Features

Leaving the back door open

Security | Authorities are watching carefully high-profile events this summer. Meanwhile terror suspects seem to be slipping in the same way other illegal immigrants do

Issue: "Passing the Olympic torch," Sept. 4, 2004

As conventioneers, protest armies, a movie-star governor, and the U.S. president move into New York City for the Republican National Convention, native New Yorkers are moving out.

Where will they go? The common sentiment seems to be: as far as possible from Madison Square Garden, where some New Yorkers fear the GOP's big bash may import an explosion of violence.

Even without the convention, NYC was already on high alert. On Aug. 1, homeland security chief Tom Ridge announced that U.S. forces had unearthed a detailed al-Qaeda plan to strike the city's financial district. Then, on Aug. 6, authorities in Albany, N.Y., arrested Yassin Aref, a 34-year-old imam to whom the U.S. State Department had granted political asylum, on suspicion of attempting to obtain shoulder-fired missiles as part of a terrorist plot. Now the city is sailing into a stew of high-profile events, including the convention, the U.S. Open tennis tournament, a pair of home games for the Yankees and Mets, and a huge West Indies ethnic celebration, all scheduled to unfold during the first week of September.

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The hubbub has sparked a mini exodus: "I'm going on vacation," parking attendant Angel Rivera told the Albany Times Union. Mr. Rivera works for Central Parking System in a garage across the street from the Garden. That lot will be closed during the convention, except to Republican VIPs willing to pay premium prices. Meanwhile, other Big Apple businesses are making similar arrangements. For example, one in five corporate real estate management firms surveyed said they'd be sending workers on leave during the convention, which spans Aug. 31 to Sept. 2; another quarter will let employees work from home.

As organizers worked to transform Madison Square Garden from sporting venue to convention hall, law-enforcement officers kept it under virtual lockdown during the weeks leading up to the big event. More than a year ago, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dubbed the convention a "National Special Security Event," a designation that carries with it an army of federal officers. For weeks, both the U.S. Secret Service and the NYPD have covered the Garden and the surrounding city like a bomb blanket.

But it isn't only terror they're trying to prevent. "The first thing you have to look at as a threat is violent protests like the ones at the World Trade Organization in Seattle [in 1999]," said DHS spokesman Garrison Courtney. "Property was destroyed and people were killed. And that didn't come from outside the U.S. It was an internal thing."

Potential for protest violence runs high. At Counterconvention.org, more than 130 groups registered their intention to demonstrate. But only a handful-including Direct Action Democracy, the National Organization for Women, and the National Abortion Rights Action League-obtained required NYC permits. Meanwhile, other groups threatened more militant displays: "Getting your [expletive] kicked and capitulating to whatever authorities tell you is not an inspiring model," RNCunwelcome.org proclaimed on its website. "Roving bike blocs, sneaking into events, wildcat marches-just harassing the [expletive] out of the GOP delegates is going to create a mosaic of interesting, militant resistance. . . . We need to destroy the model of what 'normal people' think of protest movements: all that sign-holding, standing around and chanting slogans."

Despite their sheer numbers, chanting sign-holders are the least of New York's security problems. With its innumerable skyscrapers, waterways, ports, bridges, tunnels, and train stations, the city is a virtual smorgasbord of potential terrorist targets. Penn Station, the thrumming rail hub that lies directly beneath Madison Square Garden, is getting special attention. An estimated 600,000 passengers whoosh through its subterranean tunnels daily-and will continue to do so even as the GOP celebrates topside.

The station looms large in the city's security plans, said Mr. Courtney, since "the train bombing in Madrid came right before an election." Moroccan terrorists claimed the March 11 attack, which killed at least 201 people, was meant to persuade Spanish voters to oust Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a U.S. ally in the war against Saddam Hussein. Three days after the train bombing, voters did just that, electing socialist leader Jose Zapatero, who moved immediately to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.

With opposition to the Iraq war fomenting anti-Bush fervor among both terrorists and domestic protesters, the Secret Service and NYPD will subject hundreds of thousands of Penn Station train travelers to extra scrutiny during convention week.

The NYPD itself is projecting confidence about its ability to keep the city safe. "We're a big, experienced police force," said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in remarks last week at department headquarters. "We can do it. We're ready."

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