Security Theater In New York City

For those entranced by security theater, New York City is a sight to behold this week. A visit to one of the two centers of the action -- the Waldorf Astoria, where the presidents of China, Russia, the Prime Ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the President of the United States -- are all staying. (Who gets the presidential suite? Our POTUS.) Getting to the Waldrof is a little intimidating, which is the point. Wade through the concrete barriers, the double-parked police cars, the NYPD mobile command post, a signals post, acreages of metal fencing, snipers, counter surveillance teams, FBI surveillance teams in street clothes, dodge traffic and a dignitary motorcade or two, and you're right at the front door of the hotel. A Secret Service agent from the Midwest gestured dismissively when a reporter showed him a press credential. "You don't need it. Just go in that door over there."

At the door over there, another agent sent the reporter back to the first agent. The two agents -- each from different field offices, no doubt -- argued a bit over which of the Waldorf front doors they were going to let the general public in. Maybe the agents had just been "pushed" -- or there was a shift change. In any event, the agents didn't seem to mind when the reporter walked right past them. A standard magnetometer and x-ray screening later, and I was in the packed front lobby. African heads of state were just about to have a group lunch, and about three dozen members of the continental press corps awaited some arrivals. Some of the heads of state walked in through the front, tailed by a few of their own bodyguards and tired looking USSS agents.

At the bar, in the middle of the Waldorf, a senior presidential adviser sat in deep discussion with what appeared to be a counterpart from another country. A few dignitaries were there, eating lunch. A bunch of people -- guards, staff, handlers -- loitered out front. The bodyguards are conspicuous not by their lapel pins -- everyone has lapel pins -- it's a carnival of lapel pins -- but by the way they hold their hands in front of them. Their sidearms tend to bunch up their suit jackets, producing this weird postural adjustment.

The Waldorf is like an armed, open camp. The American presidential entourage takes up at least four floors, heavily guarded by U.S. Marines. The dignitary suites have been fortified with bulletproof and shatterproof glass, lest anyone decide to take a pot shot at a random Waldorf window. On side streets, various sensor-type vehicles sniff the air for chemicals and radiation. Speaking of radiation: it's hard to a cell signal inside the Waldorf because of all the radio frequency traffic.

There are at least three classes of dignitaries. The major heads of state have huge entourages and robust guard details, supplemented by a full complement of USSS agents. The NYPD provides these details with full counterassault teams from its Emergency Services Unit, numerous lead and tail cars, and even intersection control. The minor heads of state get smaller details and usually just a lead and tail car from the NYPD. Those dignitaries who aren't heads of state but who do merit protection are protected by the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.

In the old days, the Secret Service used to call the Waldorf "Roadhouse." (In 2004, at the Republican National Convention, they still used this code word.) All of their communications are encrypted, now, so the code names remain undecipherable. Motorcade watchers can still get a pretty good sense of what's going on. The New York Police Department is using a clear frequency, "Detectives 2," for those detectives who are escorting the major dignitaries -- the high value target dignitaries, through New York City. Because the frequency is not encrypted, the NYPD uses code words for people and destinations. If your country gets a code word, you're probably pretty important.

The words chosen are general -- the NYPD wouldn't want to accidentally offend sensibilities. "Alpine, Phoenix, Coyote, Eagle, Viking, Galaxy, Mustang" for heads of state, "Venus, Saturn, Liberty, Enterprise" for locations. President Obama gets the biggest tranche of NYPD officers -- a roving cavalcade of about 50 police vehicles, six dump trucks full of sand and 200+ officers moves ahead of him and just wraps itself around where he's going to be -- and this is before you look at the motorcade. When Obama travels, not only are roads shut down but "pedestrian freezes" are put into effect. An NYPD helicopter and at least four phalanxes of police motorcycles clear traffic.

Over at the Sheraton Manhattan, where President Clinton's Global Initiative is taking place, the atmosphere is a little more calm. Guests have to get their bags x-rayed before they can enter the hotel, but there are no lines. Jesse Jackson and an aide had a leisurely lunch in an almost-empty restaurant as small motorcades arrived and departed.

There was actually a sign that said: "Heads of state: register here."

When a head of state codenamed "Mustang" departed for location "Venus," here is what it sounded like.

"Sweeps, route is out."
"Mustang lead to venus, route is out."
"Mustang lead to pilot, let me know when the route is good."
"Lead to command. Command, we're moving."
"Pilot to Venus, departure, en route to your location."
"Be advised, the route's not totally secure. Slow ride. Slow ride."
"Mustang pilot, be advised, route is clear."

(Later, there was a motorcade jam as presidents tried to leave the United Nations at the same time. The UN is codenamed "Saturn." The Waldorf Astoria is codenamed "Venus.")

"Charlie, I got China trying to leave. And France trying to leave. And I got a problem with the French press..."
"I know, but it's a closed route for Mustang."
"Mustang lead to Venus lead, we're en route to you. Ready."
"Mustang lead to Mustang pilot: what does the FDR look like?"
"Mustang leader, Saturn base."
"Go ahead, Saturn base."
"Sarge, we're holding here. Let 'em go."
"They're coming in right behind you, same location as you are."
"I got numerous heads of state waiting. Can someone make a call?"
"Saturn perimeter, you can lift the freeze. Numerous [heads of state protection] details still on the grounds."
"Mustang lead, don't unfreeze at Venus. Mustang is still not secure."