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Olympic Officials Set High Hurdles for Terrorists

May 02, 1996|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — As the start of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games approaches, as many as 2 million visitors plan treks to Atlanta and a cabal of terrorists hone a scheme to wreak havoc. It's only the plot of an upcoming suspense novel. But it is the type of scenario that makes Bill Rathburn uneasy.

Rathburn, a former Los Angeles deputy police chief, is director of security for the Games, which begin July 19. And as a recent pipe bomb scare made clear, the threat of violent disruption of the Games is real.

The 1996 Games are being touted as having the most sophisticated security techniques and gadgetry ever. But terrorist attacks in Oklahoma and at New York's World Trade Center--as well as recent devastating strikes in the heart of security-conscious Israel--have raised fears that no amount of preparation may be enough.

"We certainly suspect that there is a threat to the Games, just because of the enormous visibility the Games will have," Rathburn said. "We had threats to the Games [in Los Angeles] in '84. But we're confident that we'll be able to stage the Games without a major incident."

Officials here like to say that Atlanta this summer "will be the safest place in the world." They point to such high-tech security devices as microchip-embedded badges and "hand geometry readers" that will be used to control access to secure areas. In addition, hundreds of video cameras and a blimp will be used for surveillance around the city.

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Rathburn said there will be "tens of thousands" of security personnel deployed throughout the city. He won't discuss specific numbers, but he said it surpasses the 22,000 that has been reported. The security force includes at least 10,000 military personnel, 2,300 state law enforcement officers, 1,500 local police officers, thousands of volunteers and--a first--2,200 law enforcement officials from 49 countries who are donating their time.

Despite all of the precautions, however, the April 26 arrest of two members of a Georgia militia group for allegedly plotting terrorist actions sent a shock wave through the city. Initial reports said the men intended to disrupt the Olympics, although federal officials later denied that there was any connection to the Games.

At a hearing Monday, government agents testified that the men plotted to blow up bridges, attack the Georgia Department of Family and Children's Services and distribute pipe bombs to other members of their militia, which is believed to have up to 15 members.

Olympic officials and athletes interviewed after the arrests said they are not fearful.

"You can't get nervous about it," said Teresa Edwards, an Atlanta athlete who is looking forward to being on her fourth Olympic basketball team. "I think it will be secure here. I have no doubts about what they are doing with the security level."

This year, the very factor that makes the Olympics special in the eyes of many--international cooperation--could also make it a prime target for domestic terrorists, said Brian Levin of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama organization that tracks white supremacist and terrorist organizations. Many members of extremist militias not only loathe federal authority but fear the specter of one-world government, he said.

"That certainly would be the type of target that would fit into their ideology," he said, noting that in 1984 the Los Angeles Games were included on a list of possible targets by a now-defunct terrorist group called The Order.

Rathburn said he doesn't think the Games are necessarily a logical target for domestic terrorists, especially because there is no involvement by the United Nations, an institution that is detested in the militia movement. But "we're taking a lot of steps to prevent those things that we can prevent and to respond quickly and decisively if something does occur," he said.

An extensive series of mock exercises have been held, some of them designed to help security personnel prepare a response to the use of unconventional weapons like poison gas, which was used in the Tokyo subway system last year.

The use of sophisticated gadgetry will be the most noticeable difference between this summer's Olympics and the '84 Games, said Rathburn, who coordinated police security for the Los Angeles Games and has acted as security consultant for the Winter and Summer Games since then. Compared to Los Angeles, Atlanta will have more than twice as many security officials, including Army and National Guard personnel.

The organizers in Atlanta are avoiding private security workers, such as those who were used during the Los Angeles Games. "There were a lot of unemployed people who were pressed into service in 1984. Some performed admirably; some did not," Rathburn said. Instead, volunteers "who recognize the historic significance of the Games and want to make a contribution" have been recruited, he said.

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