Secret Service's job: Secure political conventions
By Eileen Sullivan
WASHINGTON — Every day the Secret Service thinks: Today could be THE day.
That's the sober mind-set going into the presidential conventions - both of which present special security challenges for this legendary agency in the throes of the longest political campaign in history.
These will be the second set of conventions since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But, perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, al-Qaida is not the leading concern.
Not that the terrorism potential is being overlooked. But the Secret Service and FBI are giving special attention to the possibility of action by other extremists - radicals from the left or right, anarchists, lone wolf crazies - who might be attracted to the conventions because of the significance and high visibility.
This year, the significance of Obama's race is not lost on anyone either.
The Secret Service and FBI said they did not have any specific threats with racist overtones. And there has been only low-level chatter on white supremacist blogs and nothing aimed at the convention, according to Mark Potok, who regularly monitors these blogs for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
Potok said what he sees is a "constant low level barrage of angst and misery over the prospect of a black president in America." A message that was sent to his organization's blog in April but never posted said: "ATTENTION, IF OBAMA BECOMES PRESEDANT I WILL KILL HIM MYSELF MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT." Potok said he reported that to the Homeland Security Department.
"I think that officials have every right to be worried" about the white supremacist threat to Obama, said Potok, who is not a security analyst. However, he said white supremacists in America despise Republican John McCain, too. "They see him as a traitor, a guy who lies about immigration," Potok said.
In advance of the conventions, November's election and the new president's inauguration, the FBI set up a special cell that brings together officials from other federal agencies to look at all potential threats, said Ed Dickson, FBI's acting deputy assistant director for counterterrorism.
Going into the conventions, Dickson said the bureau is looking at intelligence about anarchist groups to prevent violent disruptions and attacks. He would not name the groups.
Dickson would not comment on potential disruptions from radical Islamic groups, but said, "We're always concerned about al-Qaida and like-minded groups."
According to an April federal intelligence assessment, hardened structures, like the convention stadiums, are unlikely targets for al-Qaida. The assessment said security officers and barriers are a deterrent as far as al-Qaida is concerned.
The Secret Service budgeted more than $15 million for both conventions, but it will cost a couple of million more because of Democratic candidate Barack Obama's decision to accept his party's nomination at an open-air stadium in Denver. Each convention city was also given $50 million from the federal government for security efforts.
Security at the Denver and St. Paul, Minn., sites ranges from routine magnetometers - the kind you would find at airports - to countersnipers, undercover officers and air patrols. The Secret Service also has assigned trained officials to identify and prevent cyber security risks. And the service, as it does at every convention, has mapped out escape routes for the candidates and president.
"As you look at these type of events, they are a very attractive target," Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said.
It's the Secret Service's job to keep the candidates and convention sites safe and secure. Many of its roughly 4,400 agents and officers will be working the conventions. The agency also relies on thousands of other federal, state and local officials to help - including police, airport screeners, nuclear weapons experts and intelligence analysts.
Tens of thousands of delegates, reporters, protesters and other interested folks will flock to Denver Aug. 25-28 and St. Paul Sept. 1-4. These conventions are attractive platforms for terrorists and other groups that want to cause disruptions.
The threats to major events like the conventions have evolved over the years. When Secret Service agents would go to sites to do advance security work 10-20 years ago, they'd manually check the elevator and make sure the air infiltration systems and the water purification systems were locked, Sullivan said. Now all of that can be manipulated remotely.
The timing of this year's conventions poses a unique challenge for the Secret Service as well. Coming off protection details in China where U.S. dignitaries traveled for the Olympics, the agents and officers go straight to Denver for the Democratic National Convention and then have just three days before the Republican counterpart kicks off. In 2004, there were 32 days between the two conventions; and there were 11 days between the 2000 conventions.
"It's a tremendous pull of resources," said Nick Trotta, assistant director of the Secret Service's Protective Division.
Trotta also called Obama's decision to accept his party's nomination a "tremendous challenge."
It costs the Secret Service about $45,000 a day to protect each candidate. The agency has already asked for more money to cover unexpected costs - an extra $9.5 million on top of the $85.25 million that was budgeted for the 2008 campaign. Obama received Secret Service protection almost a year earlier than officials expected and has had a detail since May 2007. And as soon as each candidate announces his vice presidential pick, new protective details are deployed for the second-in-command hopefuls.
Because Denver's Invesco Field, an open-air stadium that seats 76,000 people, holds nearly four times the number of people as the indoor Pepsi Center - there needs to be more security and extra countersnipers and air patrols as well.
"That undoubtedly puts far, far more pressure on people and resources than holding it inside," said Tom Ridge, the country's first Homeland Security secretary and a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania. As for Obama's decision to move his acceptance speech to Invesco Field, Ridge said, "I don't know if he thought about that. Maybe he didn't care."
But Ridge said the Secret Service, which became part of his department in 2003, is up to the task. "They'll get it done."
The Secret Service began protecting major presidential candidates and the presidential conventions after Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968. There has never been an assassination attempt at a presidential convention, the Secret Service said.
Sullivan said security is a necessary reality at the conventions.
"We just always have to assume that there's someone out there, you know, looking to come after us, looking to come after the people we protect," Sullivan said. "Today could be the day, and you need to be ready."
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