By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 2010; A02
As Canada braces for a nearly $1 billion effort to secure next month's Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., American eyes also will be scanning the land, sky and seas from south of the border, 30 miles away.
Numerous ships and planes, hundreds of Coast Guard, police and military personnel, and several U.S. diplomatic and border security teams will be at work when the Olympic cauldron is lighted at Vancouver's B.C. Place, watching for threats ranging from terrorism to a major oil spills.
U.S. officials say their security presence for the Games will be understated and in support of Canadian forces, but the Games, which begin Feb. 12, will nevertheless mark the largest-ever test of North American security coordination for a major border event.
"In terms of hosting the Games, they are Canada's Games," said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), co-chairman of a Washington state Olympics task force. "But the fact of the matter is security of the Games has to extend beyond the Canadian border; it's not just going to start and end at the 49th parallel. We have to take care of things on our side."
Olympic security has been a concern since 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed in Munich in 1972, and two people died in a bomb blast in Atlanta in 1996. Radicals fired three rockets at a Tokyo airport days before the Nagano, Japan, 1998 Games, and Italian authorities cited several credible threats before the winter 2006 event in Turin.
Vancouver poses unique challenges. In December 1999, so-called Millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam was caught entering the United States on a ferry from Vancouver Island, bound for Los Angeles with a truckload of explosives. Vancouver, with a population of 2.1 million, is also the largest city to host a Winter Olympics, the first seaside Canadian city to do so and the first Games since waterborne terrorists staged a commando-style raid on Mumbai in November 2008.
The area also is home to four ports -- including Canada's largest -- major oil and energy installations and links that sustain $600 billion in annual United States-Canada trade.
At least six Coast Guard cutters, from 87-foot patrol boats to 378-foot ocean-worthy vessels, will conduct coastal surveillance and port security operations along nearly 1,000 miles of U.S. shoreline off the Georgia Strait, which connects Vancouver to the Pacific Ocean, officials said.
A Coast Guard emergency interdiction team, three Navy frigates and an A-6 Intruder all-weather surveillance aircraft, among others, will be available to watch vessels on or under the water.
On the ground, U.S. staffing at four border checkpoints has been boosted 20 percent over the past 18 months to accommodate the predicted, summer-like flow of up to 45,000 cars a day, twice the amount of regular winter traffic. State Department diplomatic security teams will protect athletes, while U.S. and Canadian authorities will check travelers against watch lists at the Vancouver and Seattle-Tacoma airports and border crossings.
As usual, Canadian and U.S. partners in the North American air defense system will be at the ready, with F-16 fighters at nearby McChord Air Force Base and personnel on duty at the U.S. military's Northern Command's Western Air Defense Sector.
U.S. Transportation Security Administration officers will help Canadian counterparts secure two restricted flight zones over Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., totaling 4,000 square miles.
"It's certainly a multidimensional operation by sea, land and air that takes full advantage of strong cross-border relationships," said Canadian Forces Maj. Dan Thomas, a spokesman for Operation Podium, the military's contribution to the security effort.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- the lead agency behind a Canadian security operation that will include 15,000 troops, police and contract personnel -- has said the threat level for the Games is low. In October, U.S. federal law enforcement and domestic security officials issued an advisory about No2010.com, an anti-globalization group that has described arson and vandalism as a part of its anti-Olympics resistance.
Nevertheless, the Canadians appear to be taking few risks. At $900 million, the security budget has grown five-fold from their initial estimate. Canadian taxpayers have contributed another $580 million for construction, and the non-government-funded operations budget for the Games is $1.8 billion.
Plans call for housing 4,000 security personnel aboard three cruise ships in Vancouver Harbor. At least five naval vessels will monitor a dizzying mix of ferries, seaplanes, container ships, helicopters and yachts, officials said.
U.S. officials are wary of touting their role, which is expected to cost more than the $16 million spent for Turin, but far less than the $400 million spent for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Canada is "always a little bit nervous or edgy about Americans becoming too involved in something that's really a Canadian event . . . and the Americans recognize that Canadians are sensitive about this stuff," said Donald Alper, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
Still, the United States has committed $4.5 million to build an Olympic Coordination Center in Bellingham, and has used the 2010 Olympics to test other projects, including maritime security technology.
The upcoming Games spurred a $75 million expansion of the Peace Arch border crossing, widening Interstate 5 by two lanes and doubling to 40 the number of secondary inspection lanes on the third busiest U.S.-Canada crossing. Washington State has introduced more secure driver's licenses that serve as a North American passport, used by 140,000 people, whose radio tags can be read by machines at border checkpoints.