US Homeland Security Prepares for 2010 Olympics
BELLINGHAM, Wash. — A few days before the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, the doors to a nondescript warehouse will open here without fanfare.
Inside the refurbished, low-slung structure, U.S. officials have constructed an elaborate, $4 million communications complex where law enforcement, public health and military analysts representing 40 agencies will scrutinize potential threats to the Olympics.
Surveillance cameras on U.S. Border Patrol helicopters will stream live video from their patrols to some of the 10 flat-screen monitors ringing the walls of the complex.
There are plans to deal with worst-case scenarios during the Games: the detonation of a radioactive "dirty" bomb; an anthrax attack; a crippling blizzard; a mass evacuation from Canada triggered by a public health crisis.
As the host of the 17-day Olympics that begin Feb. 12, Canada plans to spend about $900 million (U.S.) to keep the Games safe, Canadian security coordinator Ward Elcock has said. Yet the costly security effort does not stop at the Canadian-U.S. border.
The Vancouver Olympics, perhaps unlike any other recent Olympics, highlight an unusually close relationship between two neighboring countries for which security has become a binational responsibility amid renewed concerns about the international terror threat.
Vancouver's proximity to the United States— just 30 miles from the U.S. border crossing in Blaine, Wash. — has spurred an extensive security effort on the U.S. side, much of it focused on an 80-mile stretch of the Northwest border from the Pacific Coast to the western slopes of the rugged Cascade Range.
Accessible from the United States by air, boat, car and train, the Games will be the closest to U.S. soil since the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates nearly 300,000 people could cross the border to attend events or take part in the Olympic festival.
U.S. and Canadian authorities say there are no credible threats against the Vancouver Games, which will attract 5,500 athletes and officials and up to 1.6 million spectators with tickets, according to the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee. Yet, U.S. officials acknowledge fresh urgency in their preparations, prompted in part by intelligence failures in the botched Christmas Day bombing of a commercial airliner over Detroit. Al-Qaeda has since claimed responsibility for hatching the plot.
"For us, what happened on Christmas Day means that we can't get comfortable," says Mark Beaty, DHS federal coordinator for Olympic-related security and emergency preparedness in the United States. "Though it was a failed attempt, it still shows that there a lot of bad people out there looking for an opportunity to inflict much harm. … This (event) has the potential to generate that kind of response."
Among the major U.S. Olympic-related security efforts:
• The U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and the Canadian Navy will form a protective force stretching from the Canadian coast to Puget Sound. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Collin Bronson says the Canadians are leading the overall security effort, but U.S. forces will maintain a "larger presence" than usual in the heavily traveled commercial waterways between Seattle and the Canadian border.
"It's not just the terrorist threat, it's all hazards," Bronson says. "Can you imagine if we had an Exxon Valdez event" — a massive oil spill — "during the Olympics?"
• The North American Aerospace Defense Command(NORAD), the binational U.S.-Canadian organization that directs North American air defense, will enforce a 30-mile airspace restriction around Vancouver and parts of the USA. The southern boundary of the restricted flight zone covers about 20 to 25 miles in Washington state.
Among the restrictions: All private aircraft destined for Vancouver from the United States during the Games will be funneled through one of 16 U.S. "gateway" airports for customs checks prior to landing in Vancouver, says Constable Mandy Edwards, a spokeswoman for Canada's Integrated Security Unit. Normally, aircraft would be able to travel to Vancouver directly and submit to customs and immigration checks there.
• The DHS is dispatching up to 200 more federal agents, inspectors and Coast Guard personnel to the northern border, including an elite Border Patrol search-and-rescue unit, Beaty says. The extra units do not include FBI agents and U.S. military personnel also being deployed for Olympic-related duty.
Beaty's position itself is unique: It is the first time the DHS has named a federal coordinator for an event outside the USA. The Vancouver Games also mark the only time the U.S. government has assigned an event beyond U.S. borders a "special event assessment rating," meaning it poses potential security risks based on its political, economic and social significance.
"You've got to do whatever it takes to ensure safety at an event like this," he says.
Preparing for the worst
The call came to the U.S. border station at Blaine just before 9 a.m.
Canadian officials warned their U.S. counterparts to expect carloads of travelers returning from the Vancouver area with troubling symptoms, including rashes, vomiting, diarrhea and acute respiratory distress.
The alert triggered choreographed responses at the border: Inspectors donned surgical masks and gloves and cordoned off two U.S. border station traffic lanes to handle the onslaught.
Border authorities notified public health officials and local emergency medical technicians, who opened a mobile triage center on the shores of Semiahmoo Bay to diagnose the sick before transporting them to nearby St. Joseph's Hospital.
The episode last month was only a drill — one of about a dozen to prepare for the Olympics.
"If we have something like anthrax or some smallpox outbreak, that's as scary as it gets," says Marcus Deyerin, the Whatcom County, Wash., emergency response program specialist in Blaine. "It won't take much to overwhelm the emergency medical capability here."
Deyerin says the test served as valuable practice for more than 100 border agents and emergency responders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Washington State Department of Health, the American Red Cross and the Whatcom County Sheriff's Department.
Virtually every public safety and health organization in the Pacific Northwest has participated in the drills, some of which started more than two years ago.
In November, NORAD staged air drills over Vancouver Island to test its capacity to intercept prohibited aircraft.
Coast Guard drills have focused on terror scenarios, narcotics smuggling and possible breaches of public health and safety. One exercise, the Coast Guard's Bronson says, involved a search for the destructive gypsy moths that sometimes infest wooden pallets carried by cargo ships.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture lists the creature as "one of America's worst forest pests," which feeds on the foliage of more than 500 varieties of trees and shrubs.
"We have to know what's on these vessels coming in," Bronson says. "We have to know when the ship is coming in and where it's been."
'They've done all they can'
Ray Mey, a former FBI agent who organized Olympic security details in Salt Lake City and at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, says U.S. preparations for an Olympics outside the USA are unusually detailed — but necessary, given the Games' proximity to the U.S. border.
Mey, a private security consultant, analyzed Vancouver's public transportation system for the Canadian government in advance of the Olympics. He says Canada is using 15,000 military personnel, law enforcement and private security officers to secure the Games, about 5,000 more than the United States used in Salt Lake, just a few months after the 9/11 attacks.
"I think they've done all they can," Mey says. "You can't put a fence around the city."
Although the Winter Games are smaller in scale than the Summer Games, Mey says Canada may be a "bigger target" than other recent host cities because of its political alliance with the United States. Canada's support of some U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mey says, may make the event attractive to terror groups. "The large security footprint may make it less vulnerable, not less desirable."
The last time the Olympics were targeted was 1996, during the Summer Games in Atlanta. At that time, survivalist Eric Rudolph detonated a pipe bomb in a crowded downtown park in a late-night attack that left two people dead and wounded about 100 others.
In a December meeting with reporters in Washington, Canada's Elcock acknowledged that security costs for the Vancouver Games had soared from an initial budget of $175 million to about $900 million.
"There is an expectation of what you do to protect the Olympics," Elcock said.
1999 success story
Diana Dean may know more about the benefits of vigilance than anyone who has worked the U.S.-Canadian border.
On the eve of the millennium, U.S. authorities feared that terror groups were planning to disrupt the holiday. Dean, then a U.S. Customs inspector in Port Angeles, Wash., stopped a suspicious-looking traveler whose "story never made sense."
The nervous man in the dark green Chrysler was al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam, who had stashed timers and more than 200 pounds of highly volatile bomb-making material in the trunk of the rental car.
Federal investigators later concluded that Ressam — whose 22-year prison sentence was overturned last week by a federal appeals court that called it too lenient — had planned to mark the millennium by bombing the Los Angeles International Airport.
Dean's Dec. 14, 1999, catch remains one of the most important success stories in recent federal law enforcement history.
More than a decade later, Dean's actions still are used as a training model for new recruits. Her work has been memorialized on framed posters showing Ressam and other high-profile captures in the offices of officials planning U.S. security for the Olympics.
When Wesley Vanderheyden, the U.S. Border Patrol's assistant chief in Blaine, and others talk about potential security breaches during the Games, they invariably cite Ressam's capture.
Sophisticated technology, including radiation detectors and vehicle X-ray machines, was rushed to the borders after Dean's encounter with Ressam.
Yet Dean, now retired in North Dakota, says experience and instinct may be the best defense.
"If I was still working, I think I would still look for the same things I always looked for," she says. "The thing that first got me about Ressam were his eyes: They were flat, dead, like he had no soul. It still gives me chills when I think about it."