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The enormous task of protecting Pope Francis




Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he arrives to celebrate a Mass in  in Samanes Park, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday, July 6, 2015. Latin America's first pope arrived in this port city on Monday for the first big event of a three-nation tour where he's set compassion for the weak and respect for the environment as central themes. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he arrives to celebrate a Mass in in Samanes Park, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday, July 6, 2015. Latin America's first pope arrived in this port city on Monday for the first big event of a three-nation tour where he's set compassion for the weak and respect for the environment as central themes. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Fernando Vergara/AP

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Homeland Security has designated Pope Francis' U.S. visit a National Special Security Event. That puts his trip up there with presidential inaugurations and State of the Union addresses.

Vatican officials and the Secret Service have been working together to plan every minute of protection. Some of it you'll see, and some you probably won't.

Take Two spoke to former Secret Service agent Jonathan Wackrow for an insider’s look at just what fans of the Pontiff can expect. Wackrow served on the Secret Service for 13 years, spending five of those protecting President Barack Obama.

“It’s very, very comprehensive,” he says. “It is equal to or exceeding that of the President of the United States.”

Wackrow says that’s because the pope is a unique VIP. He goes where he wants and does what he wants -- often that involves contact with crowds. It's very different, he says, than protecting Obama, who rarely goes off the vetted path.

“The pope is constantly going into insecure areas. He’s stopping his motorcade, he’s walking into crowds to see an individual or group of individuals -- that’s really a factor that’s going to put the Secret Service agents working the detail into a really tough position,” he said.

In a recent trip to Cuba, the Washington Post reports that crowds latched onto the popemobile. Wackrow says that kind of contact would never be allowed with other protectants in the Secret Service's charge.

Once the Francis hits the road, Wackrow says the Secret Service and Vatican security will employ a number of tactics to ensure his safe passage.

“You will see a tremendous tactical response from counter-snipers on rooftops to tactical teams on the ground,” Wackrow said. “You’ll also see a significant amount of hazmat response on standby, as well as medical responses on standby.”

In standard Secret Service fashion, Wackrow says the pope will be surrounded by a ring of security, from the armed bodyguards escorting the popemobile, to plainclothes police officers in the crowd. Those officers, he says, will be on the lookout for suspicious behavior.

“They’re looking for any anomalies that are present in the crowd. They’re looking for the person wearing a heavy coat on a hot day. They’re looking for the outliers,” he said.

With all these precautions, however, Wackrow says that, in the event of an emergency, the pope's safety will ultimately depend on the preparation of the agents assigned to guard him. 

“When I was on the president’s detail, we would deal with active shooter situations, we would deal with medical, chemical and biological attacks. We’re training to deal with every possible situation that comes up,” he said.

He points to the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life when Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy used his body to shield him from gunfire.

“He got big, his training kicked in and he was acting before he was thinking. That’s exactly what you want to do as a Secret Service agent. You want to keep drilling and training so when that moment happens, you are prepared,” he said.

After the interview, Wackrow told Take Two’s A Martinez that agents constantly train to take on new threats. One of the latest? Drones.

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