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Associated Press
Security officers march into Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta following an explosion that occurred early in the morning of July 27, 1996.

A massive American flag now drapes the front of the 25-story downtown building that houses the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, a symbol of national pride in the wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

A symbol of "America's Games" just five months away.

Unwittingly, the flag also may represent a symbolic target, for the 2002 Winter Games have increasingly become the focus of anti-terrorism discussions and security preparations. From Salt Lake water treatment plants to downtown rail yards, the possibility of terrorist attacks — no matter how preposterous or unfathomable a month ago — is given very real consideration.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks proved anything can happen, and massive security precautions are under way to ensure the worst fears are not realized. Top U.S. officials, plus Utah's congressional delegation and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, will meet in Washington, D.C., to discuss protecting Salt Lake's Winter Games.

"I would not say it will happen. What I would say is the Olympics are a prime stage for terrorists," said George Eisen, an expert in international terrorism and consultant to past Olympics.

Eisen said organized terrorism has two distinct goals: inflicting the maximum amount of humiliation and publicizing the terrorists' cause to the widest possible audience.

In the case of attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the goal, he said, was to humiliate America's economic, military and political infrastructure. And, because of live television, the images of the terror forever will be ingrained in the Western psyche, officials say.

And that is why the Winter Games in Salt Lake City also could be a huge target for terrorists.

Not only is America the host country, but the Games are sponsored by international corporations that symbolize American capitalism, such companies as Coca-Cola and McDonald's. And they will be attended by political leaders from dozens of nations that support the American political agenda.

And some 2 billion to 3 billion people around the world will watch television broadcasts of the Games.

"The Olympics are the ultimate world stage," said Eisen, director of the Center for International Education at William Paterson University in New Jersey. "All the elements are there . . . to provide the ultimate venue for publicizing the terrorist cause."

Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney disagrees, saying the Olympics are a nonpolitical event that does not meet terrorists' objectives. And the Games, with their tight security and international flavor, are anything but an ideal target.

"Attacking the Olympic Games and young athletes would do nothing but alienate the entire world," he said.

American targets

Romney, who is briefed regularly by federal officials overseeing security for the Games, said there is general agreement among security experts that the Games are not a good target for terrorism, but all precautions are being taken anyway.

"There are plenty of targets that would be more American," he insisted, adding other sporting events to that category.

However, a statement released Tuesday by the chief military commander for Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind in the Sept. 11 attacks, warned that if the United States retaliates, "wherever there are Americans and Jews, they will be targeted."

Are intelligence sources convinced the 2002 Winter Games are indeed a target? Media reports in recent days have cited those who fear that terrorists are planning to attack a large group of people at a sporting event. And they don't come much bigger than the Olympics.

Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, believes "terrorism is always a threat" at Olympic Games, ever since the 1972 attack in Munich.

But the Winter Games in Salt Lake City are also the most prepared of any sporting event in the United States to deter such an attack.

"It's almost the safest place to be, at least when it comes to any big gathering of people," said Neirotti, a scholar of the modern Olympic movement who has attended 10 consecutive Games since 1984.

An attack on the Games, she said, could "put mud on America's face . . . but I see the Super Bowl as more of a target because it is such an American icon."

David Romano, senior research scientist in the Mediterranean Section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and one of the world's foremost experts on the history of the Olympic Games, says the history of the Games, both ancient and modern, are replete with examples of individuals using the Games to further their political and military interests, often with considerable bloodshed.

In modern times, the Games have commonly been used as a platform for political agendas. Not only did Palestinian terrorists use the Munich Games as a stage for their cause, but Adolf Hitler used the Berlin Games for his political purposes.

The Americans boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviets retaliated by boycotting the Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Games in Mexico City became a stage for athletes to promote black rights. And the man wanted in the deadly bombing during the Atlanta Games is suspected of trying to draw attention to his violent anti-abortion agenda.

"The Olympic Games have always been political," Romano said. "With more than 190 countries participating, representing many different cultures, different languages and different religions, it is only natural they would become political."

And to think the Games, because they are international and secular, are exempt from the political stage used by terrorists would be naive. "It is a natural stage for many things political to happen," he said.

Terrorism types

Experts on all sides of the debate agree on one thing: Modern terrorism comes in many shapes and forms, from organized groups with meticulous planning to a single individual acting on his or her own political agenda. Romney calls the individuals "wackos" — and they are much more difficult to deter than organized terrorism.

Based on the terrorism formula of maximum humiliation and maximum publicity, what would be the potential Utah targets of terrorism? There are plenty from which to choose.

Perhaps the most obvious targets are opening and closing ceremonies, expected to draw tens of thousands from all over the world, including heads of state, for an event to be televised live to an international audience.

"Could this tragedy happen at Rice-Eccles Stadium . . . for the closing and opening ceremonies? Absolutely," Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard told reporters earlier this month.

Even Temple Square and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Office Building must be considered potential targets. The jihad launched by Muslim fundamentalists encourages the killing of all non-Muslims and even Muslims who do not subscribe to their fundamentalism.

And there is always the possibility of home-grown terrorism by individuals with long-standing personal and religious grudges against the LDS Church.

Church spokesman Dale Bills said the safety of visitors and employees is a "foremost concern," and in light of the Sept. 11 attacks security procedures are being reviewed. Representatives of the Church Security Department also serve on a committee working with the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command "to ensure that appropriate measures are in place for the Olympics."

Salt Lake Police Chief Rick Dinse told the Deseret News, "Our plans are as good as we can make them without keeping people away. It will be a safe environment, probably more so than any other time in Salt Lake City."

Romney maintains the $200 million security effort is being directed at every imaginable possibility, and he is satisfied those efforts will be adequate to protect athletes, dignitaries and visitors "for a specific piece of real estate for a specific period of time."

Is there no risk of attack? Romney said there are always risks, but you minimize them and deal with them. He is confident enough in the Games security that he has invited 55 members of his family to the Games, and all are coming.

Low risk or not, federal officials are taking a cautious approach to potential terrorist attacks. Olympic athletes involved in military-sponsored training programs are no longer allowed to talk to the media unless approved by officials in Washington, D.C. The reason, said U.S. Army spokeswoman Harriet Rice, is security for the athletes.

One athlete, speaking without permission, told the Deseret News that government officials "fear we could be targeted by terrorists."

Catastrophic fears

Nationally, there is growing concern that the next wave of terrorist attacks will involve something even more horrific than the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and that it will involve massive loss of human life.

Eisen said the real concern of the CIA and FBI is not so much a physical attack as it is a biological or chemical attack, perhaps by attacking interstate shipments of hazardous chemicals used by industry.

John Bromley, Union Pacific Railroad spokesman, said about 5 percent of its total rail shipments involves hazardous materials used mostly by industry.

Union Pacific has no plans to suspend interstate shipments of hazardous materials during the Games, and most of those materials will pass near downtown Salt Lake City.

The railroads all have their own security teams that guard against sabotage, and they have long-standing plans in place to deal with any release of hazardous materials. But it would be difficult, at best, to guard against sabotage along all of the thousands of miles of rail on all 34 trains that pass through Utah each day, Bromley said.

"We don't know if we will be doing anything different for the Olympics, but we are certainly discussing it internally," he said.

The potential for terror attacks extends far beyond the railroads. Every day, hundreds of semitrailer trucks carry hazardous materials through the heart of the city, mostly on I-15 and I-80. And four oil refineries straddle the Salt Lake-Davis County line, all with massive quantities of hazardous hydrofluoric acid used in the refining process.

Worst-case scenarios developed by the companies, local fire departments and the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that entire neighborhoods with tens of thousands of residents in Salt Lake City and south Davis County could be engulfed by toxic gases in the event emergency shutoff systems all fail and there is a massive release of chemicals.

Officials are also worried about possible terrorist strikes against dams and water treatment facilities. The FBI has been working closely with state and local water officials to identify potential targets and decrease their vulnerability to attack.

Munich perspective

Eisen said terrorism has been a real threat at every Olympics since 1972 when commandos from the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Eleven Israeli athletes, one German policeman and five terrorists died in a botched rescue attempt.

The 30-year-old image of black-hooded terrorists on a Munich balcony remains a permanent image of Olympic terrorism. "Until that moment, terrorism was faceless," Eisen said.

And in much the same way, the television images of jets smashing into the World Trade Center have created the same permanent image in Americans' minds. "It was a lesson not for a lifetime, but forever," he said. "It was a wake-up call."

Eisen said it will be difficult to protect all the venues, all the events, all the athletes and everyone else from presidents to sports enthusiasts gathered in large crowds at an internationally televised event.

"But I don't think you need to be more concerned than anyone else in America today," he said. "I believe the best way to combat terrorism is not to give in. Life must go on. The best response is not to let them intimidate us."


Monday's story: Chemical and biological threats.

E-mail: spang@desnews.com