Olympic-size security

Recently, I got a call from an ESPN producer preparing to leave for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. She wanted to make sure they had current contact information for security experts — just in case.

A high-profile event, gathering tens of thousands from all over the world, naturally raises concerns about a terrorist attack. The recent release of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” a film dealing with the terrorist killings at the 1972 Summer Olympics, hardly lessens the anxiety.

Today, however, an Olympic venue is not nearly as attractive a target as might be assumed. That’s a reflection of truly robust international cooperation on combating terrorism.

Security has been continually pumped up since the 1972 horrors. After Sept. 11, it went on steroids. The 2002 Salt Lake City, Utah, Winter Olympics featured an unprecedented, integrated security and intelligence apparatus organized by Mitt Romney (now governor of Massachusetts). Salt Lake set the standard.

Alternating the Summer and Winter Olympics every two years, instead of featuring them both in the same year, has helped a lot as well. It allows Olympic organizers time to integrate lessons learned and prepare to ensure that the Winter Games receive the same attention as the more crowded summer venues.

The result is that the games themselves represent less promising targets.

Organized terrorist groups seek predictability in planning their attacks. They have limited means, so when they go in harm’s way they like to know what kind of security they are going to face and the likely consequences of their strike — both in terms of the physical damage done and the impact on political views and popular opinion.

On either score, the Olympics are not a very promising target. As a one-time event, there are few opportunities to conduct thorough surveillance. That makes it harder to predict and surmount any obstacles.

Nor is the international community apt to react positively to any attack at the Olympics, no matter who is attacked or who does the attacking. That’s why in recent years the only attacks at an Olympic venue have come from “lone wolves,” such as Eric Rudolph’s bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. They are more lucky than good. They use a different calculus and tend to take more risks than a methodical transnational terrorist group.

Still, if the Olympics in Turin are peaceful, safe and terrorist-free, it won’t be by accident. Despite all the wailing about American “exceptionalism” and public rejections of the notion that the world should be conducting a war on terrorism, the truth is that many countries take the threat of transnational terrorist organizations very seriously. And their actions are far more aggressive, proactive and cooperative than their rhetoric might suggest.

Europe offers a case in point. European cooperation on intelligence and law enforcement matters has been extensive. After Sept. 11, for example, the European countries established a continentwide arrest warrant, a powerful anti-terrorist tool that was negotiated and approved in only a few months.

Yes, an Italian magistrate famously used the warrant to indict 22 suspected CIA agents. That was just a case of grandstanding, though — part of the general, for-public-consumption silliness accompanying European complaints about American anti-terrorism actions. But the public flailing so often administered to the U.S. by the European press and politicos is cold comfort to the terrorists who, in practice, have found it much tougher to operate in Europe in recent years.

Another reason the Olympics will be safer is that America, despite the thankless rhetoric from Europe, still willingly bears a lion’s share of the burden of providing for European security against transnational terrorism. For the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece, Americans chipped in more $35 million in security assistance and support, with more than 22 federal agencies and offices participating in the effort to make both the participants and fans safe.

Olympic security is like the Olympic Games. It is a world-class international effort that produces world-class results. And the United States does more than its fair share. Like most Winter Olympics, Americans probably won’t win the most medals. And America won’t get a lot of credit for the security it brings to Europe. But because of America’s initiative and the extensive international cooperation it has enlisted, there is every reason to hope that professional terrorists will be the real losers.

Carafano is senior fellow for national security in the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).