WASHINGTON — Less than a week before Pope Francis begins his highly anticipated trip to the USA, Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy said Wednesday there are no credible threats against the pontiff.
“There is nothing that we’re overly concerned about,” Clancy said in an interview with USA TODAY as authorities prepared to set in motion a massive, rolling security operation that will shadow Francis’ journey from the capital to New York before his departure Sept. 27 following an open air Mass in Philadelphia.
Clancy described the security effort as “unprecedented” in scale, largely because of the enormous swath of the East Coast that must be secured. It is a task made more complex because Francis’ travels coincide with the 70th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the arrival of 160 heads of state.
“This is definitely challenging,” said Clancy, whose agency is designated as the lead security planner for all so-called National Special Security Events in the USA.
“You break it down city by city, venue by venue,” he said.
Though Clancy said there were no specific threats against the visit, Francis’ U.S. journey begins amid heightened concern about domestic terror attacks inspired by radical groups such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
Dozens of alleged Islamic State recruits in the USA have been swept up by federal authorities in recent months, many of them fueled by the terror group’s aggressive social media campaigns targeting disaffected young people.
Last month, a 15-year-old Philadelphia-area boy was arrested for allegedly pursuing a plot against Francis, two federal law enforcement officials said.
The arrest, which was not announced at the time, was outlined in an internal bulletin prepared by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. It was first disclosed Tuesday by ABC News.
The law enforcement officials, who are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the boy’s alleged activities in part involved the distribution of information on explosives through social media.
The activities, the officials said, appeared to represent more of an aspiration to such a plot than a fully formed and imminent threat.
Clancy did not comment on the incident, saying only that the security plan has sought to counter all types of potential threats — from those directed or inspired by terror groups to so-called lone wolf attackers — like Dylann Roof, who is accused in the Charleston, S.C., church shootings — who often have little or no contact with law enforcement authorities before their strikes.
“We have to be prepared for anything,” Clancy said.
Security preparations for the pope’s visit began nine months ago as federal and local authorities began coordinating the far-flung logistics for a most unusual dignitary who desires to be among the people rather than secluded behind bulletproof glass or bundled into heavily armored cars. In June, Clancy and other agency officials traveled to Rome to observe the pope’s public appearances and close interactions with thousands along designated parade routes.
As a result, some of the U.S. security requirements have been daunting.
In New York, home to some of the nation’s largest public events, Police Commissioner William Bratton recently described the approaching papal visit and the U.N. gathering as the “largest security challenge” the city and police department has faced.
In Philadelphia, where the mounting enthusiasm has given rise to popedelphia.com, an online marketplace for home rentals and all things pope, there is considerable anxiety.
Street and bridge closures, designed for increased security, have some referring to a “Popepocalypse.”
Clancy said security teams have sought to allay concerns, meeting directly with scores of business and community leaders in all three cities.
For the Secret Service, the papal visit comes a year after a series of damaging disclosures about White House security breaches and agent misconduct.
The security failures are the reason Clancy is the agency’s director, succeeding Julia Pierson, who resigned amid a firestorm of criticism last fall.
Clancy said the agency is pressing ahead.
“We’re not looking in the rearview mirror,” he said.
LM END JOHNSON