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

SHARE What Mitt Romney’s response to Sept. 11 attacks can tell us about his approach to crisis management
I remember talking (to Romney) about numbers of magnetometers (metal detectors) to use. He wanted lots of information. I was always impressed by his attention to detail. If you had a meeting with him, you’d better come prepared. – Bob Flowers, former state Public Safety commissioner

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."

In his book “Turnaround,” where he recounts his time as head of the Salt Lake Olympics, Romney said the smoke that entered their vehicle "smelled like nothing I had ever smelled before. Like war."

Calls to family took place en route to Gillespie's home, and once there, calls to the SLOC team in Utah, whom he advised to go home and be with their families for the rest of the day. Romney then took calls from Olympic officials and news media from around the world, who expressed condolences, outrage and pressed him for assurances that the Games would go on and be secure.

A request came from Salt Lake Organizing Committee spokeswoman Caroline Shaw, who was in New York making preparations for an upcoming press conference that was postponed on the traditional Olympic Torch relay, to make a statement because the media were clamoring for comment.

But Romney initially didn't think it appropriate to express concern about the Olympics when the attack was so fresh in people's minds.

"Being in D.C. gave me and Mitt a slightly different sense" of what was happening than those who were calling from more far flung places, Gillespie said. "All day we were hearing reports that kept coming that the local area was under attack. Alerts on where to call to report missing people. … He saw all day the very real aftermath it was having on people as they tried to determine who is missing, dead or injured and putting families back together."

But Romney would later recount in his book that Los Angeles Times' Alan Abrahamson, in trying to convince him to speak out, predicted he would change his mind and realize the Olympic ideals of international cooperation was a message people needed to hear. By the end of the day, Romney would issue a statement saying the Olympics are needed more than ever and calling on the federal government to help ensure the games would be safe and secure.

The statement reflected what Romney and Gillespie had discussed throughout the day in between calls — how they would move forward once it was decided the Olympics would go forward. Romney has always stressed he never assumed the event would be canceled. But Gillespie noted that he also knew it was not his call.

"It was not a decision that is made solely by the head of the organizing committee, or a governor or a mayor. It's a decision that's made together by a country," she said.

So, the pair strategised how they would approach federal authorities and congressional leaders at the appropriate time to make that decision and then put into place any changes to the security plan to ensure the Games would be safe and secure. With Romney grounded in D.C. since no planes were flying, he and Gillespie decided to approach politicians who also were trapped in town about moving forward.

The next day, Romney and Gillespie met with Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and who had been involved in the Olympics security planning from the beginning, to go through their plans.

The nation's Capitol was in lockdown mode, further driving home the point that security was a top priority for the Games.

"The Capitol was heavily secured and we couldn't drive anywhere near it," Gillespie recalled. "They set up a new perimeter. I had to drop Mitt off a few blocks away and he walked to Sen. Hatch's office while I parked the car."

They talked about the impact on Utah and the need for an assessment as soon as possible on the support the U.S. government would give the Games. The also discussed how to assure athletes and the rest of the world that they would be safe coming to Salt Lake City.

They decided Hatch would reach out to House and Senate leadership as well as the federal agencies involved to set up a "security summit" two weeks from that meeting with Hatch.

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.

More security personnel were deployed and procedures modified, including the banning of aircraft traffic over the area during the opening ceremonies. The only apparent enhancement to the general public was the use of military working with volunteers at venues and vehicle checkpoints and law enforcement dressed in color-coded ski jackets and pants.

"We looked like guys coming off the resorts," Flowers said. "I still wear mine when I go skiing."

Olympic legacy

Romney skillfully used 9/11 as a new symbol for the Olympics, memorializing victims at torch-run venues and using the tattered flag from ground zero during the opening ceremonies, which has become an iconic image in the 2002 highlights reel.

Romney had always wanted the opening ceremonies to be emotional, so when the United States Olympic Committee wanted to use the flag, he seized on the idea and won an exception to the IOC's traditional ban on nationalism at Olympic ceremonies.

With the Obama campaign trying to define his GOP opponent as an unethical capitalist, Romney is expected to the use the London Games as a stage to tout his own Olympic legacy.

He did a national TV interview from London with NBC's Brian Williams Thursday, which touched on his Olympic moment, but also his faith, his response to the Aurora, Colo., shootings, and his finances and tax returns. And he will address Olympic athletes before attending opening ceremonies Friday to witness the lighting of the Olympic flame.

His admirers who worked with him at SLOC say Romney's Olympic experience is relevant to the office he is seeking.

Hess, from the Brookings Institution, explained most presidential candidates from the two major parties have remarkable records and qualities, such as leadership or organizational skills, or they wouldn't reach that public stage. And some past experience can transfer to select accomplishments.

He cited President Dwight D. Eisenhower's military background as helping him know where he could cut the defense budget and how President Lyndon B. Johnson's knowledge of where all the skeletons were buried in Congress likely helped him push through his Great Society agenda.

On the other hand, there have been presidents whose past records seemed a perfect fit, like commerce secretary and business leader Herbert Hoover who was president when the Great Depression hit, but who failed to live up to that promise; then others who were criticized for appearing not up to the task, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt who rose to become one of the country's greatest leaders.

Hess, who worked in both the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, watched Nixon as president try to work with his cabinet the way Eisenhower did, when Nixon was the vice president. "Over time, (Nixon) lost patience with his cabinet and turned to his White House staff for advice," Hess said.

Hess compares past records of candidates to a resume. "It reflects the sort of person I want, but it doesn't then translate into future," he said. "The world tends to look a lot different when you're president."

Still, pundits expect the Romney campaign to highlight the candidate's past performance leading the 2002 Olympics as among the reasons to put him into the oval office.

"The Olympics is an interesting story and people know something about it," said Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. "I think it's a winner for him and I expect him to make it in some dramatic form at some point."