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Icing on security cake?

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Utah's top Olympic security official says the addition of 50 federal officers to the Games security force will close one last area of vulnerability in the plans for protecting the 2002 Winter Games.

The officers will be placed at areas outside of Olympic venues where large crowds are expected to gather, said Robert Flowers, commander of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.

Flowers and others pointed out the vulnerability of a specific gathering area when Attorney General John Ashcroft visited Utah to review security plans and Olympic venues. Flowers, who declined to specify where the area is, said security planners had tried before to find more police to secure that spot.

"The only place they could come from was the federal side of the house," Flowers said. "We were told that there was nothing else available and we were told that he (Ashcroft) would go back and find some."

The 50 additional officers will join a force of about 10,000 military troops as well as police from roughly 60 federal, state and local agencies. An additional 5,000 security personnel from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee will help secure Olympic venues.

Flowers said he was surprised to learn of the additional officers, but added he's confident the increase will close any gaps in security plans.

"Short of fencing off all of downtown Salt Lake and putting one big magnetometer on I-15, I don't know what else you can do," he said.

News of these latest enhancements comes one week after Ashcroft visited Utah and, following a personal review of venues and security plans, declared the 2002 Winter Games were the best coordinated and best prepared ever.

Days earlier Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge visited Utah and praised security efforts, proclaiming on national television that the 2002 Winter Games would be the "safest sporting event ever."

Before Ridge's visit, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White both praised Olympic security preparations.

President Bush is expected to attend opening ceremonies Feb. 8.

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. The federal government is expected to cover about $250 million of that, a record for any Olympics held in the United States.

Justice Department officials said there was no surprise in Ashcroft's decision to become involved in many of the detailed security preparations for the Olympics. "Since Sept. 11, counterterrorism has dominated his agenda and he sees the Olympics as the biggest security headache we face right now," said a department official.

Past Olympics, as recently as the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, have been terrorist targets. One person was killed and more than 100 people injured when a pipe bomb exploded in an entertainment area known as Centennial Park, which was away from the sports arenas where competitions were held. Authorities have accused an anti-abortion activist from North Carolina, Eric Rudolph, of the 1996 Atlanta bombing. Rudolph, who has also been tied to white-supremacist groups, remains a fugitive.

Justice Department officials said they have ordered closer monitoring of domestic extremists, including anti-abortion and anti-government groups, that are based in the Western mountain states surrounding Utah.

The FBI is also planning a 24-hour-a-day direct video hookup between the Olympics security command center in Salt Lake City and the FBI's Strategic Information Operations Center, allowing bureau officials in Washington to monitor hundreds of surveillance cameras that have been stationed around the Olympic sites.

"This thing is so grand and it's spread out over such a large area it presents some challenges," Flowers said. "The way we address those challenges is with manpower."

Contributing: New York Times News Service

E-mail: djensen@desnews.com