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Ashcroft praises Games’ security

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U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says security preparations for the 2002 Winter Games are a groundbreaking effort that could set a precedent for future large-scale events in the United States.

"What's happening here has never happened anywhere before," Ashcroft told reporters during a press conference at the Utah Media Center Friday.

"This is a groundbreaking event," Ashcroft added. "This is the opportunity for us to provide a basis for other events to use as a model, as a yardstick."

The cooperation between the more than 60 federal, state and local agencies has reached unparalleled levels in Salt Lake City, Ashcroft said. Representatives from each of those agencies are housed together in a centralized command center in downtown Salt Lake City with camera links to every venue and a computer system that allows them to share intelligence.

Such unprecedented cooperation was largely missing from security preparations for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

"In many settings there the agencies were separated, their communications were not seamless, as they need to be," Ashcroft said. "One of the things I'm very interested in here is to make sure they have the right surveillance and information capacity, the right intelligent capacity, the right analysis capacity, but that we also have this integration of these efforts."

Robert Flowers, who oversees Games security as head of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command, said he expects Ashcroft will be pleased with what he finds.

"Everybody that's a player here is in the same house, so there's no stove piping," Flowers said.

Ashcroft will stay in Utah through the weekend, meeting with security officials, touring venues and picking over security details.

"Frankly, I intend to be very thorough in assembling reports and visiting venues," Ashcroft said. "I believe that this is the most important security responsibility we have and that we can do a good job in redefining what it means to cooperate and to bring to bear the resources that are necessary to make sure that we have a secure environment."

Since Sept. 11, the federal government has allocated more than $30 million in additional security funding. With that money came the addition of military troops to help patrol the Games, as well as tighter restrictions on airspace during the Olympics. The total budget for Games security is now at about $300 million.

Such unprecedented financial and personnel support has led numerous high-level officials in Washington, D.C., like FBI Director Robert Mueller and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, to give rave reviews after their visits to Utah.

"Each of them said to me that they felt like we were operating at the highest level they had ever seen in terms of integration and cooperation and as I spend the next several days, that's what I'm going to be making sure we do," Ashcroft said.

At Friday's press conference Ashcroft was flanked by Sen. Bob Bennett, Sen. Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney. Ashcroft said he visited Utah at the request of Hatch several months ago.

"Having Attorney General Ashcroft here is one more powerful statement that the highest levels of government of the United States of America considers the Olympic Winter Games to be a high priority," Romney said.

E-mail: djensen@desnews.com