Convention Security Under Way

Posted February 5, 2008 at 6:37pm

With just more than six months to go, Capitol Hill security officials are well into their preparations for protecting Members and attendees at this summer’s national political conventions.

The Capitol Police, Senate and House Sergeants-at-Arms and others are working closely with the Secret Service and other government agencies to plan for the upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions, which will be held in Denver and Minneapolis, respectively.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer described those preparations as “ongoing and well-coordinated.”

“I feel pretty comfortable where we are going,” said Gainer, who attended the 2004 conventions as the Capitol Police chief.

A Capitol Police spokeswoman declined to comment on preparations for the conventions, saying the department cannot discuss the matter because it is security-related.

Congress appropriated about $30 million in fiscal 2008 for legislative branch agencies to tackle various election-year activities, including security needs for the conventions.

Capitol Police and other security officials are charged with safeguarding Members and other designated officials at the conventions. The Capitol Police sent a number of officers assigned to its Dignitary Protection Division — which provides individual security details to Members of Congress — to the 2004 conventions in Boston and New York, for example.

Several K-9 units, uniformed officers and even a hazardous materials vehicle also were sent as support.

Typically, about 10 percent of the force attends the conventions.

Each of the political conventions already has been designated by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff as a “National Special Security Event,” which makes the Secret Service the lead agency charged with overseeing security preparations, according to Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley.

The Secret Service and the Capitol Police have a strong working relationship, Gainer said. And that relationship could prove especially important come convention time, as Capitol Hill security forces might find themselves playing a big hand in protecting the candidates this year — after all, most of the leading contenders are Members of Congress.

“We will know more when — and if — there is a lead candidate for the parties, because their teams become involved, too,” Gainer said.

Security officials also are waiting to get information on a number of other details, including which hotels Members will stay at, Gainer said.

Once those details become clear, Capitol Hill officials can better coordinate security efforts with local jurisdictions, including the local police departments.

Ever since Chertoff designated the two conventions as special security events last spring, two teams — one for Denver, one for Minneapolis — have worked with federal and local officials on convention planning, Wiley said.

“We work very, very closely with the locals,” Wiley said. “We can’t get anything done [alone] when we are in somebody else’s neck of the woods. They know the lay of the land.”

On the federal level, the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency play a key role in convention efforts, Wiley said. The FBI monitors intelligence, while FEMA handles any planning and response to potential emergencies.

Members also have taken on convention planning. The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment held a field hearing in August in Aurora, Colo. on the upcoming convention effort, hearing from Secret Service officials and other security experts.

At that meeting, Timothy Koerner, the assistant director of the Office of Protective Operations for the Secret Service, noted that a “Multi-Agency Communications Center” will be established prior to the conventions to monitor operations.

The MACC serves as a 24-hour communications hub throughout the event, staffed by representatives from all participating agencies, Koerner said. Other personnel from groups with unique roles in the event — such as public utilities and district attorney’s offices — also are on hand.

“We view our role as that of coordinator and facilitator,” Koerner testified. “We endeavor to create and implement a comprehensive security plan that focuses on prevention, but also ensures seamless and appropriate response and recovery preparedness.”

One unique facet of the 2008 presidential campaign is that the conventions will be held just days apart. The Democratic National Convention will be held Aug. 25-28, while Republicans will begin their convention on Sept. 1.

Security officials, however, remain confident that they will be able to keep convention-goers safe. Wiley noted that two separate teams have been overseeing preparations for the two separate events.

“It doesn’t matter if they are two days apart or two years apart,” Wiley said. “We are going to prepare for them just the same.”

Added Gainer: “It’ll stretch us, but stretched goals are good sometimes.”