Security Makes U.S. Conventions Virtual Fortresses

Aug. 22 (Bloomberg) — Two U.S. cities will become virtual fortresses during the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, protected by airplanes, helicopters, barriers, fences and thousands of police officers, National Guard troops and Secret Service agents.

In Denver, where Democrats assemble next week, police are spending $18 million on equipment alone and will be bolstered by National Guard troops and hundreds of officers from surrounding suburbs. In St. Paul, Minnesota, site of the Sept. 1-4 Republican nominating convention, police are calling on 80 law- enforcement agencies to provide 3,000 officers to supplement the city’s 500-person force.

Congress earmarked $100 million for security at the two meetings, where federal and local authorities are trying to guard against any dangers to candidates or convention-goers.

“We are constantly looking at what threats could harm us,” said Malcolm Wiley, a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, which is overseeing security operations.

Safeguarding the quadrennial gatherings is difficult, in part because so many public officials are among the thousands of people in attendance, said Andrew O’Connell, a former Secret Service agent who runs the Washington office of New York-based Fortress Global Investigations & Security. “It will be a challenge,” he said.

Offices Evacuated

The federal money, $50 million for each convention, is being spent for security measures such as fencing and high-tech camera-surveillance systems. The security costs will roughly equal the amount the two cities’ host committees plan to raise for other convention costs.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign offices in Denver and in Manchester, New Hampshire, were evacuated yesterday after a Denver employee opened an envelope containing a threatening letter and white powder. The New Hampshire office received a letter addressed in similar handwriting, which wasn’t opened.

Powder in the Denver envelope was harmless, and the letter was traced to an inmate in the Arapahoe County, Colorado, jail the Denver Post reported.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be on “heightened alert” to track potential threats, said Russ Knocke, a department spokesman.

“We’re really making sure we’re amping up our focus,” Knocke said.

Tight Security

Security in St. Paul and Denver will be so tight that former Secret Service agent Chris Falkenberg said terrorists searching for a target might look elsewhere.

“The possibility of having a major attack is very, very slim” at the convention sites, said Falkenberg, president of New York-based Insite Security Inc. “It would be a good time to pull off an attack in Chicago, Boston.”

Security in St. Paul focuses on the Xcel Energy Center, where Republicans will meet to nominate Arizona Senator McCain. In Denver, where most convention activities are scheduled for the Pepsi Center arena, security officials had to adapt their plans when Illinois Senator Barack Obama decided to accept his party’s nomination at the 76,000-seat Invesco Field at Mile High.

“I’m not going to sit here and say, `Oh, it was a piece- of-cake,”’ Secret Service Assistant Director Nicholas Trotta said of Obama’s move. Still, he said the Secret Service wasn’t thrown by the change because agents often “have to modify, change, add and subtract when we get to a venue.”

Highway Closed

The Colorado Department of Transportation will close Interstate 25, the main north-south route through the state’s biggest city, during the Aug. 28 stadium event. Trucks carrying hazardous cargo are prohibited from using I-25 near downtown Denver for a week, starting tomorrow.

Federal, state and local officials have been planning security precautions since last year, consulting on details such as motorcades for VIPs and road closures.

More than 1,000 National Guard troops will help with communication and supplies in Denver, said Captain Robert Bell, a spokesman for the Colorado National Guard. More than 1,000 Minnesota National Guard troops will help provide security at sites outside the Xcel Center that are being used by convention participants, said Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Olson, a guard spokesman.

Air Cover

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, will participate. Lieutenant Desmond James, a spokesman, wouldn’t give specifics about Norad’s involvement. At previous conventions, Norad has provided medical and planning assistance as well as air cover, James said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation plans to use a new version of a computer network that lets all its branch offices build leads on cases.

“We’ve got the capability of communicating instantaneously on case-specific matters,” said Ray DiNunzio, the FBI’s acting section chief for domestic terrorism and response.

The Coast Guard will monitor the Mississippi River near the Xcel Energy Center.

Protest groups say they expect large demonstrations. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Colorado chapter filed suit challenging police plans to limit marches and protests to designated areas. A federal judge upheld the restrictions.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU in Colorado, said he’s afraid that crowd-control officers from a hodgepodge of different police departments might not all respond appropriately to protesters.

“Denver is getting reinforcements from dozens of other law-enforcement agencies,” Silverstein said. “When the visiting officers come, do they play by the visiting team’s rules or by the home team’s rules?”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Bliss in Washington at jbliss@bloomberg.net .

Last Updated: August 22, 2008 12:34 EDT
By Jeff Bliss

Source: Bloomberg

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