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Agencies checking convention threats

Thursday, August 21, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Every day the Secret Service thinks: Today could be THE day.

That's the sober mind-set going into the presidential conventions -- both of which present special security challenges for the agency in the throes of the longest political campaign in history.

This will be the second set of conventions since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Al-Qaida, however, is not the leading concern.

The terrorism potential isn't being overlooked, but the Secret Service and FBI are giving special attention to the possibility of action by other extremists -- radicals from the left or right, anarchists, lone-wolf crazies -- who might be attracted to the conventions because of the significance and high visibility.

This year, the significance of Democratic candidate Barack Obama's race is not lost on anyone either.

There has been only low-level chatter on white supremacist blogs and nothing aimed at the convention, according to Mark Potok, who regularly monitors these blogs for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. And the Secret Service and FBI say they do not have any specific threats with racist overtones.

Still, Potok said, "I think that officials have every right to be worried."

In advance of the conventions, November's election and the new president's inauguration, the FBI set up a special cell that brings together officials from other federal agencies to look at all potential threats, said Ed Dickson, FBI's acting deputy assistant director for counterterrorism.

Going into the conventions, Dickson said the bureau is looking at intelligence about anarchist groups to prevent violent disruptions and attacks. He would not name the groups.

Dickson would not comment on potential disruptions from radical Islamic groups, but said, "We're always concerned about al-Qaida and like-minded groups."

According to an April federal intelligence assessment, hardened structures, like the convention stadiums, are unlikely targets for al-Qaida. The assessment said security officers and barriers are a deterrent as far as al-Qaida is concerned.

The Secret Service budgeted more than $15 million for both conventions, but it will cost a couple of million more because of Obama's decision to accept his party's nomination at an open-air stadium in Denver. Each convention city was also given $50 million from the federal government for security efforts.

Security at the Denver and St. Paul, Minn., sites ranges from routine magnetometers -- the kind you would find at airports -- to countersnipers, undercover officers and air patrols. The Secret Service also has assigned trained officials to identify and prevent cyber security risks. And the service, as it does at every convention, has mapped out escape routes for the candidates and president.

"As you look at these type of events, they are a very attractive target," Secret Service director Mark Sullivan said.

Many of the agency's roughly 4,400 agents and officers will be working the conventions. There will be help, too, from thousands of other federal, state and local officials -- including police, airport screeners, nuclear weapons experts and intelligence analysts.

Tens of thousands of delegates, reporters, protesters and other interested folks will flock to Denver Aug. 25 to 28 and St. Paul Sept. 1 to 4. These conventions are attractive platforms for terrorists and other groups that want to cause disruptions.

The timing poses a unique challenge for the Secret Service as well. Coming off protection details in China where U.S. dignitaries traveled for the Olympics, the agents and officers go straight to Denver.

"It's a tremendous pull of resources," said Nick Trotta, assistant director of the Secret Service's Protective Division.

It costs the Secret Service about $45,000 a day to protect each candidate. The agency has already asked for more money to cover unexpected costs -- an extra $9.5 million on top of the $85.25 million that was budgeted for the 2008 campaign. Obama received Secret Service protection almost a year earlier than officials expected and has had a detail since May 2007. And as soon as each candidate announces his vice presidential pick, new protective details are deployed for the second-in-command hopefuls.

"We just always have to assume that there's someone out there, you know, looking to come after us, looking to come after the people we protect," Sullivan said. "Today could be the day, and you need to be ready."

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