What Mitt Romney's response to Sept. 11 attacks can tell us about his approach to crisis management

Published: Thursday, July 26 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Kevin Killian, Olympic Games security, watches his assigned area at Utah Olympic Park Feb 9, 2002.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Editor's note: Second in a two-part series looking at GOP presidential campaign Mitt Romney's Olympic legacy in Utah. Read Part 1 here.

SALT LAKE CITY — Cindy Gillespie knew something was up when her boss, Mitt Romney, stopped talking about the upcoming 2002 Winter Olympics in a phone radio interview as he sat in a Washington, D.C., office.

Instead, the head of the Salt Lake Games was fielding questions from a radio host trying to sort out reports of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

Curious about what she was hearing through the thin walls of her small office, Gillespie went into the room where Romney was talking on the phone and he motioned for her to turn on the television. As they watched shaky images of a plane heading toward the twin towers, Romney ended the radio interview and he and Gillespie debated whether it was a small plane that flew off course or a passenger jet.

That was settled when they watched what was clearly a passenger jet slam into the second World Trade Center tower. Then came erroneous reports of bombs exploding at the Defense Department, Pentagon and the State Department.

Neither of them knew, or discussed, at that moment what the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would mean for the Olympics fewer than five months away. But more than a decade later, many of those who worked with Romney after he took over the scandal-plagued event cite 9/11 as the presumptive GOP presidential candidate's true test in executive crisis management and leadership.

The 2002 Games were in crisis when Romney took over the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. They had been rocked by an embarrassing bid-rigging scandal and were off course financially and logistically.

Some critics say Romney has overstated the claim that the games themselves were in peril considering he had three years and near global support to pull it off. But few dispute the challenge posed by 9/11, when thousands of athletes and spectators from around the world were seeking assurances they wouldn't be killed by terrorist attacks en route to or during the international event that was just months away.

"Our biggest setback was 9/11," said Fraser Bullock, former chief operating officer for SLOC and Romney's right-hand man. "Atlanta had been a victim of terrorism and Munich (in 1972), and now we were hosting the world after the biggest terrorist attack in history."

Experts in presidential politics are more cautious in their assessment, saying that past heroics can't accurately predict how a candidate will perform in the White House.

"The truth of the matter is there is no school for presidents," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who worked in two administrations and has studied the office of president. "In some ways, not even the vice presidency is a school for presidents."

Smells like war

The Salt Lake Games were on course to begin Feb. 8, 2002, when Romney and Gillespie, SLOC's Washington lobbyist, were to meet with government officials on Sept. 11 to tie up some loose ends in federal funding for security. Some $13 million had been inadvertently eliminated by a House committee and the pair wanted to meet with congressional appropriators in Washington to restore the funding.

But after hearing reports that the nation's capital was under attack, Gillespie said she recommended they leave for her Alexandria, Va., home before gridlock set in. Gillespie got her car while Romney packed up what they needed for work.

"There wasn't much traffic on the street yet," she recalled. "We went through the tunnel (for the 14th Street bridge) and when we came up out of the tunnel there was a beautiful blue sky then up on the bridge you could see the black, thick smoke covering half of the Pentagon."

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