WASHINGTON – Anti-war protesters planning to come to town for President Bush's inauguration in January say they remain undeterred despite reports that Washington, D.C., is going to be a virtual fortress, with unprecedented levels of security, including military forces and every relevant local, state and federal agency on alert.
While the Department of Homeland Security recently designated the Jan. 20 inauguration a National Special Security Event (search), thus putting into place multi-agency security for the presidential swearing-in ceremony, parade and inaugural balls, protest organizers like Brian Becker of ANSWER (search) (Act Now To Stop War And Racism) say the move is less a response to post-Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist threats, and more a way to discourage demonstrators.
"It's not the first time that the Bush administration has used national security and the war on terrorism as a pretext to determine who can exercise free speech and whose free speech rights should be put on the back burner," Becker told FOXNews.com.
"The idea that the Army must be mobilized and the most extreme national security precautions announced three months ahead of time — that's not designed to intimidate terrorists, it's designed to intimidate protesters."
But government officials and security experts say the Bush administration has been correct in instituting hardcore security measures at large, public gatherings after Sept. 11, including at this summer's Democratic National Convention in Boston and Republican National Convention in New York, and at President Reagan's funeral in the nation's capital in June.
"If, God forbid, something happens, no official wants to be the guy in the aftermath, who wants to be the guy who everyone says, 'He didn't do his job, he didn't provide the protection, he is to blame,'" said David Silverberg, editor of HSToday (search), a monthly magazine dedicated to homeland security.
"They would like to keep protesters away, don't get me wrong, but … in this environment, more security is better," Silverberg told FOXNews.com.
"It's an overabundance of caution and it is pretty understandable," said James Carafano, national security analyst for the Heritage Foundation (search). "To me, this is a no-brainer."
According to government and law enforcement officials, the U.S. Secret Service will be overseeing the planning, directing and executing the security operations. Plainclothes cops and FBI agents in full SWAT gear will be patrolling the parade route and Capitol Hill area; snipers will be visible on rooftops; bomb-sniffing dogs will be on hand.
About 2,000 out-of-town police officers will also be assisting the fully mobilized D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. Also, according to The Washington Post, about 4,000 active-duty combat forces are prepared to deploy out of the Joint Forces Headquarters-National Capital Region (search) to support civilian authorities if necessary, and to "project a much more forceful image" than in previous years.
It would be the first time the military served in such a role since the Vietnam War, when 2,000 troops were deployed for President Richard Nixon's inauguration, according to the paper.
The U.S. Coast Guard will also be on hand to guard the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, which wind into the city. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) will be in charge of providing a range of preparedness services, and there will be sensors to pick up any traces of biological or chemical materials in the air.
Officials say much of the security precautions aren't new, but additional layers are needed because this is the first inauguration since the terrorist attacks, and the country is at war.
"If you look at it overall, this is obviously the first inauguration since 9/11, that's why it's on such a large scale," said Michael Lauer, spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police (search), which has jurisdiction over the Capitol grounds and part of the parade route.
Reports also indicate that security screening will certainly be much tighter, and it will be much more difficult to get into some of the events revolving around the inauguration.
When asked, officials told FOXNews.com that no specific security threat has been made against the inaugural.
Chuck Pena, national security expert at the Cato Institute (search), balked at the level of security.
"I have one thing to say: If you believe the president when he says we have made the world safer, then why do we need all of the extra security?" he asked.
"Of course, this is the inauguration and other things with large crowds would be tempting targets for terrorists, but are we now going to routinely say we need large-scale security whenever we have large gatherings of people, particularly political events?"
Apparently, yes — at least for now, say experts. The Department of Homeland Security reports that it has designated 20 national special security events since 1998, including Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans in 2002 and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
But Becker said even at the 2001 inauguration, security was leveled at keeping protesters away from the parade route, to such an extent that his group filed a lawsuit against the city for impinging on their right to assemble. The suit is still pending.
He said that 2005 will be even worse.
"You have a situation where many people will want to use January 20 as their first major expression of anti-war sentiment since the election and the whole of Washington will be watching that day," he said. "So, law enforcement will be using the issue of national security to scare people or to create physical obstacles for protesters to enter the parade route."
Carafano said the protesters' complaints often fall on deaf ears because most people agree that there are good reasons why an area needs to be secured, and that gangs of protestors need not be given the opportunity to disrupt the proceedings.
"People who argue that this is creating some kind of suppression are just crying wolf," he said. "Sooner or later nobody is going to be listening."