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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Momentous NATO Summit Means Major Headaches for D.C., Planners

April 22, 1999|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Imagine 42 prima ballerinas, in their finest costumes and heavy makeup, crowding onto a single stage, edging toward a single spotlight.

The stage is the nation's capital; the event, the 50th anniversary summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And the ballerinas: heads of state and government in 19 NATO member countries and at least 23 partner nations.

That means 42 delegations--some with as many as 100 people--in 42 motorcades roaring around Washington's traffic circles, along with 42 red-carpeted airport greetings, multiple fancy lunches and dinners, hundreds of hotel rooms and an estimated 7,500 pieces of luggage.

All of this--plus security and transportation arrangements for 3,000 media types with tons of equipment and massive needs for fiber-optic wiring and coffee--has Washington braced for what will be the free world's biggest celebration and this city's biggest headache.

Although the tone of the summit has been altered by the conflict in Yugoslavia--an outdoor celebration was scrapped and dignitaries told to leave tuxedos at home--the event's planners will still be using many of the city's red carpets, china place settings and limousines. Honor guards will be working around the clock at Andrews Air Force Base, where the most important presidents and prime ministers are expected to land.

"This is the largest gathering of world leaders in Washington since President Kennedy's death," said Richard Socarides, the man at the White House assigned to make sure nothing goes wrong. "Security on this thing is so tight that it's virtually impossible to penetrate."

To keep it that way, representatives of 43 law enforcement agencies have been meeting daily to postulate all varieties of disaster.

"Hopefully, we'll all be bored," said Jim Rice, the FBI special agent in charge of its terrorism task force. "But we're ready for anything."

The Secret Service and District of Columbia police will assign a detail to each delegation. Decontamination sites have been erected in case of a chemical or biological assault. Helicopters and sharpshooters will be ubiquitous. And special "accommodations" are being made for protesters who don't stay in line.

NATO has called in the military to keep everything running smoothly.

Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Garrett III is the Pentagon official in charge. His last big assignment was directing the 1994 observance, in France, of the 50th anniversary of the D-day invasion. His biggest NATO summit worry? Not mad bombers or protocol missteps but gridlock.

The message he is attempting to get to the real denizens of the city is: Stay home. It's your patriotic duty.

"Washington doesn't have New York's easy grid plan for its streets," Garrett said. "The physical space, for example, around the hotels and the meeting entrances just allows for so many sedans." In fact, although Pierre L'Enfant's design for Washington is graceful, full of circles and wide boulevards, it also makes the capital a difficult city to maneuver in.

To ensure that no leading light of NATO is left cooling his heels in a limousine while another chats up the Clintons, for example, each motorcade heading to the White House North Portico for Friday's dinner has been assigned a precise arrival time and a radio with which to stay in touch with the transportation wizards.

Besides T-shirts, fruit baskets and goody bags, each of the 1,700 dignitaries--including foreign and defense ministers and other top-level officials--gets a cell phone.

"The watchword of the weekend is flexibility," Garrett said. "Stay in touch and remain flexible."

Chauffeuring the legions of foreign leaders will be a battalion of about 500 soldiers from Ft. Eustis, Va. The soldiers, trained to drive 5-ton trucks through muddy battlefields, have been here 10 days, learning the routes, the protocol and the operation of sleek sedans.

"People in Washington are used to motorcades, just not this many simultaneously," Garrett said.

To keep the area clear, the city is closing down a 12-by-15-block area downtown, near the White House and around the sites of meetings. Nothing is sacred: Mailboxes will be removed, a post office in the area will be closed and mail delivery disrupted.

About 90,000 federal employees who work in the area are being paid to stay home Friday, and 70,000 private workers are being encouraged to take a holiday.

The Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue at 14th Street, where the NATO treaty was signed 50 years ago, will be the site of the most celebratory moment. After a recently scheduled three-hour meeting on Kosovo, the dignitaries will converge on the auditorium for a solemn homage to the organization, which was founded in 1949 to protect Europe from the Soviet Union.

After the ceremony, organizers must remove 800 seats and haul in a $100,000, five-sided cherry table designed to accommodate the 42 top officials.

"Getting that table in there and put together and wired for sound in 42 languages is just one of our many challenges," said the White House's Socarides. "All in a few hours' work."

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