Even on an uneventful day, Jeff Cohen's rush-hour commute into New York City can be a nightmare. But when the Republican National Convention comes to town, things are really going to get tough. That's because Cohen works in an office building connected to the Madison Square Garden/Penn Station complex where the convention will take place. The train he rides into the city will be inspected by police with bomb-sniffing dogs, streets will be closed, and Cohen will be compelled to show photo ID just to get into the neighborhood at his office. "Our company sent out an e-mail that said if you have vacation time, you should take it during the convention," says the commuter. "It's going to be a madhouse."
With an estimated price tag of $75 million, the safeguarding of the Republican National Convention is one of the most comprehensive, costliest security projects ever undertaken. But officials say the expense is justified, and not just because the convention could draw up to a million protesters. The real threat this year, say insiders, is terrorism. And with the main event taking place in Madison Square Garden, directly over Penn Station, a rail hub that sees Cohen and 600,000 other commuters every day, the potential for some kind of incident, be it terrorism, disruptive protests, or simple street crime, is significant.
Clear & Present Danger
Intelligence obtained by the federal government suggests that anti-American militants, possibly connected to Al Qaeda, will attempt a major domestic attack this summer in order to disrupt the presidential election. By all accounts, the Republican convention is a likely target. This threat of terrorism helped convince the Department of Homeland Security to designate the Republican National Convention a National Special Security Event, a status awarded to only the highest-profile, highest-risk events (including July's Democratic National Convention in Boston). The designation means that the U.S. Secret Service will take the lead in all security operations surrounding the convention, working with the 35,000-member New York Police Department, private security firms, and federal entities.
The U.S. Secret Service and the NYPD declined to detail their security precautions to Successful Meetings, saying that secrecy will be key to many of their efforts' efficacy. But people familiar with the plans say the authorities will create a perimeter around the convention that will stretch for several blocks, through which only conventioneers may pass. For several nights before the convention begins, they will sweep the area for explosives and clear the zone of containers that could be used to hide bombs. They will search all trains before they come into Penn Station using specially trained inspectors and bomb-detection dogs.
The multiblock secure zone surrounding Madison Square Garden will probably be delineated by some physical barrier, such as a fence. Entry through checkpoints in the barrier will entail a check for convention identification and a trip through magnetic and X-ray screeners. As many as 10,000 NYPD officers will receive special training to prepare for chemical, biological, or radiological attacks. The police department also plans to employ 300 new scooters, 15 new vans, and a closed-circuit surveillance video system in the area. And movable barricades capable of stopping trucks will surround the Garden.
Even with all this preparation, experts are still worried for the safety of the event. "The concern for this year's convention is terrorism," states David Stone, CEO of New York-based Global Security Inc., who is working with venues and convention groups to provide security during the event. "The State Department has said that terrorists are looking to disrupt the presidential elections. This is something that we've never seen before—a credible threat. So we'll double our usual staffing levels, and plan ahead."
The amorphous nature of terrorism presents a serious challenge to security forces. "When you have enemies that you can't identify, who are willing to die for their cause, it is very hard to prevent them from taking action," explains Stone. "And being that New York is one of the biggest cities in the world, and it is such a melting pot, this makes it even harder to create an acceptable level of security."
And besides the threat of overt violence, convention officials must concern themselves with the potential for disruption caused by demonstrators, of which there are expected to be hundreds of thousands. The NYPD has taken steps to control the protests by requiring organizers to register with security officials ahead of time. At presstime, 17 separate groups had done so. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly says that his goal is to get protesters within sight and hearing range of the convention in a way that allows them to air grievances without disrupting proceedings. Convention CEO Bill Harris agrees. "The convention process is fundamental to our democratic roots," he says. "We realize it is the right for each American to voice his or her opinion in protest. So we are confident the NYPD will allow them to do so, as long as it doesn't interfere with our ability to hold a safe and orderly convention."
Perhaps the greatest security challenges for the convention will occur beyond the safe zone of the official venue, when each day of official business has ended. That's when participants will leave Madison Square Garden and take to the town for parties and sightseeing, and then sleep. Because thousands of VIPs will be moving all over the city, it will be very difficult to protect them all.
"There are a lot of events for lobbyists and fundraisers," explains Global Security's Stone. "Everyone has invited the President, the First Lady, and the Vice President, and each event will have to prepare as though they are coming. Everyone is hoping the President will pass through their parties, but we won't know where he's going until the last minute. It's a security nightmare."
Stone says he'll maintain steady telephone contact with his liaisons in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the State Department, and the Secret Service, to maintain up-to-the-minute intelligence on the whereabouts of VIPs and security threats. And his team of former and current law enforcement professionals will be taking extra care to ensure that nothing goes wrong at the functions they have been charged to safeguard.
"We will have bomb-detection dogs at every function. We will change credentials during the course of the events and two forms of photo identification will be required. We'll employ walk-through magnetometers," or metal detectors, he explains. "We will expand our rings of security. Instead of ten feet before the entrance of the room, we'll put checkpoints out further, up to fifty feet away."
At each hotel where convention VIPs will be staying, the in-house security head, commonly known as the director of loss prevention, will coordinate the hotel's security team with the efforts of the Secret Service and the NYPD. "With all VIPs, privacy and security are important," says John Gaffey, director of loss prevention at the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park, where the Georgia delegation will be staying. "But with the convention, we are working with police and the Secret Service to follow whatever directives they have for us. We're already at a level of heightened vigilance, because the city is at heightened vigilance right now."
In today's risky world there's no option but to address security for any event, according to Jaclyn Bernstein, president of New York City-based Empire Force Events. But the situation gets much more labor-intensive with complex, high-profile events like the Republican National Convention, where scores of important groups converge on the city simultaneously.
"The convention is one of those events where there are many clients with different goals," says Berstein. "We talk to them about logistical issues and moving guests around, but with particular venues and unofficial events not all being secured, it is going to be quite a challenge."