Security Intensifies for Political Conventions
The conventions have been designated National Special Security Events, which gives the U.S. Secret Service the lead in coordinating security. The Secret Service has long-standing expertise in heading off violence through intelligence-gathering and thorough planning, officials said.
Authorities are not simply hardening targets. The FBI and the Homeland Security Department recently established the "2004 threat task force." Armed with intelligence information, the FBI is trying to develop sources by interviewing people in the Muslim community and is reviewing previously collected intelligence to try to connect it to the current threat. The bureau also is making a major effort to locate seven suspected al Qaeda associates who it has said have the ability or intent to harm the United States.
U.S. intelligence officers said they noted a sharp increase in electronic "chatter" among al Qaeda followers about election-related attacks in the United States after the bombings of Spanish commuter trains killed 191 people and contributed to the fall of Spain's government.
U.S. officials say the current intelligence warnings in some respects resemble threats picked up in December, which led to the Dec. 21 imposition of an orange, or "high risk," terror alert that lasted three weeks. The intelligence, which officials said was gathered from several independent sources, indicated that al Qaeda sought to launch a terrorist strike that would cause at least 100,000 U.S. casualties, officials said.
That led officials to ratchet up security at nuclear and chemical plants, and to dispatch teams with special equipment in search of nuclear weapons or radioactive material in several cities.
At this summer's Boston and New York gatherings, federal officials say they will so "harden" the FleetCenter and Madison Square Garden convention sites -- by extending security perimeters for blocks around both buildings, strictly limiting access to credentialed people, and other measures -- that they doubt an attack could be mounted on the buildings.
Boston and New York will host the largest collection of bomb-sniffing dogs in history, officials say. Coast Guard boats will ply their waters, including the Charles River, which runs only blocks from the FleetCenter. Other teams will check delegate hotels for explosives, prompted by an attack in May that killed the Chechen president and 13 others with bombs embedded earlier in a stadium reviewing stand.
Guards will be added at New Jersey chemical plants upwind of Manhattan and other facilities near both cities. Both regions will deploy medical surveillance systems that require clinics to report sore throats and pharmacies to report drug sales -- both possible early warnings of biological attacks.
Delegate hotels, the sites for many of the 2,000 parties scheduled during those weeks, are, for security purposes, almost extensions of the convention sites themselves. Jimmy Chin, who chairs the New York Hotel Association's safety panel, said hotel security teams will work closely with law enforcement to spot protesters who might try to sneak into lobbies or book rooms.
The security plans for the two conventions differ in some ways. Although New York plans to close a few streets around midtown Manhattan during the late afternoons and evenings, Boston will shut down 40 miles of roadways. One reason is the need to close Interstate 93, whose guardrails are only 10 feet from the FleetCenter's walls. That led in part to decisions to close or place restrictions on other major regional roadways, the Tobin Bridge, the Sumner Tunnel from Logan International Airport and a small stretch of Interstate 90, the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Boston officials say they must reduce traffic by half to avoid gridlock and are urging companies to allow employees to work from home. Hospitals are being urged to postpone non-emergency surgery, and tenants have been asked to delay apartment moves. Mayors of surrounding towns such as Somerville have threatened to bar overflow traffic if it ties up their streets.
"Yes, traffic will be slower than usual," Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said, "but I predict this city will work.
The Secret Service never proposed closing New York's Penn Station, which sits directly below Madison Square Garden, where the Republican convention will be held. It is the nation's busiest rail hub, with 425,000 passengers a day moving through on subway and rail lines to Long Island, New Jersey and elsewhere.
Instead, New York is using the sheer size of its police force -- 36,000 uniformed officers as opposed to Boston's 2,200 -- to keep Penn Station open. Along with hundreds of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut state troopers, thousands of NYPD officers, many with trained sniffing dogs, will ride the rails day and night during the convention.
"Our greatest asset is our size, which gives us tremendous flexibility and visibility," said Paul Browne, NYPD's deputy commissioner of public information.
With hundreds of bridges, tunnels, tourist attractions and critical infrastructure sites to protect, the NYPD is canceling days off during the convention. It doesn't help that the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Queens overlaps with the GOP gathering.
But New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has repeatedly said that the convention will register barely a blip in the city. "If you don't live or work in the Garment District, you won't even know there's a convention in town," he has said.
U.S. officials said they fear terrorists will somehow make use of the rallies -- either by hiding their activities while surrounded by protesters, or blowing up tightly packed crowds of demonstrators. Some antiwar groups have announced plans for "direct action" protests that include trashing businesses such as Starbucks and the Gap.
Despite complaints by the New York Civil Liberties Union, authorities said they likely will once again set up barricades to separate protesters from outsiders and search knapsacks and other bags carried by demonstrators.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company