Guarding Pope Francis: Inside the massive effort to protect 'the people's pontiff'

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Stepped Up Security in Place Around NYC for Pope Francis' Arrival


Pope Francis personifies everything the Islamic State group hates, perhaps more than any other single person. And this week he'll address a gathering of almost every top American government official in Washington, D.C., before traveling to New York to speak at the U.N. General Assembly – itself a security logistics nightmare -- and then visiting Philadelphia.

As one leader tasked with overseeing security quipped privately, "It's crunch time."

Read more special coverage of the pope's visit: Why conservative Catholics call the pontiff 'Obama's pope'

Protecting any high profile official while traversing complex and highly populated urban environments is an incredibly difficult task. Organizations like the U.S. Secret Service must conduct extensive advance work to prepare for threats that could exist during a trip like this one, and to identify dangers they can expect throughout each point on the schedule.

Recent attacks in Paris, Chattanooga, and on a train speeding through Belgium are just a few examples that will give protection professionals evermore reason to worry.

Photos of Pope Francis' visit to Washington:

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Guarding Pope Francis: Inside the massive effort to protect 'the people's pontiff'
Pope Francis addresses the joint session of Congress on September 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Pope is the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to address a joint meeting of Congress, including more than 500 lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and top administration officials including Vice President Joe Biden. AFP PHOTO/VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives before addressing the joint session of Congress on September 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Pope is the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to address a joint meeting of Congress, including more than 500 lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and top administration officials including Vice President Joe Biden. AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. Pope Francis is the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress and will finish his tour of Washington later today before traveling to New York City. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, right, speaks with Pope Francis in the U.S. Capitol building as the Pope arrives to deliver his speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Pool)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 23: Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides in a popemobile along a parade route around the National Mall on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. Thousands of people gathered near the Ellipse to catch of glimpse of Pope Francis after he addressed an audience of 15,000 invited guests on the South Lawn of the White House during an official arrival ceremony with President Barack Obama. The Pope began his first trip to the United States at the White House followed by a visit to St. Matthew's Cathedral, and will then hold a Mass on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 23: Spectators on the South Lawn of the White House watch as U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Pope Francis during an arrival ceremony at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Pope begins his first trip to the United States at the White House followed by a visit to St. Matthew's Cathedral, and will then hold a Mass on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis walk through the Colonnade on their way to a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis stand during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, September 23, 2015. More than 15,000 people packed the South Lawn for a full ceremonial welcome on Pope Francis' historic maiden visit to the United States. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama welcomes Pope Francis to the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama greets Pope Francis during an arrival ceromony at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama welcomes Pope Francis to the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
People listen as Pope Francis speaks during an arrival ceromony at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - SEPTEMBER 23: Spectators gather near the Ellipse to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis along the route his Popemobile will take near the White House, September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Pope is on a three-day visit of Washington, D.C. as part of a larger visit to the U.S. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
Pope Francis speaks along side US President Barack Obama at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis stand during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, September 23, 2015. More than 15,000 people packed the South Lawn for a full ceremonial welcome on Pope Francis' historic maiden visit to the United States. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis speaks during at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis speaks during an arrival ceremony hosted by US President Barack Obama on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, September 23, 2015. More than 15,000 people packed the South Lawn for a full ceremonial welcome on Pope Francis' historic maiden visit to the United States. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama welcomes Pope Francis to the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama welcomes Pope Francis to the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
People wave US and Vatican flags as they wait for the arrival of the Pope Francis at the White House in Washington DC on September 22, 2015. A crowd of thousands are stretched back across the gloriously sun-kissed South Lawn awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis and President Barack Obama. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
People wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington,DC. President Barack Obama will host Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 23: Pope Francis exits his car to greet the U.S. President Barack Obama and first Lady Michelle Obama in an arrival ceremony at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Pope begins his first trip to the United States at the White House followed by a visit to St. Matthew's Cathedral, and will then hold a Mass on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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"The pope will essentially receive the same or greater protective measures than the president," says Dan Emmett, a former Secret Service special agent who served on the protective details for presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as a stint on the elite Counter Assault Team, or CAT.

"Given his high profile as the symbol of the Christian world during a time when radical Islam would love to make a statement by carrying out an attack against him, he is possibly the highest profile protectee under Secret Service protection while in the U.S.," he says.

See the pope's schedule for his visit to the U.S.

Multiple organizations help protect high profile visitors to the U.S., and indeed many of them will be working with the Secret Service on this trip.

The State Department's Bureau Diplomatic Security often guards visiting heads of state and high profile visitors, as it has for previous visits by Britain's Prince Charles and the Dalai Lama, for example. But Pope Francis' visit to the U.S. has been deemed what DHS calls a "national security special event" and, as the head of the Vatican state, he will be under the careful watch of the men and women bearing dark sunglasses and earpieces who continuously surround the president.

The Secret Service participated in a tabletop exercise last week in New York City with local police, the local head of the FBI and other officials from the Department of Homeland Security. The group, closely coordinating with the mayor's office, played through how they would respond to catastrophes such as an isolated bombing, a building collapse or a power failure.

"The idea is we can see the stretching of our resources," the New York Police Department's Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller said during the exercise, according to the New York Times, which witnessed part of the session. "A lot of wheels turning at once."

"Have people ready for every occasion," Mayor Bill DeBlasio said.

A big responsibility indeed.

Emmett, who documented his 21 years of experience in a book, "Within Arm's Length," helped conduct technical advance security for Pope John Paul II's visit to Los Angeles in 1987, when an event with the pontiff at Dodger Stadium reached its max capacity of 56,000.

"I doubt seriously if POTUS could attract such crowds," Emmett says, using a common acronym for the president of the United States, and pointing to the intense magnitude of these rare trips. "The pope will always attract more attention -- good and bad -- than perhaps any person in the world."

A September memo drafted by the FBI and DHS and obtained by CNN indicates there were no specific credible threats at that time against the pope, but cited the devastating effects of so-called lone wolf attackers that have become a cornerstone of the Islamic State group's recruitment efforts worldwide. The visit, the document states, will be "a powerful motivator for groups or individuals with anti-Catholic or anti-Christian viewpoints" who may use religion to justify violence, such as al-Qaida, Boko Haram in Nigeria or al-Shabab in Kenya.

These threats require the very best of the Secret Service cadre and other federal agents to protect the pope. New agency director Joe Clancy – brought back in from retirement in the aftermath of a string of high profile failure and scandal among agents – will likely select the most seasoned available staff from the Presidential Protective Detail and the CAT to serve on this detail. They will have fluency in weapons and tactics, extreme physical fitness and significant experience on protective assignments.

Those skills will have no effect if they don't know what's coming, which is why the Secret Service now is likely engaged in deep planning and information sharing with other security agencies to determine threat levels in the places the pope will visit and how they would coordinate a response.

Read more:What non-Catholics think about the pope's visit

Part of the planning includes how to control any crowd that could get near to the pope, says Emmett. Anyone who comes within a certain radius of him will likely have to pass through magnetometer checkpoints under the careful watch of explosive ordnance disposal experts, just as they would around the U.S. president. The risk of moving a high level figure through an unchecked crowd is "so incredibly high, it would be beyond unwise," he says. "It could quite possibly be lethal."

"The importance of through advance work cannot be overstated," Emmett says. "If there is a countermeasure for a real, possible, or perceived threat, the Pope will receive that countermeasure at its highest level. Expense will be no object. The ultimate goal is to get him safely into the U.S., move him from point to point, then get him safely out of the U.S. regardless of cost and by any means necessary. That is the mission and the only thing that is of relevance to the Secret Service."

There is no requirement that these agents be Catholic, he says. But he adds, "as you might imagine, there is no shortage of volunteers."

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