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Games ‘safest ever,’ Ridge says

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Homeland security director Tom Ridge toured Olympic venues Thursday after saying on national television that he believes the 2002 Winter Games will be the most secure Olympics in history.

"I would assure you . . . they have done everything humanly and technologically possible to prepare, to prevent, to detect, to disrupt and, in the very unlikely event that something were to occur, to respond to it in a meaningful way and very appropriate way," he said on NBC's "Today."

"We've covered the landscape of possibilities, and we're prepared to deal with any situation.

"This is probably going to be one of the most secure places in the world from Feb. 8 through Feb. 24 . . . and clearly the safest sporting event ever," Ridge said.

Ridge's visit came on the heels of a briefing Wednesday with local, national and international media by leaders of the Olympic Public Safety Command, a consortium of federal, state and local agencies charged with keeping the Games safe.

UOPSC Commander Robert Flowers said at the briefing that in a post-Sept. 11 world, reporters from around the world are asking the same question ? will the 2002 Winter Games be safe?

"The buck will probably stop with the public safety command, which would be me," Flowers told the horde of reporters crowded into a small room at UOPSC headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday. "My biggest worry is the fact that there would not be much forgiveness in the public eye (if something goes wrong)."

It seems lately Flowers and Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney have rarely made it through a post-Sept. 11 press conference without someone asking about Olympic security. Wednesday's press conference included several national and international journalists from as far away as France and Japan.

High-level visits from Washington are also increasing as the Games draw near. There's Ridge's visit this week. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is expected to visit next week and Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White toured Olympic venues in November.

With the increased attention has come increased resources.

Flowers estimates the budget for Olympic security has increased by 25 percent since the attacks on the United States, including a larger military presence. The total number of police and military troops working the Games is now between 8,500 and 10,000 people, Flowers said.

"Post Sept. 11 we've received unprecedented support from the White House, from Governor (Mike) Leavitt and others. We've received everything that we requested," Flowers said. "That wasn't necessarily the case before."

Roughly half of the police from Utah will work the Olympics, Flowers said.

About 200 out-of-state officers have had to back out of their commitment to volunteer during the Olympics, many because of increased security around the nation since Sept. 11.

"A lot of homeland security issues are coming up," Flowers said. "They have changed some of their missions, and I support their decision, frankly. We have what we need; we would like to have more."

While many details of the security plan remain under wraps, Flowers and UOPSC executive director David Tubbs revealed Wednesday at least some of what people can expect during the Games.

A number of cameras will be placed around Olympic venues, with direct feeds to the Olympic Coordination Center in downtown Salt Lake City. The OCC will serve as the nerve center for public safety officials from several federal, state and local agencies during the Games. Using the cameras, officials in the OCC can monitor venues and even traffic flow on the major roadways.

Thousands of radios will also be used, and authorities are working to encrypt their communications devices so the public won't be able to pick up conversations over police scanners.

"We'd like to make certain what we talk about will be kept among ourselves," Tubbs said.

Wednesday's exercise at the OCC tested those communications devices. The training session was the last of about 100 major Olympic security exercises held over the past several months.

"I would say we're 95 percent where we need to be," Flowers said.

And in less than a month it all starts for real.

"You don't have time to worry," said Tubbs, who also helped plan security for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. "You really don't."

Contributing: Associated Press

E-MAIL: djensen@desnews.com