got around the nominal $250,000 limit by arranging donations from subsidiary firms. Other big givers include Ford, Exxon Mobil, and the defence contractor Northrop Grumman.
In return, company executives will be given tickets to the ceremony and to the black-tie balls. Political watchdogs are asking what else they will receive once the administration gets down to making policy.
An expensive do
· An estimated $40m (about £21m) will be spent on parties and parades in Washington next week - an inauguration record
· About 250,000 people will watch the swearing-in ceremony, and twice that number will line the parade route. It will take President Bush less than a minute to take the oath
· With security paramount, 6,000 police officers and 2,500 military personnel will protect the guests
· Packages offered to guests include a $1m deal, for which they get four nights in a hotel a stone’s throw from the White House, return travel from any city in the US, a chauffeur and a butler on 24-hour call for the duration, his-and-her diamond watches and designer outfits, spa treatment and monogrammed bathrobes
· An exclusive lunch with Mr Bush and the vice president, Dick Cheney, and two tables for 19 friends at an eve-of inauguration banquet is not cheap either, at $250,000.
Julian Borger in Washington
Friday January 14, 2005