Washington, 19 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As world leaders of more than 40 nations descend on Washington this week for NATO's 50th anniversary summit, the city's security is being heightened to levels never previously seen.
The three-day summit starts Friday. It will bring together more 40 heads of state or government from across Europe and North America, as well as some 1,700 delegates who will be representing the 44 NATO and Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council countries. More than 3,000 members of the international media will be on hand to cover the event. Overall, it will be among the largest gathering of world leaders ever hosted by the United States in its capital.
To protect them, thousands of police and other security personnel will be dispersed throughout the city, escorting the various leaders and senior members of their delegations to and from the summit headquarters which will be located at the brand new building named for former U.S. President Ronald Reagan building. It is an enormous and elegantly furnished structure just a short distance from the White House.
Sharpshooters will be positioned on the roofs of nearby buildings, and bomb-sniffing dogs and their handlers will roam the streets and check nearby buildings. Police cars, fire trucks and ambulances will be kept in constant motion along city streets, ready to respond to any emergency.
In the event of a biological or chemical attack, federal decontamination sites have been constructed nearby to assist hospitals and emergency workers.
Ashley Myler, a spokeswoman for the George Washington Medical Center, says that most medical facilities and hospitals in the area will be on high alert during the summit. She says hospitals have already set aside numerous beds and special suites in case of an emergency.
Myler told RFE-RL her Center -- comprised of an emergency medicine program, a hospital and a team of medical experts -- has been working closely with the State Department to be prepared to handle all kinds of medical emergencies, including those that might arise from a terrorist act such as a biological and chemical attack or a bombing.
Concern about security and traffic congestion in the city has prompted the U.S. government to give has given 90,000 non-essential federal workers the day off on Friday, the first day of the summit. In turn, the city government has decided to close schools on that day and may give some of the workers the day off as well.
Approximately 15 city blocks around the Ronald Reagan building will be sealed off to traffic and pedestrians, They will be accessible only to authorized personnel. Security at Washington's major airports and most of its hotels will also be tight.
But Patrick Cronin, a defense analyst at the United States Institute for Peace, told RFE/RL that Washington is still an "extremely vulnerable city" when it comes to terrorism. That threat is heightened, he adds, as a result of the ongoing crisis in Kosovo.
"With the conflict in the Balkans and the war over Kosovo raging, and with all of the emotions and the religious groups that are involved in that -- I think it accentuates the possibility that terrorism will occur in the U.S. or in Washington during that time. Because that is precisely the crucible out of which a terrorist would want to strike at the U.S."
Cronin says that while the heads of states and their delegations are likely to be well protected during the event, no amount of security is ever enough to prevent or protect against all cases of terrorism. He says that so-called "soft targets" such as any federal building or monument and even crowds of interested onlookers are especially vulnerable.
"You cannot really protect such a diffuse population with so many soft targets. And you can give the government employees the day off, but there will still be swarms of people, lots of activity, lots of different targets. And while I suspect that it will be very difficult to have anybody get to the building where the leaders will be meeting -- they will be well-protected -- I think it will be very easy to hit a symbolic target by a single bomber with simple explosives. Then the best we can do -- as in most free societies -- is to apprehend, prosecute and try to deter future terrorists from doing that."
However, U.S. officials are warning against public fear or panic, saying they have received no threats and are confident their increased security measures will be sufficient.
Jim Rice, the FBI's special agent in charge of its terrorism task force, told an American newspaper (The Washington Post) last week that the city is well prepared for any kind of problems.
Rice is quoted as saying: "I get paid to be paranoid and think of everything that can possibly go wrong. I also have to think of how to counter all the things that can go wrong. This is a fairly unique event. We've been preparing for it for months. We always take the stand that Washington is the number one target in the world and go from there."
Washington, situated on 100 square kilometers of land on the bank of the Potomac River and bordering the states of Maryland and Virginia, is the seat of the U.S. federal government. It has a population of more than 500,000. The U.S. Congress has legislative authority over the city but it is administered by a mayor and a city council. Much of the NATO summit will take place in what is known as the federal triangle, where most of the area4s U.S. government buildings are located.
Washington Mayor Anthony Williams is making an effort to focus on the positive aspect of the summit.
In a statement issued by his office, Williams said: "We are honored that Washington, D.C. will be the site of this historic meeting of world leaders. Washington is indeed a world within a city, and this summit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase our city as a wonderful international business location, a world capital, and a great destination for tourism."