My Point of View: Security Spending on Steroids

I just returned from a two-week stay in the United Kingdom. Believe it or not, it was my first trip to London. I grew up in France as a young child — military brat — and have traveled throughout Europe and the Pacific Rim for business over the years. But getting a chance to experience the vibe of London as it prepares for the 2012 Summer Olympics was quite an eye-opener.

Everywhere we traveled throughout London, there was frenzied construction happening — both at street level and below. Hardening of critical infrastructure, road expansions, subway upgrades, train station revamping and just general cleanup gave London the appearance of an active beehive. Considering the incredible traffic congestion we saw downtown and on the “tube” during business hours and after, I am truly concerned how the city expects to cope with the massive influx of world visitors.

While touring the gritty East End of London, a depressed area of the city where most of the Olympic venues are being built, it is obvious that the traffic worries will sort themselves out. Like all Olympic Games in the post-9/11 world, security is the star of this event — and one of its most expensive components.

Londoners found out just how serious the issue of security would be for them in 2012, when just hours after being awarded the Games in 2005, terrorists struck the heart of the city’s transit system, killing 56 people and forcing the Games’ organizers to reassess their plans to secure more than eight million residents and millions more incoming tourists. The initial security cost estimates of $400 million for the London Games have expanded to more than $940 million, and in the end, they could exceed $2 billion, according to reports.

British security experts are saying that the London Olympic committee sorely underestimated the cost of security during its first cost-benefit analysis. But then, so did Greece when it put in its bid and won the 2004 Summer Games long before Sept. 11, 2001. Athens officials thought they would be shelling out around $122 million for security in 2004, but wound up racking up more than $1.8 billion in security expenses, which included a command-and-control system and safe houses in case of a major attack. By contrast, Atlanta’s security tab in 1996 was a paltry $150 million.

Talking to some security officials I met in London, living under the specter of terrorists is nothing new for the city’s law enforcement community. A history of dealing with the Irish Republican Army and home-grown Islamic fanatics has given London a head start when it comes to securing its municipal centers. The city has more than 600,000 video surveillance cameras — one of the largest systems in the world, and a robust transportation security plan.

While Greece may receive the gold medal for Olympic overspending, there are many factors behind their crippling debt crisis — although the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens has drawn particular attention. Those Olympics cost nearly $11 billion by current exchange rates — double the initial budget — and its security expenditures were more than four-times higher than any other Olympics in history.

Seven years after the 2004 Games, more than half of Athens’ Olympic sites are barely used or empty. That will not happen in London. Every Londoner I spoke with applauded the rejuvenation of the East End being created by the Summer Olympics. They fully expect that once the Games leave town, London will be a better and safer city.

“The more money we spent for security at the [Olympic] Games this summer, the more money we will make here in the city over the next decade,” said one enlightened British cabbie I rode with. “We need a safe environment to work and live. We’re all willing to pay for that here.”