Washington, DC - For six days, the pope’s first visit to U.S. soil took him to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, where he visited the White House, U.S. Capitol, Madison Square Garden, Ground Zero, Independence Hall and several other stops in between. Millions of people lined the streets and filled venues just to get a glimpse on Pope Francis.
Prior to the pope’s arrival, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson designated the visit as a National Special Security Event (NSSE) which allowed for enhanced cooperation of local, state and federal partners in establishing a safe and secure environment. The security portion of the operation was coordinated by the Secret Service, who combined its resources with HSI and other agencies. The FBI was the lead agency collecting intelligence, so that in the event of a crisis, the FBI would manage the response.
“Our efforts during the recent papal visit illustrate HSI’s commitment to working with our law enforcement partners to secure our homeland against all outside threats,” said Peter T. Edge, HSI Executive Associate Director. “Our agents were prepared to execute every assignment given to them, and they did so with a pride and dignity that represented our agency well.”
For months, the Secret Service, HSI and other law enforcement partners worked together to ensure the safety of everyone who traveled near and far to see and hear the pope. Meetings were held, subcommittees were created and assignments were handed out to ensure that the Holy Father’s movements took place without a hitch.
For HSI, agents were assigned to various points of duty during the papal visit. HSI was tasked with various roles from providing personnel to support venue security to augment dignitary protection. Agents were spotted at local command centers, airports, along the parade routes and within arm’s length of Pope Francis.
“HSI is unique in that the skill sets our agents possess can actually supplement the Secret Service,” said HSI New York Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) Richard Jolles, whose area of responsibility also had to prepare for the General Assembly of the United Nations. “We were involved in every aspect of the process.”
In preparation for the pope’s arrival, the logistical challenge of the planning was unlike anything many had experienced in their years with ICE. Once it was established that HSI would have a presence in the security operation at various points of duty, not only did the agency have to confirm the availability of hundreds of agents, but the agents themselves were responsible for booking their travel to the various locations, bringing the necessary equipment, packing the proper attire and getting from one city to the next during the pope’s visit.
“We controlled what we could control,” said HSI Philadelphia ASAC Brian Michael.
HSI was entrusted to effectively complete the various tasks assigned - a testament to the great work of the agency.
“If anyone has had an operation that was this labor intensive, I haven’t seen it,” said David Atwood, ASAC HSI Washington, DC & Virginia. “For me being at the first stop [of the pope’s trip] and having to account for every move of our agents coming to our city was challenging.”
The Papal visit brought a sense of pride to those who had the opportunity to see the pontiff up close. For those involved behind the scenes protecting him, there was a similar feeling.
According to HSI Baltimore SAC Andre Watson, it was great to see agents he knew on CNN and other news outlets standing on post in the crowd during the pope’s movements. Some were recognizable by face, while others stood out with their “HSI.”
“A lot of people learned what HSI is,” Michael said. “Several people came up to me and asked ‘what is HSI?’ We had a very large and visible presence and our folks definitely took on a leadership role.”
Months of preparation went into what proved to be a successful mission and all who were in involved were pleased to be a part of this historic mission.
“I’m very proud of the work we accomplished and for the opportunity for our agents to be ambassadors for the agency,” Jolles said. “When you have an operation this large, you rely on the core skill set and we at HSI have those skills. I’m proud we were a part of this.”