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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

Romney and Gillespie also met with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a vocal critic of the hundreds of millions of federal dollars the Olympics had siphoned out of federal coffers for highways, transit and other infrastructure, including security. But on Sept. 12, the man who would defeat Romney for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination had changed his tune.

"That day, when Mitt walked in the door, (McCain) said to him, 'You do what you need to do to secure these Games, and I'll be with you,'" Gillespie recalled.

'Defining hours'

Three days after 9/11, Romney caught a flight back to Utah. Soon after touching down at Salt Lake City International Airport, he gathered SLOC employees on the Gallivan Plaza outside SLOC headquarters for an impromptu and emotional meeting.

He had sent an email to the staff the day after 9/11 saying the 2002 Winter Games had taken on added meaning and that their work could stand among the "defining hours" in Olympic and Utah history.

But the all-staff meeting is what sticks in the memory of former SLOC workers contacted for this story.

"I don't recall all the words exactly but I just remember feeling what he was saying. He was struck by this just as we were," recalled Cathy Priestner Allinger, former managing director of sport, medical and doping for SLOC. "When he spoke to us, it was really from the heart. … In terms of emotion, I've not had many moments like that in my life."

The next two weeks were dominated by an intense and exhaustive review of a security plan that had been in the making since the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

"I remember talking (to Romney) about numbers of magnetometers (metal detectors) to use. He wanted lots of information," recalled Bob Flowers, the former state Public Safety commissioner and member of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command. "I was always impressed by his attention to detail. If you had a meeting with him, you'd better come prepared."

Flowers said that during the Games, Romney expected two calls a day from him for updates on security.

The summit came off as planned, with House and Senate leaders committing an additional $40 million in funding to enhance a security plan. A press conference was held announcing the commitment that the Games would be held and security would be modified to ensure public safety.

Another key decision: Gillespie said the Salt Lake Organizing Committee invited Olympic security from all the participating countries to Salt Lake City for a briefing on the enhanced plan.

"That meant a lot," she said. "It was challenged, reviewed, tackled, and they walked away comfortable that they could send their athletes."

Efforts were also made to personally reassure athletes and their coaches at events leading up to the Olympics. "I think it was one of the smartest things we ever did," she said.

There were moments of doubt, however, fueled by public statements spelling out possible attack scenarios. The zinger was a story quoting Garhard Heiberg, president of the games in Lillehammer, saying if the United States is waging a war against terrorism, the Olympics may have to be canceled.

Heiberg would later tell the Deseret News that he was misquoted and was certain the Olympics would be held. But Romney would write that the retractions didn't get the attention Heiberg's original statement did, which left a lingering impression the Salt Lake Games could be canceled.

State and federal security officials believed they already had a comprehensive plan before 9/11, involving some 65 local, state and federal agencies, including the city's public works department.

"(Sept. 11) gave everyone a greater sense of urgency," said former Utah Olympic Public Safety Command director David Tubbs. "We couldn't be complacent. It really brought things into focus."

But Tubbs and Gillespie acknowledged that being law enforcers, they pushed for a real show of police force. Romney pushed back, contending he didn't want the appearance of a police-state.

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