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.

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Diplomacy is key in this elaborate orchestration. Sheafe emphasizes that the Secret Service is not in charge of security for the entire DNC, per sefrom hotel security to protest permits to the Boston Harbor. Instead, the agency's job is to secure the FleetCenter itself and to coordinate the plans for the rest of the city. Partnership is a word Sheafe throws around a lot, as in: "We can't show up and say, Here's what we're going to do. And have the Boston Police say, You're crazy. It has to be a partnership."

"What you won't hear Scott Sheafe say is that the Secret Service is in charge of the whole city of Boston," said Sheafe. "It's not my intention; it's not true."

Nevertheless, the Secret Service in generaland Sheafe in particularbears the brunt of the criticism when plans are announced. Take what has certainly been the most contentious decision to result from the myriad planning meetings: the decision to close North Station for the entire week of the event, and sections of I-93 each evening.

The vulnerability was obvious from the get-go. North Station is the terminus for four of Boston's commuter rail lines and also connects to two subway lines, making it a crucial link in the area's transportation network. But the trains spill 24,000 passengers a day literally into the FleetCenter. On evenings when there's a large eventsay, a World Wrestling Entertainment showcommuters must burrow their way through throngs of people lined up to get in. Not only were there logistical problems, but there was also concern about terrorists using the train station as the launch pad for an attack.

Originally, city officials talked of building a temporary platform a few hundred feet north of the station. Fine, said Sheafe, but he pointed out that passengers would have to be directed north, around a large secured zone, rather than directly toward wherever their offices are located.

This is a typical Secret Service maneuver, and good security practicea way of saying yes when you'd really rather say no. Suddenly, shuttle buses didn't sound quite so bad to city planners. There was only one more not-so-small complication: The Secret Service was concerned that terrorists might try to detonate a vehicle-born explosive on I-93. The road itself, at least a small section of it, needed to be secured somehow.

It was a painful callso painful that there was even brief talk, sparked by Gov. Romney, of moving the event from the FleetCenter to a new convention center in South Boston, completed in June. The city might have coped with the loss of either its commuter rail station or its main highway without too much trauma. But both? "When you take both away, and then still try to have an event that people are excited about...," Sheafe said, then sighed, recalling the meetings involved. "There were difficult discussions."

Traffic engineers worked with city officials to sketch out the map of how the road closings would be set up, in order to best redirect traffic. In the end, some 40 miles of road was slated to be closed each day at about 4 p.m., giving commuters a chance to escape the city while still maximizing security during peak convention time. Ambulances and public buses could use the highways, and the MBTA conducted spot searches of passengers and placed strict limits on the size of packages they could carry.

Sheafe said the planning ensured that the city could stay in operation. "We have to make sure that we're not creating a utopia around the FleetCenter while the rest of the region suffers inordinately," he said. "You don't want to make one place so secure that it totally weakens the rest of the region from a public-safety standpoint."

The Backlash

No matter how artfully the Secret Service behaved behind closed doors, there was no avoiding a public backlash as the convention drew closer. Some of it broke along party lines. But the extensive road closings and the shutdown of North Station had even staunch Democrats, and Boston is a city of staunch Democrats, livid. The mayors of nearby Somerville and Medford threatened to block traffic from being diverted if local roads got too gridlocked. Predictions abounded of urban paralysis and commerce brought to its knees. (Ultimately, while there were occasional backups because of lane closures during the early morning commute, the afternoon rush was far lighter than on a normal summer day, with broadcast traffic reports showing the Central Artery almost eerily empty of cars. Residents, it turned out, had heeded the dire traffic warnings by either going on vacation or working from home.)

Then, there was the question of money. Costs spiraled out of control. The Boston Police Department needed at least 3,000 officers but had a total of only 2,000 on staff. The rest had to come from somewhere and had to be paid for their time. At an event in April, Boston Police Department Superintendent Robert Dunford made a group of security leaders chuckle knowingly when he asked rhetorically, "How is Dunford going to pay for all this? Dunford doesn't know."

Some even blamed the extensive road and train station closings on a lack of police power. New York's Penn Station, after all, wasn't slated to close, even though, like the FleetCenter, it's attached to the convention venue, Madison Square Garden. "The Secret Service is taking a different tactic in Boston because they can't swarm," says Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism adviser for President Clinton, and author of Against All Enemies. "Basically, the tactic they're taking in New York is to swarm, and put so many police into the facility and the area around it that they essentially cover everything with police. They can't do that in Boston."

But the Secret Service adamantly denied that resources were an issue. Whatever the case, at the last minute, Boston Mayor Menino and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pleaded with Congress and secured an additional $25 million in security funds for each citydoubling the total funding received from Congress to secure the conventions. More than half of the $95 million spent on the DNC paid for security.

The cost of security, and its many inconveniences, ate into the windfall that was supposed to pour into Boston along with the Democratic delegates. The Beacon Hill Institute at Boston's Suffolk University published a study in March 2004 that estimated a DNC benefit to the economy of $121.6 million. Two weeks later, after factoring in disruptions and productivity losses caused by security measures, the institute revised its estimate to project a loss of $12.8 million.

City boosters insisted that the event still would net the city $150 million; they claimed the naysayers were plagued by the same pessimism afflicting Red Sox fans. "We as a community oftentimes are most critical of ourselves," said Paul Guzzi, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, in a telephone interview when asked about the Beacon Hill Institute's estimates and the public backlash. "Other cities would love to have this convention. Whether it's about our baseball team [or some other situation], there are always skeptics. The skepticism is endemic to the culture here."

Whatever the reason, feelings about the convention did seem endemic. A survey on The Boston Globe website in May revealed that 87.4 percent of respondents said the convention wasn't worth it. A security director at a public forum called the DNC "a planned disaster." And the closer the convention came, the more skittish residents grew.

"A lot of my job is trying to keep people reasonably calm about this," said Bonnie Michelman, director of police, security and outside services for Massachusetts General Hospital, located half a mile from the FleetCenter (as such, it was encompassed in the security plan for the convention). Michelman spent months working on elaborate plans for getting staff members to work, minimizing the number of patients who would need to visit the hospital during convention week and preparing for the possibility that the hospital could have an influx of emergency patients—even if only from heat stroke.

"I keep reminding [everyone that] a lot of good people are doing great work on planning this, and it's 96 hours of inconvenience. That's it," she said. "I'm trying to keep it in perspective."

Sheafe, for his part, doesn't let all this bother him. Money? Not his problem. Unhappy citizens? Not his problem either. "That's totally outside my purview," he said during a telephone interview in May. "It doesn't affect me in the job that we do one way or another. Our mandate is clear; our responsibilities are clear. The politics of the local reception for the event doesn't affect our way of thinking at all."

And in the end, that's what it is, really. Politics. "This seems to be a very political city," said Sheafe in May. "We were in a meeting yesterday, and somebody said that the three most important things in the city of Boston are sports, politics and revenge. Luckily for me, I'm not from Boston, so I don't come in with any preconceived notions. All I know is that I've got to work with whomever is assigned from these other departments to do what we can to meet our obligations from a security standpoint. I'm not an expert on how to make somebody look good on TV, so I don't trouble myself with that."

Lemonade

As it turns out, trouble was kept to a minimum. The convention came and went, got its business done and concluded with scarcely a ripple of disruption. Some demonstrators clashed with police on Thursday afternoon, the convention's final day. But by 1968 Chicago standards, it was a decidedly trivial encounter. Police reported on Friday that they had made only six arrests during the entire week and officials said that they had spent far less than budgeted for convention security. Best of all, of course, terrorism stayed away.

None of which surprised Richard Clarke. "The way al-Qaida operates, they like to do surveillance and reconnaissance over a long period of time to really understand the target and the nature of the security," he says. "Because something like an Olympics or a national convention doesn't exist until it's going on, they tend not to attack things like that. We're the ones who convince ourselves that al-Qaida attacks special events, not al-Qaida. They've never done it. Repeat: They've never done it. The significance of these events is significance in our minds, not significance in their minds. Their significant events are the anniversaries of Islamic defeats and things like that."

Not that the security was wasted, by any means. "The problem is that we have to persuade the participants that it's secure, and it takes higher levels of security since 9/11 to persuade people that things like this are safe," Clarke said.

In the end, the Secret Service made lemonade out of their lemons. The elevated trolley line that Sheafe was worried about? It was posted with National Guard troops who had a bird's-eye view that would have otherwise been unavailable. It also shielded from the rain and sun delegates and journalists waiting to get through security. (It also protected protesters in a controversial "Free Speech" areaat least the few protesters who chose to use what was largely derided as a protest "pen" or as "Camp X-Ray," after the prison at Guantanamo Bay.) A gravel pit that was part of the construction site was cleared, opening up enough space in an otherwise cramped area to create a restricted parking lot for buses bringing in delegates. Even the train tracks into the station worked to Sheafe's advantage. Groups of law enforcement officers who were staying at Boston College, on the outskirts of the city, rolled right into the FleetCenter on dedicated, express trolley cars that bypassed the gridlock. By and large, the problems with the site were successfully surmounted.

All of which isn't to say that security experts shouldn't be part of the process of site selection next time.

"It's hard to look into the future," Sheafe said, when asked if he thinks that will happen. "I don't know. It may make some sense for the DNCC and RNCC when they get down to a short list to seek some expertise, whether it may be from us or anybody else, on the venue. I would think there would be some utility to it."

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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