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sarah d_scalet
Senior Editor

In Depth: Democratic Party Convention Security

Sep 01, 200422 mins
Critical InfrastructurePhysical SecuritySecurity

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.”

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.”


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.”