In Depth: Democratic Party Convention Security

Boston's big political party in 2004 took a lot of planning. During a six-month period, CSO followed U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Scott Sheafe as he and others developed a security plan tailored to make the best of a bad situation.

It's the Sunday morning before the Democratic National Convention. Inside Boston's FleetCenter, four days hence, delegates will stomp and holler their way to nominating Sen. John Kerry as their candidate to be the next president of the United States. Now, the seats that will hold thousands of raucous delegates and eager journalists are mostly empty. But the floor teems with a different kind of frenetic activity, as organizers dart around and technicians check the sound and lighting system, then check it again, to make sure that everything is perfect.

The overall effect is one of anticipatory buzz. It permeates the floor and rises to the upper reaches of the arena, where thousands of red, white and blue balloons are held, ready to drop—the perfect symbol for the pent-up energy in the place. But Secret Service Assistant to the Special Agent in Charge Scott Sheafe, whose job is to secure this site, doesn't pause for long on the tour he is giving to savor signs of the coming hoopla. Instead, he turns his back to the stage and directs my attention toward the windows.

Outside, the pale blue skies are clear except for a few wispy clouds and the occasional

police or military helicopter. The Charles River Basin, dotted with moored boats, stretches east into Boston's inner harbor. From the seventh floor, its waters look calm. To the north is the new Leonard P. Zakim Bridgethe striking, cable-stayed centerpiece of the $15 billion construction project known as the Big Dig. Almost directly below where Sheafe is standing is the interstate that feeds into the bridge. Known as the Central Artery, this section of I-93 carries 200,000 vehicles through Boston on the average weekday. But on this Sunday morning, traffic is sparse.

"See how close it is?" Sheafe says, tapping on the window. It's not the first time he's pointed this out, and it won't be the last. "This connector ramp right here is about 15 feet [away from the building]. The first lane starts at about 20 feet."

Then he points to a restricted parking lot where buses will unload delegates starting on Monday. Stretching across our field of vision at every turn is a section of the 12-foot-high metal security fence that surrounds a security perimeter of some 1.7 million square feet. We can't see it from here, but on the other side of the building, out on Causeway Street, journalists and TV news crews are already lined up to get inside those fences, prepared to endure a security screening stricter than at any airport in the country.

On the eve of the DNC, the securing of this venue is a transformation that astounds Sheafe more than the process of readying a hockey-and-basketball arena for prime-time politics. He knows how far the site has come from unpromising beginnings.

Quite a Site

It was more than two years earlier, on a similarly clear day in June 2002, when members of the site selection committee for the Democratic National Convention donned orange vests and hard hats, and gathered for an ice cream social just north of the FleetCenter on the new Zakim Bridge.

This was no opening ceremony—none of the bridge's 10 lanes would carry traffic for nine more months (even today, two lanes have yet to open). So, the chance to see Boston's eclectic skyline from between the bridge's two 30-story towers was a rare one indeed. No, this was civic boosterism taken to the extreme. Led by Mayor Thomas Menino and other local political lights, it was part of a three-day show staged in an effort to persuade Democrats that Boston—not Detroit, not Miami, not New Yorkwas the ideal site for their next convention.

Maybe it was the ice cream. The Democrats picked Boston, and Menino cheered that the event would bring millions of dollars to the city.

At the request of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Department of Homeland Security named the DNC a National Special Security Event. The announcement was a formality. The national conventions in 2000 were among the first events to earn this designation, which was created by President Clinton in 1998 and puts the U.S. Secret Service in charge of security planning for high-profile events. (The FBI is in charge of crisis response, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for consequence management.)

Although the Secret Service is responsible for protecting national security events, the agency is decidedly not involved in planning them. When asked why, officials insist it's simply not their job. For groups planning major public events, any site can seem as good as the next from a security perspective. The Republicans, after all, picked New York City for their convention—as difficult a place to secure as Boston, albeit better equipped for such large events. A senior official for the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC), speaking on condition of anonymity, says that the DNCC was so confident in the federal authorities' ability to secure any site that he didn't even know whether security experts were included on the site selection committee.

But if Democrats had asked for an opinionand if the Secret Service had answered honestlyit's pretty clear what the verdict would have been: From a security perspective at least, the Democrats couldn't have chosen a worse site.

A Man, a Plan

On the early March day when I first met Scott Sheafe, he shook his head a bit as he stepped out of Boston's Secret Service field office and walked next door to the FleetCenter. It was noon on a weekday. Despite the cold weather and threatening skies, the sidewalks were full of office workers heading to lunch. A trolley screeched overhead on its elevated tracks, and cars and delivery trucks crowded the street.

Sheafe, 34, is trim and handsome. He has a boyish, almost mischievous grin to go with his trademark Secret Service crew cut and black suit. He has worked for the Secret Service for 12 years, but in his office he proudly displays a schoolboy's certificate, received when he was 7, declaring him an honorary member of the service. Sheafe pointed at the elevated trolley tracks and said that they were supposed to be taken down before the convention, as part of ongoing construction, but they won't be—which would make securing the street below that much more difficult. Then he gestured at a large crane in front of North Station. (North Station, the commuter rail terminal adjoining the FleetCenter, is in the midst of being turned into a consolidated transit center.) Sheafe wasn't sure what that crane would be doing by convention time. "Not only are we in a tough environment," he said, "we're in a tough environment that changes every day."

His career has already been a crash course in tough environments. Formerly on security detail for President George W. Bush and, before that, then-First Lady Hillary and former President Clinton, Sheafe had never set foot in Boston when he got word that he would be in charge of the security plan for the DNC. He and his family moved there—sight unseenin June 2003. Yet when giving a walking tour of the area he's expected to secure, he already exuded the calm confidence of someone familiar with his surroundings.

Of course, before those surroundings became familiar to Sheafe, they presented a set of daunting problems. As he continued around the FleetCenter last March, he recalled his reaction upon first seeing the area. From an expanse of windows on the east side of the building, you could just about reach out and touch the major north-south highway bisecting the city. "See that?" he shouted, a truck rumbling by as he pointed at the wall of FleetCenter windows. "That's glass!" Then he pointed at the road. "And that's the highway...."

The challenges extended further out too. Not only was the country's largest-ever civil construction project going on next to the FleetCenter, but the site itself is jammed among the compact downtown Boston, two large hospitals and the spot where the Charles River spills into Boston's inner harbor. The FleetCenter is, literally, hard to get around. The proximity of Logan International Airport (just a couple of miles away) makes it difficult to secure the airspace. And, adding to the tension, the Boston Police patrolmen's union threatened to picket the conventiona dispute that wasn't resolved until several days before the convention began.

"We have a very sick patient," Sheafe said on that day in March, as though he were the doctor and the site needed treatment.

Ever since the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when antiwar protests in Chicago turned into riots, convention security has been notoriously tight. But concerns loom larger this year, especially in light of the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, which left more than 200 people dead and are thought to have influenced the country's general elections three days later.

In many ways, America's national conventionswhere the political parties celebrate their choice of presidential candidate and plan their agendas—are as important as Election Day itself. "It is a symbol of the continuity of the political system," says Thomas Patterson, a political science professor at Harvard University who has studied the role of conventions in the election process. "One of the amazing things about the American system is we've never had an interrupted presidential election. Even during the Civil War, a presidential election was held."

The conventions are a possible target for another reason too. "You're bringing together in one large place a large group of people in celebration," Patterson says. "I suppose if you were a terrorist, you'd think this an ideal target. Heaven forbid, should you be able to launch a successful attack, you'd get all the publicity that you could want, and the casualties could conceivably number in the thousands. It sort of fits the terrorist bill, both in terms of its value to us and its potential value to them."

Local politicians in Boston knew all this, of course. And despite the cheery language in the bid to host the event, they must have known that Boston presented an especially difficult set of challenges in terms of security. Perhaps they were in denial about what those measures would entail. Or perhaps they hoped that the Secret Service would come in and take the heat off them when the necessary security precautions were prescribed. But Sheafe, for his part, refused to be the fall guy. "We say, tell us what you want to do, and we'll work hard to make it safe," he said. This is how the Secret Service operates.

A Symphony of Security

From a thick-walled office deep inside the FleetCenter, Steve Denelsbeck can pan a set of color cameras around the entire, 20,000-seat arena and zoom in close enough to read the front of the shirt of a guy in row 6 of balcony section 317. The Secret Service will use these same cameras to watch the crowd as a hometown hero accepts his party's nomination to be president. That means that Denelsbeck, the FleetCenter's security director, has a window into how the Secret Service goes about its planning—something he finds even more interesting than how the Celtics will do on a blustery evening in March.

"Slow" is how he describes it, in a word. "To coordinate with that many people, it's slow. It moves forward, but it moves slow. I don't think that it could move any quicker," he added carefully. "They're very, very thorough."

The number of people involved is mind-boggling enough, never mind the plans themselves. One of Sheafe's first tasks was to set up 17 subcommittees to handle different aspects of the eventairspace, credentialing, intelligence, training and the like. Each subcommittee includes members of the Secret Service, FBI and FEMA, in addition to the appropriate state and local organizations. The transportation and traffic committee, for instance, includes members of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

The end result can be a committee meeting with 80 people representing 40 agencies and at least as many opinions. And the level of planning detail is staggering. The team preparing for potential hostage situations, for example, has to know about the building's construction materialshence the need for FleetCenter staff to be involved even though the arena was officially turned over to the Democrats in June 2004.

"[The Secret Service are] masters at dealing with all kinds of people," Denelsbeck said of the coordination he's witnessed over the past months. "To see the example they set by being so diplomatic, by listening to everyone's needs and trying to understand [those needs] and then prioritize them, never leaving anyone behind, has really been an awesome thing. That's the case with all security business, I suppose. But they just do it so well."

All this is despite law enforcement's reputation for not playing well with others. "From what I remember, seeing [the change from] pre-9/11 to today [is] remarkable," Denelsbeck said. "There are still personalities that will never mesh, but in general these task forces work so well. I'm sure at some level there's still some jockeying going on about who's going to do what, but from what I can tell, it's come an awfully long way."

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