Rich Cooper

Apr 13, 2010

For the next couple of days, downtown Washington is the literal capital of the world. With over forty heads of state in town for President Obama’s Nuclear Summit, discussing ways to enhance the planet’s overall nuclear security interests, more eyes are upon the National Capital Region than usual.

While it is certainly historic and honorable to host this many leaders, it is also a tremendous cost and disruption to those of us who live and work in the area. With whole sections of downtown Washington walled off because of security perimeters, streets shut for rolling motorcades and subway stations closed until Wednesday, getting around DC if you are anyone other than a head of state is next to impossible. Such is the cost and consequence of a National Special Security Event (NSSE).

While NSSE’s have existed for years (e.g., Presidential Inaugurations, State of the Union Addresses, National Political Conventions, G-20 Summits, etc.) and our national experiences with them have improved, they cause tremendous disruption to the day-to-day life and operation in the communities where they take place.  

For all of the historic moments, great “Chamber of Commerce” photo ops and national/international publicity they can provide, there are huge security expenses and colossal gridlock that come with them. As a result, workers who might otherwise be in their downtown office doing their respective jobs, stay home and telework. Small businesses (e.g., sandwich shops, restaurants, drycleaners, retailers, etc.) located in cordoned off areas that employ hourly workers often find themselves unable to operate in a business-as-usual way. As a result, those employees are out luck when it comes to getting paid.  

Additionally, if you’re a resident that lives in the area, the neighborhood that once seemed so attractive to you has now become an armed camp where no one can get in or out unless they are part of a police escort or official motorcade. So much for a nice springtime stroll.

NSSE’s and motorcades are nothing new to the Washington area. It’s just part of the fabric of life in this area. Everyone at some point or another finds themselves the victim of motorcade traffic blockages or some other hassle, but it is time for us to start paying better attention to the costs events such as these cause to the Washington area and every other U.S. city that hosts similar events.

Under an NSSE, the U.S. Secret Service takes the lead for coordinating all of the security efforts.  As such, they have one mission – protect the principals and dignitaries at all costs. Working with other federal, state and local authorities, they work to make that happen, but truth be told, the community in which an NSSE is held is a completely secondary consideration to the Secret Service. As long as the principals and dignitaries are safe, the community can essentially burn to the ground because their mission assignment is complete.  

There is no dispute that this mission assignment is more than challenging, but in completing it, the costs and consequences to residents and businesses seem to be blatantly ignored. Having worked several NSSE’s in the past, I’ve seen this attitude and posture firsthand, and while I haven’t had any official role in any NSSE since 2006, it would seem not a lot has changed.  

For all of the exemplary work this region has done to communicate with residents, employees and businesses about what this week’s Nuclear Summit would do to moving around Washington, there has been little to no mention, other than encouraging telecommuting, as to how the “other costs” will be covered.  

For certain, the federal government (through DHS) will pick up the security costs for DC’s Metropolitan Police Department as well as those of the other surrounding jurisdictions supporting the Summit’s security operations. Unfortunately, if you’re a small business where telecommuting will not enable your business or your employees to regularly do their jobs, the costs of an NSSE will really hit your wallet. This is just one of the hard, cold facts about an NSSE that are lost amongst the news worthy photo ops and diplomatic toasts.

For all of the tremendous merit there is in having the world’s leaders gather to address nuclear security or any other major issue, we should not be blind or cavalier to what these assemblies really cost host communities and taxpayers. While there is no real price tag that can be assessed for the inconvenience of motorcades and secure perimeters, there are very real economic costs incurred when whole areas of a city are cordoned off for legitimate reasons. In planning for future NSSEs, these costs should be recorded so that communities, whether they be the nation’s capital or some other location, know exactly what they are getting themselves into whenever an NSSE is considered.  

Until then, we are doing a disservice to everyone when we talk about the NSSE and what they really mean when they come to town.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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