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Why the Pope threat matters: Experts, Congressmen on security for Pope Francis’ visit

There has already been at least one threat regarding Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, and there are sure to be more. So who’s handling these, and what do they mean for the safety of the event?

Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul, a Congressman from Texas, told ABC that he has concerns about security when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. McCaul raised eyebrows when he said federal officials had already “disrupted one particular case.”

But McCaul didn’t say where the threat was, or whether its target was the Pontiff, a city or its pilgrims. He added only his concern that the Pope “likes to get out with the people and with that comes a large security risk.”

Of course, concerns about security for the Papal visit in Philadelphia have caused controversy since they began trickling out just a few months ago,whether it was a fence that was supposed to encircle all of Center City (no longer the case) or the shutting-down of major roadways, streets and bridges in the region (still true).

Some say city and federal officials need to find a balance between responding to security threats that will likely continue to come into officials — and to better work on releasing appropriate information to the public, especially as the city tries to establish itself as an international one that’s willing to draw huge events in the future.

Scott White, a professor of homeland security and security management at Drexel who has helped with security planning for events like the Olympics, said bringing recognition to a city through an event is one thing, but in order to be a “world city,” everyday commerce can’t stop or slow because of the event.

“We don’t have to know specific security information…but we need to know ‘we’re blocking this street off for the reason of security,'” White said. “If you want to host multiple events like this, you have to be cognizant that your city has to run effectively. That is that balance that needs to occur. There needs to be a balance between the potential risks and then to commerce of the city.”

Pennsylvania Congressman Lou Barletta, a Republican who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement released today to Billy Penn that he “can’t discuss any specifics” regarding security questions or what the committee has been briefed on by the Secret Service, but did say “the modern world requires” enhanced security efforts.

“The pope preaches goodwill toward mankind,” Barletta said, “and unfortunately, that means he may draw the attention of people who prefer chaos and violence over peace.”

Congressman Scott Perry, a Republican representing parts of south central Pennsylvania, also sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and declined to speak specifically about threats the group was briefed on. He echoed Barletta’s sentiments, saying “we live in an inherently dangerous world right now and must be vigilant in confronting the inherent security risks.”

White said that without knowing specifics about the threat, it’s hard to decipher what it could mean in terms of overall safety for the event. We likely won’t know what the threat was unless charges are filed against an individual or organization that made it. But he did say there’s more to the Secret Service’s job than keeping Pope Francis safe.

They’re also responsible for securing a massive portion of Center City where more than a million people are expected to be. That’s where the street closures and security checkpoints come in. White said the street closures and the fact that no one can park within the secure perimeter could largely eliminate the threat of any sort of car bomb or large terroristic event that would be based in a vehicle.

But he said the most dangerous place remains the “choke points” — the phrase used in the security community to refer to entrance points and places where people are being screened to come into the secure area. Because people attending events slow down and funnel into small areas to be checked over by security officials, those areas — before a potential threat has to go through security — remain the places with some of the highest possibilities for safety concerns. White said there will likely be undercover officials patrolling those areas.

There are things the Secret Service can do to thwart threats to public safety. But that can change when there is what’s called a “lone wolf,” or a single person who is determined to cause violence or chaos.

“If I am truly a person who wants to do harm,” White said, “then I will do harm.”

For now, it’s still unclear who’s handling every security threat that comes in. The Secret Service has called the shots since the beginning, but Philadelphia Police and State Police are expected to have large presences as well.

“We won’t hear about events until after they’ve occurred,” White said. “We have to defer to the government and the security individuals. They are getting first-hand, real-time knowledge. What we hope is that the political people, the Office of the Mayor, the Secretary of Homeland Security, right up to the White House, is monitoring and agreeing with the security response. That’s the check and balance. We entrust them that they are looking out for our best interests.”

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