Secret Service to secure G-20 in Pittsburgh

Designation puts summit on par with big events

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Pittsburgh's G-20 summit is now on par with the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the Olympics and the Super Bowl.

This week, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano named the September gathering of world leaders a "National Special Security Event," or NSSE, making the Secret Service the lead agency for security preparations.

Federal officials have given the designation less than 35 times since 1998, when President Clinton created it as a tool for managing security for major events that require the coordination of potentially dozens of law enforcement agencies.

"It doesn't happen often," said Special Agent in Charge James Gehr, of the service's Pittsburgh office.

Past NSSEs include last year's presidential nominating conventions in Denver and Minneapolis, the state funerals for presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The Super Bowl is now routinely designated a special security event, as is the president's annual State of the Union address to Congress.

The NSSE designation for the G-20 summit, which will be held Sept. 24 and 25 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, was not a surprise. The meeting is expected to bring top leaders from the world's 20 largest economic powers, and the Secret Service is usually tasked with providing protection for visiting foreign heads of state.

During prior special security events, the FBI has taken a lead role on intelligence and counterterrorism efforts, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been in charge of emergency planning.

But city, county and state public safety officials will still be heavily involved in planning at all levels, with federal officials relying on local agencies for their expertise, from identifying possible terrorist targets to crowd control to opening and closing city streets.

"An NSSE designation does not mean that the Secret Service, or any other federal government agency, will usurp the local jurisdiction's day-to-day responsibilities related to law enforcement and public safety," Timothy J. Koerner, former assistant director for the service's Office of Protective Operations, told a congressional committee in 2007.

The Secret Service has worked regularly with local law enforcement officials in the Pittsburgh region. Last year, the Pittsburgh police bureau helped the service with frequent presidential candidate visits leading up to the November election.

"We have a good relationship with the Secret Service and all federal agencies, and we're going to work very diligently together," said Diane Richard, a spokeswoman for the police bureau. "We know Pittsburgh is in the spotlight."

An "executive committee" of lead agencies involved with the G-20 will meet soon after July 4, Agent Gehr said.

In the planning process for last year's Democratic National Convention in Denver, the executive committee included the Secret Service, Denver Police Department, Denver Fire Department, FBI and FEMA officials, the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the Denver Office of Emergency Preparedness, Colorado State Patrol, the U.S. Attorney's Office, local hospital officials and management from the Pepsi Center, where the convention was held.

Once the executive committee meets, it will break down into subcommittees dealing with specific security concerns, including VIP protection, waterways, air space, and intelligence gathering.

There also likely will be subcommittees dealing with training for local police and getting information to the media and the public.

Planners will find the best location for a Multi-Agency Communication Center, a meeting site for officials from all organizations involved with G-20 security that will stay open 24 hours a day during the event. The center also will connect with other key federal security bodies, such as the Department of Defense's Northern Command.

Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said he hopes the Secret Service allows protesters to gather close to the convention center.

In the past, the ACLU has challenged the service when it tried to put protesters in "free-speech zones," including a 2002 visit by President Bush that led to the arrest of retired steelworker Bill Neel on Neville Island.

"Are they going relegate protests to a spot out of sight and out of mind?" Mr. Walczak said. "If they say, 'No protests in the Golden Triangle,' that's not good enough." He said he expected to be in touch with federal and local officials to discuss First Amendment issues during the summit.

The NSSE designation does not automatically provide federal money for local and state law enforcement agencies, which will face large overtime costs for the G-20. Those agencies will have to apply for federal grants to cover expenses, according to a 2008 report from the Congressional Research Service.

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Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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