SALT LAKE CITY — The threat of a terrorist response to US-led airstrikes against the Taliban has raised anew the question of vulnerability to terrorist attack on the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
With thousands of athletes and journalists, and some 150,000 Olympic-goers on the grounds at any given time, and another 2 to 3 billion people around the world watching the 17-day event on television, in one sense it is a prime stage for terrorists seeking to publicize their cause.
Long before the attack of Sept. 11, and the counterattack that began Oct. 7, local, state, and federal officials had been rehearsing worst-case scenarios that could unfold at the 15 Olympic winter-sports sites around Salt Lake City. Special attention was given to the huge Rice-Eccles Stadium on the campus of the University of Utah, where President Bush is scheduled to appear for the opening ceremonies in February, and where Vice President Cheney is scheduled to be for the closing ceremonies; and to the downtown plaza, where the medal awards will be made.
Security measures under way include a guarded inner perimeter around athletes' housing, an outer perimeter defining an area of limited access; a ban on overflights extending up to three miles from Olympic sites; and road closings and magnetometer checks at certain installations.
The federal government had authorized some $200 million for security measures, but after the Sept. 11 attack, local officials argued that additional "enhancements" were critical. Last week, Utah's congressional delegation and other Utah officials met in Washington with House and Senate leaders, US Attorney General John Ashcroft, and officials of the military, FBI, and CIA. They came away with a commitment for $30 million to $40 million in additional funds for extended security measures.
For understandable reasons, officials are being closemouthed about the "enhancements," but they likely will include fighter patrols over Olympic sites, additional troops and National Guardsmen, a lot more barbed wire and fences, and considerable inconvenience to the public as a result of additional road closings.
Some Olympic officials say all this is going to make Salt Lake City the safest place in the country five months from now, during the Winter Games. Mitt Romney, the transplanted Massachusetts businessman who is president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, has bought 55 tickets for his extended family to attend the opening ceremony and says he wouldn't risk their being there if he had any doubts about their safety.
Even after the Sept. 11 attack, but before the counterattack, residents of Utah seemed to echo that confidence. In a poll conducted jointly by the Deseret News newspaper and KSL television station, 59 percent said it was very likely or somewhat likely that a terrorist attack would be directed at the Games.
But 72 percent said they were very confident or somewhat confident that security efforts would thwart terrorist plots. Support for staging the Games in Salt Lake City has remained high - 85 percent in favor to 11 percent against, with 4 percent undecided. Mr. Romney says it's even more important now that the Games should go on. "They've always been about great athletes displaying qualities of the human character. Now they're about affirming civilization and the family nature of human- kind."
The Olympics have been targeted before. In 1972 in Munich, terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and officials. In 1996 in Atlanta, a bomb exploded, killing one person. But Romney's view is that today we are in a much heightened state of alert, and security in Salt Lake in 2002 will be especially tight - with much of it unknown to the general public.
Others support the Romney view that an attack on an international institution such as the Olympics would alienate dozens of participating countries and be counterproductive for the terrorists.
On the other hand, there is concern that rather than trying another aircraft attack on an Olympic target, terrorists might attempt to unleash chemical or biological weapons. Utah officials, along with officials in other states, have been monitoring aircraft crop-dusting companies, following reports that some of those involved in the Sept. 11 attack had shown interest in such means of aerial spraying.
However, experts argue that it is neither cheap nor easy to produce or acquire such deadly substances in the quantities necessary to kill thousands of people.
Nerve agents like sarin, used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, are complex and costly to make. Biological agents like anthrax can be grown, but require an extraordinarily sophisticated delivery system.
For now the mood seems to be: Plan vigilantly, but the Games must go on.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is the editor of the Deseret News.