Security intensifies for political conventions |

Security intensifies for political conventions

The Washington Post

Convinced that terrorists are determined to disrupt the presidential election by attacking the United States, the government is mounting a massive homeland security effort as the run-up to the two presidential nominating conventions begins.

Unprecedented security arrangements have been made for the conventions in Boston and New York, where authorities believe al-Qaida may see an opportunity to disrupt and perhaps alter the outcome of the Nov. 2 election. But the planning extends to “symbolic events” such as Labor Day weekend, when large crowds will gather, and to Election Day.

“These events will bring to bear more protective measures than any in history, and while many of these measures can be seen, others like weapons of mass destruction detection equipment won’t be seen,” Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said of precautions for the conventions.

The effort stems from intelligence officials’ conclusion that al-Qaida and like-minded groups, buoyed by the March 11 Madrid train bombings and the electoral defeat of Spain’s government days later, are determined to launch something similar in this country. They base their conclusion on what they call incontrovertible classified intelligence that apparently includes electronic surveillance.

U.S. government officials say they have no intelligence specifying the time or place of an attack. Nor have they raised the color-coded threat index, or issued a dire warning such as the one Attorney General John D. Ashcroft gave before Memorial Day.

Federal agents will inspect sewers and weld shut manholes around the two convention centers, and remove mailboxes and most trash cans. Coast Guard craft will survey waterways for out-of-place boaters. Police officers will guard the ventilation systems of hotels where delegates stay, and dozens of highly trained emergency response teams will wait in warehouses in case of chemical or biological attack.

In Boston, some major highways, bridges and tunnels will be closed completely, including one interstate only feet from the FleetCenter, where the Democratic convention will be held July 26 to 29. That has prompted city officials to urge downtown workers to stay home that week. Riders of the city’s subways will be subject to random searches of their bags.

New York, where Republicans will gather from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, will be patrolled by more than 10,000 uniformed officers, and thousands of additional federal personnel on the streets, in the air and on the water.

At the same time, government officials fear that terrorists may avoid that security buildup and strike “soft” targets such as hotels or department stores – across town or across the country – as the conventions are under way.

Homeland security officials believe New York is a far more likely target than Boston because al-Qaida has consistently set its sights on that city, and because terrorists are galvanized by the prospect of striking the nation’s top political leadership, from President Bush on down, U.S. officials said.

While Bostonians are preparing for grievous inconvenience during the Democratic convention, federal officials said they view the GOP convention as considerably more challenging for security personnel.

Immense crowds of anti-Bush protesters – estimated by organizers at 250,000 to 1 million – are expected in New York. City officials say the 10,000 officers on duty will be engaged in a delicate balancing act, simultaneously trying to guard against a terrorist attack and civil disobedience, while guaranteeing the First Amendment rights of demonstrators and trying to minimize disruption to New Yorkers.