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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Boost in Olympic Security Sought

Sports: Organizers request as many as 60 more officers to supplement the 10,000 already planned.

January 30, 2002|ALAN ABRAHAMSON and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SALT LAKE CITY — In a bid to further shore up security at next month's Winter Olympics, organizers have asked federal officials for as many as 60 added law enforcement personnel, authorities said Tuesday.

The additional officers, who would supplement a force of 10,000 police and military personnel already committed to the Games, would be placed at transit hubs and open-air spaces--for instance, at a pedestrian mall on Main Street in Park City.

Crowds are expected to gather nightly on the mall to take in Olympic action on big-screen televisions that will be set up at either end of Main Street. The upscale mountain resort will play host to the snowboard and alpine giant slalom events during the Games, which begin Feb. 8.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who toured the Olympic facilities two weeks ago to get an overview of the $310-million security plan, was concerned about the vulnerability of open-air parks and gathering spots that are separate from the venues used for Olympic competitions, according to a law enforcement official in Washington who asked to not be identified.

It was at such a site at the Summer Games in 1996--Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta--that a bomb exploded, killing one person and injuring more than 100. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, fears about terrorism during the Games in Salt Lake City have increased.

Drawing on lessons learned from the Atlanta Games, officials at the 2002 Olympics have fenced off a central plaza in downtown Salt Lake City, where Olympic medals will be awarded and big-name entertainers will perform each night. To get in, fans will have to pass through an airport-style metal detector.

"Everything we had identified as Olympic-related we put denial systems up and protective systems up," said Robert Flowers, the top Olympic security officer.

Nonetheless, that had left "areas such as transportation hubs and areas where . . . people are going to walk and enjoy."

Flowers, commander of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command, added: "We've got 10,000 law enforcement people here. We're asking for 30 to 60 more. You're talking about putting them in areas we're light on."

Harking back to Atlanta six years ago, Flowers also reiterated that planners have long been concerned about domestic as well as international terrorism.

Survivalist Eric Robert Rudolph is wanted in connection with the Atlanta Olympics attack. Well before Sept. 11, "it has always caused us great concern," Flowers said, speaking of a domestic terrorist attack. "It's the environment we live in in today's world."

On the other hand, he said, organizers have sought to strike a balance so that fans and athletes will not feel suffocated by tight security.

Flowers observed: "It's like I've always said: How much fence do we put up? You can't fence off the state of Utah."

Security at certain Olympic venues is already unmistakably tight. During a video conference call with reporters Tuesday, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, described it as "tight but polite."

He added that certain sights were unusual but, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, weirdly welcome: "I find it kind of strange to go out to the men's room and find myself bookended on either side by Army men with M-16 rifles hanging at their side."

In measure because of the 10,000 security personnel, Homeland Security Director Thomas J. Ridge declared during a visit to Salt Lake City earlier this month that the Games will be "one of the safest places on the globe." President Bush is expected to attend the Games' opening ceremony.

Authorities have also ratcheted up security at the Salt Lake City International Airport to guard against terrorist threats. Last month, following efforts to boost requirements for airport workers, officials indicted 69 people on charges of falsifying documents.

Ashcroft came away from his visit to Salt Lake City "very pleased with the security, but he had some very specific suggestions for improvement. He saw a few gaps that he wanted to plug," the law enforcement official said. "But when you're talking about adding a few dozen people to a staff of thousands, it's hard to characterize that as major."

Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said that Ashcroft was "tremendously impressed with the unprecedented and seamless cooperation of over 60 agencies involved in the Olympics and the cooperative leadership in place to provide security."

*

Abrahamson reported from Salt Lake City and Lichtblau from Washington.

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