In Salt Lake, security too is Olympian

Safety effort is biggest ever, but attorney general points to gaps still to be filled.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Since Sept. 11, it has become clear that the success or failure of the XIX Olympic Winter Games will be determined not on the slopes or the ice, but on the fifth floor of this unremarkable brick building down a Salt Lake side street.

It is here, in a white-walled room pinned with maps, blinking with monitors, and filled with the hum of dozens of computers, that some 60 agencies - from the FBI to the local fire department - will seek to thwart any act of terror. The undertaking is enormous: patrolling 20 venues spread over 900 square miles that range from arctic mountainsides to rock-and-roll sound stages.

There will be snipers and ski patrols, helicopters and "hazmat" teams. Metal detectors will arc around the entrance to every event. Stockpiles of antibiotics will be at the ready. By some measures, it is the single largest security operation in American history - and perhaps a glimpse of the new standard of security in a post-Sept. 11 world.

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"The closest thing to this was the Olympics in Atlanta, and they've doubled that effort," says Ernest Lorelli, a security expert in Las Vegas, Nev. "They're doing everything possible, given the limitations of manpower and technology."

In all, some 16,000 federal agents, law-enforcement officials, military personnel, and Olympic security guards are assigned to these Games - outnumbering athletes 6 to 1. The security bill alone is expected to reach $310 million, with the federal government paying $240 million - more than double what it paid for safety in Atlanta.

Warning from Ashcroft

Yet just this week, United States Attorney General John Ashcroft expressed concerns about the security preparations, especially in areas where people might congregate outside official venues - places like Centennial Park in Atlanta, where a bomb exploded during the 1996 Games. According to reports, Mr. Ashcroft is sending 50 more agents to help secure such areas.

Indeed, while the Secret Service has been called in to monitor every Olympic site - from the cross-country course to the medals plaza - federal agencies have not spread a similar security net over the broader community. Some of that is inevitable. The federal government doesn't have the money, the manpower, or the support to turn Salt Lake into a walled citadel for 17 days, starting next Friday. It must also rely on local businesses and law enforcement.

For their part, local businesses have taken steps of their own. Some have bought machines to scan the mail for anthrax, several hotels are requiring all guests and employees to carry ID badges, and one pub near the medals plaza has already conducted emergency-response exercises.

The city's most prominent employer, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is asking all workers to leave by 3 p.m. so it can lock down its administration buildings by early afternoon - when the biggest crowds are expected. In addition, the gates to its famous six-spired temple will be permanently locked, and every entrance to the two-block Temple Square area will be guarded by metal detectors.

"We hope to be as unobtrusive as possible," says H. David Burton, the bishop in charge of security. "It's a few simple kinds of things."

Finding the balance between adequate security and overkill is a constant theme for organizers here. Certainly, many deterrents will be conspicuous. For instance, luggage at the airport will go through as many as four security checks - bomb-sniffing dogs, two electronic scanners, and hand searches - and the airport itself will be closed during the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. Elsewhere, visitors will be greeted by leagues of fences and razor wire, with National Guard members on patrol throughout the region.

The wait time at certain venues could be as much as an hour - in places where the average February temperatures hovers near freezing - yet organizers feel they've found the best mix of safety and convenience. "In reality, security is the No. 1 priority, and cosmetics and logistics come in way, way behind," says Mitt Romney, head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. "What's good is that we have a system that's not too intrusive. Once inside [the venues], you can move about without hassles."

Also, many security measures won't be so obvious. Unseen sensors will sniff the air for chemical or biological agents. Forest Service officers will foray deep into the woods to protect mountain perimeters 24 hours a day, and a battalion of video cameras will provide lidless watch over Olympic sites.

Many of those images will be relayed to the command center in downtown Salt Lake. It is, perhaps, the most obvious symbol here of America's new focus on security.

All agencies brought to bear

Like the Super Bowl this weekend, the Olympics have been named a National Special Security Event - a designation created after the Atlanta Games. It brings all the resources of the federal government to bear - including the Secret Service to secure the venues and the FBI to provide intelligence.

Both of these organizations - as well as scores of others - have their initials emblazoned in block letters on a name tag above a computer terminal here. It's indicative of the new cooperation between federal, state, and local officials that, many say, separate these Games from those in Atlanta. There, agencies were often miles apart and slow to communicate. Here, everyone will be in the same room, sharing one another's information instantaneously.

These efforts - and the passage of time since Sept. 11 - have eased some local fears. After the terrorist attacks in New York, Lori Donnelly had made plans to be in Kansas during the Games. She had even rented out her home in a bungalow-lined Salt Lake neighborhood to a group of journalists. But now, feeling calmer about the risks - and stuck with tickets she bought for two of the events years ago - she and her two kids have decided to remain.

"We just talked, and they wanted to stay," she says, adding that they will stay at a neighbor's house. "I'm a little nervous, but things kind of wear off, and I'm not as concerned."

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