Super Bowl Security on Alert before Big Game

Jan. 30, 2007
Air security plan, explosives detection, fan screening all come together for game

MIAMI_Gavin moved quickly around the spacious convention center, searching for a hidden bomb. Near a glass box containing a fire extinguisher, he sniffed the air and abruptly sat down. Inside was a pound of live high explosives, wrapped in black plastic.

For successfully finding the "bomb," Gavin got a treat from his handler, Special Agent L.A. Bykowsky of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. His training exercise over, the 7-year-old golden Labrador retriever is ready for duty conducting bomb-sniffing sweeps for the Super Bowl and its related events and hotels.

Gavin will be among 66 specialized canine bomb teams working as part of a massive local, state and federal security effort to protect one of the world's highest-profile public events from terrorists, foreign and domestic. The dog teams are one element of a 6-inch-thick security plan, which includes jet fighters and helicopters, tactical weapons teams, mobile bomb labs and robots, high-tech X-ray machines and sensors, intelligence databases and hundreds of uniformed police officers.

"We don't have any specific threat to this event," said Julie Torres, chief of the ATF's Miami office and the designated federal coordinator for Super Bowl security. "It is the biggest event in the nation as far as a sporting event. It is vulnerable as far as any terrorist activity. We have to plan excessively so we can provide proper security."

Those plans began to take shape two weeks after last year's Super Bowl in Detroit. This year's game is the sixth since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which forever changed the security landscape for any major U.S. public event. The Super Bowl is a Level One national security event, right behind a presidential inauguration in importance.

The trick for planners is to keep the game an enjoyable sporting event while still projecting a secure atmosphere. That means fans will see a significant police presence, but much more will be going on behind the scenes.

"What you want to do is give the appearance of preparedness and security, and give the fans a safe environment, but you don't want to look oppressive," said Maj. Lou Battle, Super Bowl coordinator for the Miami-Dade Police Department. "You're not going to feel like you're in an armed camp."

More than two dozen federal, state and local agencies are involved in security along with the NFL's own personnel. Milt Ahlerich, the NFL's vice president for security, said Monday that the league has hired 3,000 of its own personnel - part of $6 million budgeted for Super Bowl security - to handle chores ranging from running the magnetometers to screening fans at Dolphin Stadium.

"We have a great deal of confidence that our fans will be safe, that the two teams will be safe," he said.

Fans are prohibited from bringing most items into the game, other than a small bag that is subject to search. Traditional tailgating with cooking fires, tents and the like is banned in the parking lots, Ahlerich said.

The law enforcement agencies will be housed together at a Joint Operations Center, which includes U.S. intelligence agencies, a "bomb management" group and an aviation team to monitor all air traffic. On game day, Federal Aviation Administration flight restrictions for 10 miles around the stadium go into effect two hours before game time and end just before midnight.

"If you've got to fly, you just can't go through that perimeter," Torres said. "And if you do, you're going to have folks who are going to contact you and try to get your attention."

U.S. military fighters would handle any jetliners or other high-flying aircraft that violate the order. Any "low and slow" planes that stray into the space would be intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft, often Blackhawk helicopters or Citation jets, said CBP spokesman Zachary Mann.

The FBI plays a major role in coordinating the dissemination of intelligence and law enforcement databases - and investigating any suspected terrorism plots.

"Information dissemination is one of our highest priorities," said Stuart McArthur, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami field office and head of the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force. "Every threat that comes in will be checked out by the South Florida JTTF."

The FBI also is doing background checks on stadium workers and other employees involved in various Super Bowl events. Action will be taken if any red flags are raised.

Bykowsky said Gavin and the other bomb-sniffing dogs are capable of identifying minute amounts of powder and explosives no matter what other competing smells are around - kind of like finding a specific ingredient in a big bowl of vegetable soup. And there are some 19,000 explosives available around the world.

"If there are tomatoes in the soup, he will find them," she said.

Many of the Defense Department and other aircraft will operate out of Homestead Air Reserve Base south of Miami. The ATF has explosives expertise and a mobile bomb lab coming from Atlanta. Large X-ray machines used by Customs at ports will scan shipping containers and truck trailers for suspicious material and high-tech sensors will check for radioactive and biological substances.

"Every square foot of the Super Bowl venue is under surveillance of some sort," Battle said.

One wild card in Miami is whether there might be celebrations, or even rioting, among the thousands of Cuban exiles in the city if Fidel Castro dies before the game. The Cuban president has been seriously ill since midsummer, with some reports indicating he might be near death.

NFL officials and government officials say there is no plan to postpone the game or any of the numerous related events if Castro dies, and dealing with any disruptions triggered by such an event won't take away personnel or assets from Super Bowl security.

"There is a plan, and it's not going to affect the game at all - game day and all the events leading up to game day," said Torres, who was born in Cuba and moved to Miami with her family at age 5. "We have planned for that."