San Diego Union Tribune

July 26, 2004

Boston is security 'case study' for post 9-11 events

Dana Wilkie Michael Gardner and Paul Krawzak
Copley News Service

BOSTON Empty highways. Armed police on subways. Fighter planes in the skies. Night-vision cameras on the harbor. Antidotes for chemical attacks on hand.

In some respects, Boston this week resembles one of those made-for-Hollywood towns that gets sealed off, battened down and heavily patrolled after some event of catastrophic proportions.

And in some respects, that's exactly what it is.

Boston is hosting the first national political convention since terrorists attacked the country in 2001, and it will serve as something of a case study on holding large national and international events post-Sept.11. What is learned here this week at the Democratic National Convention may be instructive when it comes to securing next month's GOP national convention in New York and the summer Olympics in Athens.

"The amount of work going into security here is the result of the way our reality changed on Sept. 11," said Katie Ford, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety. "These conventions are a core part of our democratic process, and not something we want to forego because of security worries."

The four-day convention, where Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry will accept the party's presidential nomination, comes just months after terrorists disrupted Spain's elections by bombing a Madrid train and just weeks after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned that terrorists were scheming to "disrupt our democratic process."

Some $50 million - more than half the convention's entire $95 million budget - is being spent to ensure the safety of some 35,000 delegates, journalists and visitors attending the event, which starts Monday and ends Thursday.

In security parlance, the convention's "ground zero" is the city's FleetCenter, home to Boston's professional hockey and basketball teams and site of each night's official convention activities.

Theoretically, the FleetCenter is a terrorist's dream. It sits in the heart of the city, a few steps from Boston Harbor, and just 40 feet from a major highway, Interstate 93. Underneath lies a principal subway and rail station. That means just about any vehicle - a car, bus, boat, train or subway - could serve as a terrorist tool.

Around rush hour each convention day, federal officials will close six miles of Interstate 93 as it runs through downtown Boston. Even when the highway is open, two of its six lanes will be closed. Not welcome news in a city known for tear-out-your-hair traffic jams.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has suggested workers take vacation during the convention, or to telecommute from home. Some found the suggestion simplistic and insulting. One labor union official, who asked he not be named, called the impact of the security measures "awful" for Boston workers.

Also closed will be the FleetCenter subway and rail stops. Bostonians whose commute takes them through this station must disembark at the station before and ride a free shuttle to the station beyond.

The road and subway closures will affect 287,000 commuters each convention day, said Paul Bachman, an economist at the Beacon Hill Institute of Suffolk University, which studied the convention's economic impacts. The institute expects convention security measures will result in $33.8 million in lost worker productivity. When all costs and benefits are tallied, the entire Boston region will suffer an $8.2 million loss, the institute says.

"Most conventions say they make money, but these are the first conventions being held post-Sept. 11," Bachman said. "When the bills actually come in... the (convention) benefits may be harder to realize."

Menino disputes this prediction.

"The Secret Service has made extraordinary security demands on the entire area, and the mayor acknowledges there will be some disruptions," said Seth Gitell, a Menino spokesman. "But... the convention will be an economic plus for our city."

Some businesses say the strict security has cost them money. Susan Babine, director of sales and marketing for the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, 20 miles from Boston, has lost $17,000 in bookings she expected convention week. The security measures, she said, "sent a message that being in the Boston area during the convention, unless you were associated with it, was not the place to be."

Some 3,000 city police, state troopers, prison guards, mass transit officers and National Guardsmen will police convention events. Sunday, they patrolled the streets, buses and subways, even stopping passengers to search bags. They traveled on foot, on bikes, in cars, on horseback and on motorcycles, sometimes traveling in packs of 20 or more. Some wore bulletproof vests, helmets and tear-gas masks. Others had bomb-sniffing dogs. They will keep watch over at least 70 sets of demonstrators protesting everything from the war in Iraq to legalized abortion.

Antidotes for chemical attacks have been rushed to the city. The FAA has closed the airspace over the city - even to traffic helicopters - while F-16 fighter jets patrolled the skies. The Coast Guard grounded all commercial and pleasure craft on the harbor, then patrolled the waters in boats sometimes armed with machine guns front and back.

Demonstrators who want to be near the FleetCenter must protest in an area that holds only 1,000 people and is surrounded by chain link fences, concrete barriers, razor wire and black mesh designed to repel liquids. Steve Kirschenbaum, a union leader and protest organizer, called the area "an internment camp."

Civil libertarians are concerned that police, the Coast Guard and federal authorities have installed video cameras in and around the FleetCenter, at points along the harbor, at bus and subway stops and on downtown buildings.

"These can be used to monitor people for political reasons," complained Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Others tolerated the inconveniences well. Though road closings will prevent 34-year-old Andrew Walsh, a suburbanite, from driving into Boston to visit his girlfriend this week, he chalked up their forced separation to the realities of a post-9-11 world.

"You can't be too careful these days," he said.