Opinion » Editorial




While the provincial budget was introduced this week, we still haven't seen the final price tag on the security industry stimulus package, otherwise known as the Olympic security budget.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen expressed his frustration at not being able to disclose the Olympic security budget, saying last minute details still have to be finalized between the federal government and the province. It has been widely reported that the figure will be close to $1 billion, but Hansen says the province will be on the hook for significantly less than half of the total. British Columbia is responsible for security at Olympic venues, while Canada looks after national defence, border security and protection of international VIPs.

A substantial amount of the security budget is said to be related to accommodation, as well as training and equipment. Some of the funding will also carry over to security arrangements when Canada hosts the G8 summit in 2010.

Still, the suspicion is that security experts are taking full advantage of the fear factor when drawing up Olympic security plans. Erring on the side of caution is, of course, prudent in the world of security. But there is prudent and there is excessive; neither one can guarantee security.

Security was not obtrusive or excessive at last week's successful one-year countdown celebrations, but the details of who was going to be there - including IOC President Jacques Rogge and Premier Gordon Campbell - were not released until a few days before the event, for security reasons.

This may have been prudent, but it may also be indicative of the level of control security experts and government officials want to maintain. The threat of harm to anyone in Whistler last week was low. The threat of an embarrassing protest before television cameras was eliminated by keeping details of the event quiet.

Meanwhile, it is encouraging that plans for nightly entertainment at Celebration Plaza during the Games no longer include the "mag & bag" airport-type screening that has become ubiquitous at Olympics since Salt Lake City in 2002. Anyone entering an Olympic venue in 2010 will have to go through a mag & bag check, but since Celebration Plaza is no longer an official venue the mag & bag will be eliminated.

That would also suggest that determining the appropriate levels of security during the Games has more to do with official Olympic protocol than with where people may gather. The Olympics have a sponsor that supplies security machines. But as Cesare Vaciago, CEO of the Torino Olympic Organizing Committee, told a Vancouver audience a couple of years ago, the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany drew up to 80,000 people to stadiums, and there was no mag & bag.

"Throw away the mag & bag," Vaciago said. "The mag & bag is completely useless."

Another lesson Vaciago offered was, "Never listen too much to the engineers." Balance the experience of others with intuition, he said.

A similar message comes from Bruce Schneier, a Minneapolis man alternately called a "security guru" (The Economist), "the smartest guy in the room on security" (the ACLU), and "unquestionably the world's foremost security technologist" (Connections). Schneier has written and talked about "security theatre," the absurd responses to security threats. The best examples are found in airports, where because one person tried to hide a bomb in his shoes everyone now has to take their shoes off before boarding; where passengers' lighters were taken away, but not their matches or batteries; and where restrictions on liquids were imposed after a British plot was unveiled.

Schneier points out that the security budget for the Athens Olympics in 2004 was about US$1.5 billion and involved a total of 70,000 people, or about seven people involved in security per athlete. Despite these measures, a man wearing a tutu and clown shoes managed to climb a diving board, dive into the Olympic pool and swim around for several minutes before officials pulled him out. He had the name of an online gambling website printed on his chest.

But Schneier also believes security theatre can be a good thing, when it brings our feelings of safety into line with the actual threat.

So what is the actual threat of terrorism during the Olympics? Of course it can vary if someone like the president of the United States attends. But after several years following the One Per Cent Doctrine - former vice president Dick Cheney's belief that if there was a one per cent chance of a terrorist attack nothing should be spared to prevent that possibility - there is a growing belief that security should be measured in response to the likelihood of threat. That is still the security experts' call, but last week the new director of intelligence in the United States, Dennis Blair, told Congress that instability caused by the global economic crisis now topped terrorism as the biggest security threat facing that country.

Last November, an audit of the FBI's terrorism case-tracking system from mid-2004 to November 2007 found 108,000 potential terrorism threats or suspicious incidents were tracked. Most were found groundless.

Are Canadians getting full value for the expected $1 billion security bill for the Olympics? Only the experts know for sure.

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