How do you protect the Pope?

Story highlights

  • Pope Francis to visit Philadelphia, Washington and New York
  • Juliette Kayyem: Officials are right to take security as seriously as they are

Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is also the host of the Security Mom podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)How do you protect the Pope? You take everything very, very seriously.

Case in point: Even if you are a 15-year-old boy inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it doesn't matter how remote your alleged planning or fanciful the attack, chances are federal agencies will not wait around to see what actually happens. This isn't a joke -- a teenager near Philadelphia was quietly arrested over exactly this, an FBI briefing noted last month.
Juliette Kayyem
As Pope Francis arrives on U.S. soil for a multicity series of events and pilgrimages, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies will finalize their nearly yearlong planning efforts in anticipation of public events that may exceed a million spectators. And while it is true that the Secret Service and our intelligence agencies have dealt with high-profile visitors and heads of state in the past, nothing could compare to what's in store.
    The designation of this event as a national special security event, which sets the Secret Service as lead agency, underscores just how careful officials are being. Such a designation provides bodies and resources to support local jurisdictions, and elevates military assets to support planning.
    Why are such high-level precautions necessary?
    The reason for the lavish security -- New York, Washington and Philadelphia will be like fortresses during the visit -- isn't so much about there being a specific, known threat. Instead, the precautions reflect the immeasurable consequences of anything happening to the Pope while he is in the United States.
    In most cases -- say with mass transit or airline security -- risk assessment is always a balance between the likelihood of a bad event happening, the ease of any mitigation measures, and the consequences should harm come to pass. In the case of the Pope, there is simply no balancing.
    The reality of just how unique a situation this is was underscored to me by a conversation with some government officials. They told me that several months ago, the Vatican requested a major interfaith event during his visit to New York. As the planning took place, it became clear that leaders of the Sikh faith often wear kirpans (a ceremonial sword or knife) at major, formal events to show respect to the audience. That wouldn't normally be a problem, but in this case, I've been told, the faith has to demure to safety.
    Isn't this all security theater? Maybe, to a point. But we should be fine with that. In a world of lone wolves, anti-Catholic radicals and self-inspired terrorists, there is always going to be a level threat against the Pope. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security has increased its outreach to local and state law enforcement officials to ensure they remain vigilant regarding known threats, curious purchases and Internet chatter. The "theater" helps underscore the importance of such vigilance.
    Given that everything but the kitchen sink is being thrown at this security planning, and that planning has been going on for months, the only real unknown variable at this juncture is the client himself. Yes, that means Pope Francis. That may be a disrespectful way to put it, but security officials cannot get too personal with the protectee. He is the Pope, yes. And a rock star one at that. But they have to take emotion out of the equation, even if the emotion is coming from someone as unique as the Pope.
    Pope Francis wants to be close to people, to be with the people, a desire he directly expressed to the head of the Secret Service during a U.S. planning meeting at the Vatican that was assessing their security apparatus. We need to show some respect for that, but it will also mean there is much more security entering the protected zones where the Pope will be.
    This will cause major urban disruptions, but will allow those who have passed through security the opportunity to get close. Yes, it is a bit of a compromise to satisfy the Pope's desire, but it's not a big one, and reflects the reality that this particular visit belongs to the Secret Service as much to his adherents.
    None of this is a joke, and officials are right to take it as seriously as they are.