EDITOR’S NOTE: Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, previously was the president and CEO of the Organizing Committee for the Salt Lake Winter Games. He has authored the new book Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games. This is the fourth in a five-part series of excerpts to coincide with the Summer Games; the first appeared here; the second here; the third here; the fourth here. The excerpts comprise Chapter 15 of Turnaround.
The next three months were a whirlwind of activity in the security area. Frantic efforts to get more fencing, more barricades, more mags, consumed our procurement staff. General J. D. Johnson was training troops around the nation to prepare them for Salt Lake. This wasn’t a normal military mission; they were coming to be a presence and to perform critical roles, but no one wanted Salt Lake to feel like an armed camp. The military would be interacting with the public at the mag-and-bag operations. General Johnson put together a special tape on how to talk to and treat civilians when they’re inspecting them. It was incredibly effective. At Games-time, one of the biggest surprises to the world community was that they showed up at Salt Lake and found the military to be friendly and courteous, not at all the image they expected. In my mind I said, “thank you, J.D.,” every time someone stopped me to compliment our armed forces. It was a great effort.
Mark Camillo was working with DoD, FAA and others on the new air CAP. While in the end the feds could simply order the air CAP, they worked with everyone to prevent unintended problems. For example, it was clear early on that the airspace would be shut down during opening and closing ceremonies, but if that happened, how would NBC get their camera shots? For years, we had designed the ceremonies so that some of the effects could only be seen by a camera shot directly down into the stadium. It was too late to change the ceremony. A compromise was finally struck by limiting the helicopters to just the one TV feed, locating the helicopter one half mile from the stadium, and putting armed law enforcement in the chopper with the cameraman. I’ve always wondered what it was like for that guy to be up there shooting the ceremonies knowing the other people on the chopper were there to shoot him if he tried anything unexpected.
One of our biggest challenges during this time was making sure that the athletes felt safe. While I had no doubt that any athlete that made the Olympic team would probably risk life and limb to be in Salt Lake, I also knew that the decision would probably not be theirs. Their National Olympic Committee and their National Sports Federation would decide whether or not their athletes would be safe in Salt Lake.
In late September, I got a call from Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, expressing his concern that owners or players might be fearful about coming to the Games in Salt Lake City. Clearly, without the NHL players, the Games would suffer a severe blow. And, if his NHL athletes were nervous, then we could certainly expect that other federations and other nations would be too. So, we tackled this on three fronts. First, I met in New York with Bettman and NHL representatives and gave them a thorough review of our plans. Once they had this briefing, they were okay; it was clear everything that could be done, was being done. Then, we invited all the national Olympic committees to send their security directors to a two-day meeting in Salt Lake where UOPSC, SLOC and the Secret Service walked them through the security precautions we were taking. They left convinced that the United States was pulling out all the stops. And, third, Undersecretary Dick Armitage at the State Department got our U.S. ambassadors to help around the world, making sure that countries that were uncertain about security knew how much the U.S. was doing to keep the athletes safe. In the end, it worked: when the Games opened on February 8, no athlete stayed away because of security concerns.
Even though we had a revised plan, we never stopped looking for holes or problems. And, occasionally, we would find them. About two months before the Games, we decided that the athlete transportation plan really needed to be stepped up. When you looked at it, this was the point where the athletes were the most vulnerable. They were leaving a highly secured village and going to a heavily secured competition venue. But in between, they were in a bus or a van and susceptible to attack or kidnapping. The Secret Service decided to take responsibility for increasing what we called “in-transit security” and they provided officers to travel with some delegations, escorts for others and a mix of precautions. One of the precautions was putting GPS locators in each vehicle, and requiring the driver to report to the transportation center as he left a venue and at designated points along the pre-set route. That way, we would know instantly if a vehicle steered off course.
This worked beautifully–so beautifully, in fact, that one of our “incidents” at Games-time came from the GPS monitoring. In the transportation command center, one of our staff noticed a bus moving off-course. He tried to reach the driver by radio, but he didn’t respond. He alerted the law enforcement officer sitting in the command center and he tried to reach the driver. Still no response. They called the security command center and the police went into action. Monitoring the bus’s movements, they directed the police to interdict the wayward bus. SWAT teams were called up because we either had a lost driver or someone had taken over the bus. Then it halted and in minutes, the police had the vehicle surrounded, as well as the McDonald’s where the driver had taken the athletes to get something to eat.
Ultimately, no amount of preparation can ever allay all your fears–nor should it. In the end, no security plan is foolproof. So, in spite of all the experts and all the specialized equipment and all the people we had assigned to security, I went in the Games with my breath held just a little. We had done all we could–but would it be enough? I’ll be truthful. With each day that passed, I gave a sigh of relief and then held my breath through the next. One night, just as a concert was starting, my wife’s cell phone rang. Mine was turned off. It was UOPSC Commander Bob Flowers. They thought they had found anthrax at the airport, they were clearing the facility and would be holding a joint press conference with the Homeland Security spokesperson shortly. I got up and went to the command center to work with everyone on contingency and evacuation plans. Later that night, word came through that the first test had been false: the powder was harmless. We had made it through another day.
Those may have been the longest seventeen days of my life, but they were also some of the absolute best. In writing my speech for closing ceremonies, I tried to say thank you to the thousands and thousands of people–volunteers, cops, federal agents, military troops, firemen, public health workers–who had toiled behind the scenes to keep these Games safe. It was an unprecedented security effort and it was effective because at every level, from the forest service ranger on patrol at 2 a.m. in the mountain cold to the military soldier screening vehicles to the volunteers keeping people out of secured areas with a smile, everyone did their jobs as if the lives of those around them depended on them performing perfectly. Which they did.
There are inflection points in history that mark the departure from one course and the beginning of another. September 11, I believe, will mark a shift in numerous dimensions of human endeavor. Most poignantly, the growing human expectation of predictability and safety had been shocked by an undeniable reality of vulnerability and uncertainty. Politically, the Cold War competition between two superpowers was replaced by a “clash of civilizations.” A large and mighty military power had been frustrated by a tiny band of treacherous, agile terrorists. September 11, 2001 is a defining moment for our country and for the world. It was a dramatic manifestation of many streams of change that continue to play out around us.
Against this new historic course, the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics in their own way were also defining. This was the first international event since the attack, and it was in the United States. Seventy-seven countries were there, holding aloft their colors and parading the excellence of their youth. Even in an uncertain world, civilization would proceed, nations would gather, freedom would ring, and young heroes would be celebrated. We would not sacrifice those things that made humanity God’s greatest creation.