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Boston Prepares for Heavy Security During Democratic National Convention - 2004-07-22

The Democratic National Convention is two days away and security planners have been taking unprecedented measures to protect Convention delegates and the city of Boston. This is the first national political convention since the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The city of Boston will be under the highest level of security during the four-day convention. Security planners will shut down some busy highways, a major commuter rail stop, and close off air traffic around the Fleet Center, where the convention will be held. The U.S. Secret Service is overseeing security planning for the convention. Spokesman Scoot Sheef said that the agency is protecting not only the event, but also democracy itself.

"What is about to happen in the city of Boston is the continuation of the democratic process and the American way of life while our country is at war," he said.

A major interstate highway runs underground within 12 meters of the Fleet Center. The city will close it during the evenings of the four-day convention. An estimated 200,000 motorists will have to find a different way around Boston during those times.

A major commuter station, which stops one floor below where delegates meet, will be shut for an entire week. This is upsetting to many commuters.

"My name is Ellen Kneutsen and I'm from New Hampshire so I drive in everyday. I might completely revamp my whole life just for this, but whatever, I have got to get to work," she said.

"I'm Jeff from Brookline and I'm taking a vacation that week to Israel and I'm going to feel safer in Israel that week than I will in Boston," he added.

The rest of the subway will be running with extra trains. However, Joe Passatoro, a spokesman for the Metro Boston Transportation Authority, said during the convention, subway police will randomly inspect purses, bags and briefcases a measure not normally taken.

"We are discouraging people from bringing any large packages that week because every single carry-on is subject to inspection by trained professional police officers," he said.

Mr. Passatoro added that there is a compelling reason to conduct searches since passenger trains were bombed in Madrid in March. Because of these types of terrorist attacks and the ongoing war in Iraq, the U.S. government is very concerned about terrorism as the presidential election approaches.

"If you look at the documents we have from al Qaeda about the[ir] criteria for selection [of] targets, they look at targets that are highly symbolic," said Robert Pfaltzgraff, a professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. "And in the case of these targets, the conventions are symbolic of the American political process of democracy. Secondly, [Al Qaeda looks for] targets that bring together large numbers of people and therefore an attack would create mass causalities."

There will be about 36,000 delegates attending this week's Democratic convention and thousands of journalists and other visitors. In a month, the Republican National Convention will draw similar numbers. Professor Pfaltzgraff said that's why both of these events have been designated National Special Security Events, requiring stricter security.

"They must be provided protection against biological weapons use, against chemical weapons use and increased surveillance of the airspace around them," he said.

The enhanced security measures will strain the Boston Police Department, which has only 2100 officers. To cope, Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole said that her department is getting regional assistance.

"We've had to work on major events and we've always had to do it in a collaborative way," said Ms. O'Toole. "We have a great working relationship with the state police. We also have two large units assisting us. And these are highly trained special operations tactical type officers who will come in large groups."

Commissioner O'Toole says the convention site and surrounding areas are just one of many places in the city that will need protection. Besides the convention itself, hundreds of parties, dinners and meetings will be taking place in hotels and restaurants.

"We expect over a thousand events in the city that week that relate to the DNC," she added. "Now some of them will just be small breakfast meetings and others will be large gala events. So there are challenges that go far beyond the Fleet Center."

These unprecedented security measures could cost as much as $50 million. The federal government is footing most of this bill and will likely have to spend similar amounts to protect the Republican Convention as well.