Boston battens down for DNC

Security precautions cast a somber mood on festivities.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A convoy of mobile command centers will be ready to respond at this year's Democratic National Convention if communication systems in the city of Boston shut down.

If something suspicious occurs around federal buildings, 75 wireless cameras will be able to zoom in on the details - perhaps a birthmark on a face, or the last number on a license plate.

And random bag and package searches - by police, bomb-sniffing dogs, or even small robots - will protect the land, while by sea, the US Coast Guard will use radar and special infrared imaging to monitor unauthorized vessels in the Boston Harbor and Charles River.

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The words "political convention" once conjured images of fanfare. But as July 26 nears, it is the unprecedented security measures that have, thus far, dominated the theme of the first national convention since Sept. 11. Thousands of local, state, and federal authorities are working to turn the FleetCenter into a virtual citadel. Bioterror antidotes have been flown into area hospitals. Authorities are removing trash cans and sealing manholes. And at the end of each day, a police officer is just as likely as a concierge to greet the 35,000 delegates, journalists, and politicians in their hotel lobbies.

It is an attempt to create a security blanket over Boston worth an estimated $50 million. But experts say the measures - intended to soothe - have also heightened anxieties, creating a mood that could color the future of all public events, especially political ones, in America.

"There will be a more cautious tone for sure," says John Barrett, director of research for the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University in Boston. "I'm sure delegates across the country see a chance for a pseudo-vacation and will have a good time," Mr. Barrett says, but adds, "I don't think it will be quite the same as it was in the past."

Both conventions are named National Special Security Events, as they have been in past election years, which gives the US Secret Service the lead role in coordinating security measures. (The Secret Service also coordinated security for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.)

Among the more sophisticated measures in Boston are the half-dozen mobile command vehicles - essentially operations centers "on wheels," says Peter Judge, public information officer at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. The mobile center his agency operates - a $600,000 vehicle complete with a meeting room - will be at the disposal of Gov. Mitt Romney (R) in case of an emergency.

Local and federal cameras will also monitor the FleetCenter and buildings and streets across the city. Hundreds of cameras already in use by state and city agencies, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Big Dig, will be available if necessary.

The level of surveillance has vexed some. "This appears to be a pervasive set of video monitors, which will not be restricted to security purposes, either in their scope or their duration," says Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ronald Libby, regional director of the Federal Protective Service, says the federal cameras will be used only to monitor criminal and suspicious behavior. "We are not going to worry about the guy on the street corner smoking a cigarette," he says.

Experts say such security will become standard for political events. "[Conventions] are symbolically important. They bring a lot of people together, and [an attack could] destroy the political leadership of the country," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Hotels are also ratcheting up security measures. Harvey Brandt, chairman of the International Lodging, Safety, and Security Association in Boston, says that security officers will check IDs at many hotels before guests enter and then again at the elevator bank. One boutique hotel in the South End will use retina technology for identification.

"There'll be some things you don't see in Boston that often," says Mr. Brandt.

Despite months of planning, there are always loopholes, says Rick Avery, president of the New England branch of Securitas Security Services, which is planning security for area hotels. "We could have the Army circle the entire city, and there's still no guarantee," he says.

Seth Gitell, a spokesman for Mayor Thomas Menino's (D) office, says the city has worked tirelessly to educate the public about precautions during convention week. One of the city's looming problems - a contract dispute with the police union - may clear up before July 25, when delegation parties are scheduled. On Monday the state labor management board voted to send the dispute to immediate arbitration.

The city has faced criticism for commuter disruptions - including the closure of one of the city's major rail hubs and a main interstate. The Beacon Hill Institute conducted an economic impact study showing that Boston stands to lose $8.2 million, after government subsidies.

Playing host city may become unpopular, says Barrett, after considering the lengths Boston has had to go to secure the upcoming convention. "Kerry has been the presumptive candidate for months," he says. "The four-day event doesn't have this usefulness anymore."

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