The list of potential security disasters at Super Bowl XXXVI, to be played Sunday in New Orleans, is endless. The playbook for preventing those disasters is simple: use every effective security method known to man.
“We have made security our top priority,” said Milt Ahlerich, the NFL’s vice president of security. “[Commissioner Paul Tagliabue] said, ‘If you need it, buy it,’ and we did.”
The Super Bowl has always been a high-security event, and the war on terrorism led the Secret Service to declare it a national security event in November. But the threat of terror, a budget exceeding $6 million, a laundry list of planned security initiatives, and the participation of more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies adds up to what is being called the most security-conscious event ever in sports at least until the Winter Olympics start next week.
The Super Bowl and all its related events and parties last a week. But New Orleans this week in essence has become an oversized airport, as all the security elements air travelers now experience, and then some, are in place in the Big Easy. That means X-ray machines, undercover officers, armed guards, metal detectors, and an eight-foot concrete and wire-link fence barrier around the Louisiana Superdome.
It also means an ongoing struggle within NFL offices to strike a proper balance between the usual festivity of the event, New Orleans’ legendary anything-goes party reputation and the serious importance of the security operation. That balancing act becomes more difficult as Mardi Gras already is closing in on its frenetic Fat Tuesday finale Feb. 5.
“We don’t want security to be the focus of the game,” said Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin. “The ordinary fan may see an increase of security around the game, but the majority of what we do won’t be seen by the fans.”
Eleven other events have been classified National Special Security Events by the White House since the designation was created in 1998, but never before for a sporting event. The change this time came not because of the long list of politicans, celebrities and high rollers due to attend the game. Rather, the events of September 11 showed the implausible is now plausible, and none of the organizers involved want any real-life resemblance to “Black Sunday.” In that fictional book and movie from the 1970s, a Palestine Liberation Organization plot develops to detonate a explosive dart-filled blimp over a Super Bowl in New Orleans.
“We want to send a very strong message to all visitors that New Orleans is going to be the safest place in America this weekend,” said New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial. The city is hosting its ninth Super Bowl.
More than 2,000 security personnel stationed in the Louisiana Superdome, downtown New Orleans and along the Mississippi River will be on alert for all types of wrong-doing. But authorities are particularly looking for any attempts at hurting a large group of people, such as the pipe-bomb explosion at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“The biggest threat is definitely biological,” said Barry Horvitz, a Houston-based weapons and hazardous materials expert who has worked with the NFL. “You’re not going to get a bomb anywhere near that stadium, not now. The no-fly zone is going to be quite secure. But a small vial of something hidden somewhere on a person? That’s harder to find.
“The tough thing is that you try and predict every possible scenario, and realistically you just can’t. Having said that, it looks like the NFL has built upon last year’s plan from Tampa [site of Super Bowl XXXV] well and put together a real solid plan,” Horvitz said.
The computerized facial imaging from last year’s game cameras inside the stadium were connected to high-speed databases to identify those with criminal pasts will not make a return appearance at the Super Bowl. Rather, that technology is being deployed at the Olympics.
Soon after September 11, the NFL began to drastically rework its security plans to incorporate the increased presence. The planning intensified and grew more complicated once the national-security designation arrived and the Secret Service took control. But by early December, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were conducting mock drills to evacuate the Superdome if disaster does strike, representing the last major piece of planning.
“We’ve had to come a very long way in a very short period of time,” said Terry Landry, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police. “But we’re absolutely ready.”