Who's in Charge of Security? Everyone

Ben Sherwood is the author of "Red Mercury," a new novel pitting security forces against terrorists at the Atlanta Olympic Games, written under the pseudonym Max Barclay (Dove Books)

Security is a superstition, wrote Anne Frank. That we are ever totally secure, physically or emotionally, is a belief entertained despite knowledge of the facts. In other words, security is wishful thinking.

For months, officials have insisted the Centennial Olympics will be secure. Billy Payne, president of the Olympic organizing committee, proclaims that Atlanta "will be the safest place on the planet" during the Games, thanks to the largest mobilization of law enforcement in the country's history. No effort has been spared: 57 federal, state and local public-safety agencies and 25,000 personnel are guarding the Olympics.

Yet, with all the resources in Atlanta, the fact remains: There is no such thing as absolute security. Despite the extensive intelligence-gathering effort and unprecedented preventive measures, experts concede the system, almost by definition, is imperfect. "No matter how hard you try, you can't control the uncontrollable," says one top security official. Insiders worry that it would not take a sophisticated, state-sponsored terrorist operation to disrupt the Games. One individual--a so-called "virgin" with no criminal record or terrorist profile--could wreak havoc without breaking a sweat.

Still, the superstition persists, and so does the misperception that anyone is actually in charge of Olympic security. In a recent White House briefing, public-safety officials presented an overview of the security arrangements to Vice President Al Gore, chairman of the White House Task Force on the Olympics. At the conclusion of the meeting, according to one participant, Gore asked the obvious question: Who is in charge of overall Olympic security?

The answer surprised the vice president. The truth about Olympic security--and law enforcement, American-style--is that no one is in charge. There is no security czar; no one organization has the lead. The decentralized arrangement reflects the country's historic and well-justified suspicion against allowing any one arm of government to become too powerful. Unlike recent Olympic hosts--Spain, South Korea and the former Soviet Union--the United States has no national police agency. Historically and constitutionally, law enforcement is a local affair.

But security arrangements at the Atlanta Games highlight the anachronism of this approach. In an age when terrorism--foreign and domestic--poses a growing threat to our national security, the country's law-enforcement command structure needs rethinking, especially during special events like the Games.

The organizational chart of Olympic security illustrates the point. The Summer Games have brought together agencies ranging from big guns like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency to relative peashooters like the Conyers Police Department and the Stone Mountain Park Police. For 17 days and nights, these groups will work, side by side, as co-equals. More than 30 different agencies will have primary responsibility for 75 venues across the United States.

In Savannah, for instance, site of Olympic yachting, four different agencies share primary jurisdiction. The marina--Sail Harbor--falls under Chatham County's responsibility. The race course is divided between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The Olympic Village is the responsibility of the city of Savannah. As an Olympic official noted ruefully: "We tried to make this about as complicated as we could."

Although there has been a growth of federal criminal law in the 20th century, including tough new federal anti-terrorism statutes, local police agencies serve on the front lines of enforcement. In a crisis involving multiple agencies, not to mention multiple threats, this decentralized approach creates confusion and, even worse, deadly delays in decision-making.

In Atlanta, there is no single "command center" controlling all public-safety assets. Rather, in an old Sears Roebuck building, a high-tech joint coordination center has been set up, emphasis on the word "coordination." Here, where the latest technology hums around the clock, information is disseminated to more than 24 different command centers and six separate "specialized management" centers. The joint coordination center will try to keep all the balls in the air but it neither commands nor controls.

Of course, the agencies have spent the past four years conducting countless exercises--at command posts and in the field--involving hundreds of scenarios, specifying the chain of command and fashioning power-sharing arrangements. The process, by all accounts, has been grueling, with turf fights between agencies reluctant to relinquish control. Still, security officials have done their best, producing reams of emergency procedures and protocols, all designed to make sense of the organizational mess. The arrangement will work, Olympic officials say, because the chaos has coalesced--by necessity--into a workable system.

At the Los Angeles Games in 1984, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates battled openly with the FBI over chain-of-command issues. The controversial chief resisted relinquishing any authority or responsibility, and his 7,000-member force ran the show with paramilitary precision. The Atlanta Police Department, with approximately 1,400 officers, was reportedly overwhelmed by the security challenge of the '96 Games and has been more cooperative with state and federal agencies. Still, some Southerners remain especially sensitive about the federal government taking over. "The last time the Feds came to Atlanta, they weren't invited," one top state lawman explained.

The real danger is that despite all the meticulous planning and practicing, an unexpected threat materializes. In that case, the inefficiencies of the headless Olympic security system could become all too clear. In most instances, the FBI would immediately take charge, but only after a terrorist incident. Today, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City and Dharan, we do not have the luxury of waiting for a bomb to go off or hostages to be seized before calling in the cavalry.

To protect the public, Congress should act to consolidate the command of federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies and personnel when they serve in tandem. The White House and Congress should draft legislation authorizing the temporary appointment of a lead federal agency, like the FBI, or a joint task force to take over all responsibility in a special situation like the Olympics. The Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff offers an instructive model. In the Gulf War, imagine if the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines had waged their own separate campaigns against Saddam Hussein. Now consider Atlanta, where there is no joint command structure and no Colin L. Powell responsible for the entire operation.

Atlanta may well be the "safest place on the planet" in the coming weeks. But even if the Games go off without incident, it may not necessarily mean the system worked. It may simply mean we were lucky. Despite the heroic efforts and extraordinary dedication of American law enforcement, crossing our fingers worked this time around.*

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