Security at the Nuclear Security Summit

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In 1945, 50 heads of state gathered at the San Francisco Opera House to negotiate and sign the charter that founded the United Nations. Aside from the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York, no other event had attracted as many foreign leaders. Sixty-five years later -- next week -- 51 heads of state will gather at the Washington Convention Center for a U.S.-sponsored nuclear security summit.

Pop into any DC hotel this week and you're bound to see advance teams from the United States Secret Service scouting out elevators and holding rooms. They're the lead agency in charge of making sure everything works perfectly. 

Washington is used to high-profile events, but next Monday and Tuesday are going to be different by several orders of magnitude. The Service has a hard perimeter around the convention center itself, but the entire city will experience numerous and unexpected road closures as high-level dignitaries speed to and from hotels and off-site meetings.

The presidents of China and Russia, the prime minister of Israel, heads of state from India and Pakistan and Egypt -- all receive a level of protection that is perhaps a notch below that afforded to President Obama, but higher than that afforded to Vice President Joe Biden -- and Biden's security package is already quite large. In New York, the city police department knows how to work these types of events. The District's police have plenty of experience with motorcades and major events, but not a lot of experience with so many motorcades and so many different venues requiring round-the-clock coverage. 

The Metro won't stop at its Mt. Vernon Station; the Circulator bus won't circulate near the convention center; a dozen metro bus routes will be re-routed. Journalists -- more than 1,000 of whom intend to cover the event -- will have one point of access, at 10th and M Streets. You will notice quite a few helicopters in the air: the FBI's JOSA airplanes; military electronic warfare jets (U.S. Navy E3s); the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's Blackjack Helicopters; a squadron of "Mussel" copters from Andrews Air Force Base ready to evacuate high-profile dignitaries in he event of an emergency; and the Department of Energy's nuclear-signature-sensing choppers will be deployed, of course, to make sure that bad folks don't disrupt a summit on nuclear security. The Coast Guard plans to step up its patrol of the Potomac and other waterways.

Less noticed will be the preparation for the aftermath of a mass casualty event or a terrorist attack -- FEMA's pre-storage of supplies and the Department of Health and Human Services's pre-placement of medicine. Even area hospitals have been briefed on emergency contingency plans. If you live in the immediate vicinity of the convention center, it's a safe bet that you'll find your cell service intermittent. Standard electronic countermeasures include jamming radio frequencies to prevent improvised explosive devices from being detonated immediately. But the sheer amount of regular communication in and out of the downtown area will probably stress the system. 

How do all of these agencies communicate with one another? You'd assume that everyone could use radios that transmitted over an encrypted broadband network, but we don't have the infrastructure for that yet. Instead, the Secret Service, FBI, Diplomatic Security Service, Coast Guard and other agencies will conduct their operations in real-time using encrypted digital radios on existing frequencies. 

Imagine the technical challenges involved in making sure every agent on every detail gets the right security key, and you'll get but a glimpse of how incredibly difficult it can be to coordinate even the rudiments of security for an event like this.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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