Athens goes 'sci-fi' for Olympics security

The host city has spent $1.5 billion on antiterrorism efforts for the Games, which open Friday.

It sounds like something from a futuristic fantasy: a vast computer surveillance network with thousands of hidden cameras and microphones that analyzes dozens of languages for terrorist chatter. It also includes chemical sensors that can pick up the first whiff of a biological attack, cameras that swivel and zoom at the sound of a gunshot, and a web of underwater cables and infrared cameras that detect the slightest threatening movement.

It's not a scenario from a Steven Spielberg blockbuster - rather, it's just a fraction of the biggest security network ever put in place for a nonmilitary operation: the $1.5 billion international effort set to protect Athens during the first post-9/11 summer Olympics.

"Athens' measures are unprecedented in history. We have had to redefine Olympic security, with the most complex planning for it ever. The budget alone is over four times that of [2000 host] Sydney's security," says Col. Lefteris Ikonomou, spokesman for the Greek Ministry of Public Order.

There is far more in place than high-tech gadgets. This Olympics will also be protected by an arsenal of Patriot missiles, AWACS planes, US battleships, and 70,000 police officers.

Another Olympic first is the level of international involvement in security. Analysts point out that Athens' need for extraordinary safety measures comes not only from its post-9/11 timing, but also from its volatile location at the crossroads of the Balkans and the Middle East, and its porous borders, especially its nearly 10,000 miles of coastline.

Security for the 2004 Games was planned with the input of newly formed international Olympic security advisory group, which includes members from the US, Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Israel, and Australia. NATO troops have been called in to protect Greece's borders and airspace, with a focus on coastline surveillance.

With all these measures in place, "it's impossible to say that there are 100 percent guarantees of security, but we can say that Athens is probably the safest city in the world right now," says Theodore Couloumbis, an analyst at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, echoing a favorite statement of many Greek politicians.

But experts say there are still causes for concern. One may be the much-vaunted $312 million software network itself. It was installed by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), based in San Diego, which says it's the most complex such system it has ever built. SAIC representatives have also said that Athens' infamous Olympic construction delays led to major hold-ups in installing the software, and that a system that would normally take two to three years to install was rushed into place in only one year. The system was supposed to have been delivered in May, but only began running last month, which some analysts fear may not have left enough time for security workers to gain hands-on experience, or to catch glitches, before Friday's opening ceremonies.

"Big technology systems that haven't been thoroughly checked are worrying," says E. Wayne Merry, an analyst at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, and a former State Department and Pentagon official with a background in Greek security issues. "Historically, the best defense against terrorism has not been high-tech, it's been human. Countries that have dealt best with terrorism have dealt with it like organized crime, with long-term investigations. After all, you can look down with high-tech cameras and read a license plate, but that doesn't tell you what the guy in the Toyota pickup is thinking."

Other security experts agree. "We have overdone it, accumulating all these expensive security gadgets for the Olympics," says Mary Bossis, a terrorism expert at the Greek National Defense College, based in Athens. "Instead of spending so much money on technology, we need to be working more on cooperating in terms of intelligence."

Meanwhile, Greek citizens are concerned about how this vast network will affect their lives, both during and after the Games.

"Ultimately, it's very important to realize that we can have too much security, and too much security can rob the Games of their spirit. We don't want to feel that our fundamental freedoms are being sacrificed," says Mr. Couloumbis.

Nana Vafidi, who heads up a local group that opposes holding the Olympics in Athens, worries that "the cameras and surveillance system will stay after the Games. They violate the Greek Constitution, the legislation that protects human rights," she says. "This will be a terrible legacy."

One definite legacy will be the overarching role security plays in all future Olympic planning, from sky-high budgets and international involvement to a shortened list of cities that will be eligible to host.

After its experience with Athens' construction delays and security travails, the International Olympic Committee has already announced that in the future, it will only choose cities with the most Olympic infrastructure - including necessary security devices - already in place.

Mr. Merry points to the selection of the 2008 host city, Beijing - "a fortress in a police state," as he calls it - as an example of a city that provides the security the Olympics need, "even at the expense of civil liberties."

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