Premiere Performances: NSSEs, Non-NSSEs - And the Security Risks Involved

Throughout the almost eight years since the 11 September 2001 attacks against prime terrorist targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., there has been heightened concern – not only within the United States but in many other countries as well – about the possibility of other attacks during major public events at ballparks, convention centers, race tracks, field houses, theaters, stadiums, concert halls, and other large-capacity facilities. That concern has led to increased security at such events – so much so that the higher levels of security now required are considered “routine,” and are generally accepted as such by the event planners and participants, and by the general public.

These increased and improved security measures might still not be enough, though, to protect the public and/or the performers at so-called “major or super events,” hereby defined as premiere events that capture national or international attention – e.g., sports championships and awards ceremonies such as the Super Bowl, the Olympics, major golf tournaments such as the U.S. Open and the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Wimbledon tennis matches, the Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards, World Cup Soccer Matches – and, from the racing world, Formula One contests, the Daytona 500, and the Indianapolis 500. Concerts featuring top headliners, major political conventions, and G8 summits obviously can be added to this already long list.

Certain events in the United States that would be particularly attractive to terrorists or assassins – because of their political importance, their size, the number of U.S. and foreign dignitaries likely to be attending, and their overall significance and visibility – have been designated by the U.S. government as National Special Security Events (NSSEs).  Prominent among the relatively recent events receiving the NSSE designation have been the funeral of former President Gerald Ford, the Presidential State of the Union addresses by Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions, the post-9/11 presidential inaugurations, and certain major international meetings attended by U.S. presidents and their counterparts from other nations. Various major sports events, including the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Super Bowl, Major League Baseball’s All-Star game, and the NBA’s All-Star game also have been designated as NSSEs.

The Secret Service has been assigned to serve as the lead federal agency “responsible for coordinating, planning, exercising, and implementing security” for the NSSEs, and has formed a Major Events Division specifically dedicated to managing what is an obviously formidable task.

In 2006, Sen. Arlen Spector, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored a measure to amend the Patriot Act to permit the Secret Service to arrest people who knowingly enter restricted areas at NSSEs. The measure was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other left-wing organizations, but ultimately became law as Sec. 602 (“Interference With National Special Security Events”) of the Patriot Act.

Numerous reasons have been cited for designating an event an NSSE, but probably the principal reason why such events represent major terrorist targets is that they receive extraordinary media coverage.  If terrorism is, first and foremost, a means of communication, then terrorists view a successful attack at or related to one of these events as a virtually guaranteed method of conveying their message of fear and vulnerability to the largest possible audience. At the time of the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, to consider but one conspicuous example, television cameras were bulky, heavy, and expensive – unlike today’s minicams and other portable equipment.  The Palestinian terrorists who attacked the Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics had no doubt, therefore, that a very high percentage of all of the television cameras in the world would be at the Olympics and that, by carrying out a horrific hostage drama, they would be guaranteed a global audience of unprecedented size.

National Special Security Events: The Official Rules 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), through its State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP) and Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), makes various grant monies available to state and local jurisdictions to help them cope with and manage the security aspects of NSSEs. Each such event must have an NSSE designation in order to qualify for a grant, but the DHS secretary has a certain degree of latitude to reprogram funds to deal with unforeseen and often unforeseeable events. According to at least one well placed DHS source, any serious threat – such as specific intelligence regarding a potential terrorist strike in the United States – might be enough to persuade the secretary to allocate money or personnel resources to an event that had not initially been designated as an NSSE.

Because the Secret Service is the lead federal agency in dealing with NSSEs, and other agencies – ranging from the FBI and the Defense Department to the Environmental Protection Agency and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) – also are likely to be involved, security forces from the venue itself and/or provided by local and state jurisdictions probably would be relegated to supporting roles. For that reason, the comments that follow will focus primarily on non-NSSEs – i.e., events of major significance and magnitude that do not quite qualify for an NSSE designation.

Non-NSSEs and Other Major Events 

Managing security for a major event is likely to be the most difficult challenge that a security manager undertakes.  If he or she does not have previous special-event experience, consideration should be given to bringing in someone with that background for the major event in question, and/or retaining the services of outside consultants for this purpose.  The security requirements for a major event, even if it has not been designated an NSSE, will generally require the resources and cooperation of local, state, and federal police and fire protection agencies, as well as a host of organizations ranging from the public and private entities in charge of critical infrastructure (power, water, gas, telecommunications, etc.) to local hospitals and medical support, city and county agencies and organizations, transportation modes and facilities – railroad and bus depots, for example, as well as airports and public and private parking garages – and even those responsible for security in the air space over the venue.

Appropriate time must be allocated to planners to prepare for and organize each event.  At high-capacity venues there may already have been a threat assessment, a security assessment, and an operations plan developed for addressing ordinary events. Even if this is the case, it is recommended that a new and more thorough threat assessment be carried out, particularly given the fact that conditions are now likely to be different, and more difficult, at a super event than they had been at a previous event.  For example, more VIPs probably will be in attendance, the crowds may be larger, there almost certainly will be more members of the media covering the event, and other risk factors may be greatly enhanced.  Organizers should refer to previous events of a similar nature, though, and use them as a template for their planning, paying special attention to the lessons learned and after-action reports.

After a new threat assessment has been prepared, planners can develop a master security plan and its operational counterpart for the specific event in question, often building on existing plans and previous operational experience. Today’s major events may even require some physical modifications to the venue – increasing the “through capacity” of doors, for example, to accommodate the installation of outsized detection systems such as magnetometers, x-ray machines, and other sensors.  Additional space also may be required both to facilitate the “wanding” of attendees by security personnel – and to search their bags, if bags are permitted on-site – and to carry out the more elaborate screening, in privacy, of potential high-risk attendees.

More space also may be needed for the hundreds or thousands of attendees queuing up to enter the venue, not only because the crowds are larger but also because it may take longer today to verify credentials and authenticate tickets.

An arena’s (or theater’s, or convention center’s) air vents may have to be secured to prevent the introduction of chemical or biological agents. Consideration may also have to be given to expanding the outer security perimeter and screening all vehicles, no exceptions, entering the area.  Underground parking beneath the venue may have to be tightly restricted – or banned altogether.  If there are several venues involved, the creation of a secure and reasonably convenient transportation system between the different sites will become a major requirement, and special arrangements will have to be established for buses and dignitary limos.  Here it is worth pointing out that it was because of vehicle breakdowns and an underestimation of the number of buses required that the organizers of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics were forced to bring in more buses – after the Games had already started – and there was not enough time to repaint the buses. The result was a situation that not only caused considerable confusion but also created a number of potential security breaches.

Today, most large venues already have in place a centralized communications and coordination center (CCC) for command and control, but the existing CCC  may have to be expanded (in size as well as in capabilities) to deal with the increased scale and complexity of a major-capacity special event.  For world- events the CCC may have to operate on a continuing 24/7 basis; in any case, it should be staffed by representatives of all of the participating agencies tasked with operational-security, crisis-management, and/or consequence-management responsibilities.

The CCC also will have to be equipped with up-to-date communications systems – including telephones, cell phones, computer lines, and wireless systems as well as interoperable radios that link the center to all key security nodes and locations as well as to every other type of internal and external communications resource available in the vicinity of the venue.  Another vital component of the CCC should be an intelligence team, the members of which would constantly evaluate risk factors and receive, process, and share intelligence related to the event.

The planning for all special events will require the establishment of an information center or other designated media area to accommodate what is likely to be a major influx of print and broadcast reporters, photographers, and news organizations covering the event. Regular briefings should be scheduled so that the media’s often insatiable need for news will be accommodated.  If media reps do not receive enough information, they may attempt to generate it themselves, particularly if an incident or problem of some kind occurs, and this can lead to rumors and misinformation being reported as fact.

Today, badging and credentialing are more important than ever before because they: (a) permit organizers to control the number of people attending the event; (b) determine what areas the various groups of attendees should have access to; and (c) ensure that those being screened are who they purport to be.  In recent years, a number of major sports events have had to deal with problems involving counterfeit tickets and/or credentials, not only experiencing a loss of revenue, but leading to problems such as too many people on “Pit Row” or backstage at a special event.  Fortunately, new technologies and systems have become available in recent years to protect and verify tickets and credentials not only more quickly but also more effectively.

Some planning also should be devoted to the possibility of a catastrophic WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction) attack on the venue. Preventing and/or coping with such an attack will require mass-casualty preparedness and environmental screening/public health surveillance, along with a scalable EMS response. It is and should be anticipated that medical staff will be on-site for such an event and that these professionals will have been both trained and exercised, beforehand, in addressing various WMD scenarios, including those involving chemical agents, radiological devices, biological agents, and/or hoaxes.  Nonetheless, if an incident does occur, the organizers and medical staff must know in particular: (1) where to report to for backup assistance; (2) how to triage casualties; and (3) the precautions necessary to prevent themselves and other first responders from becoming infected or contaminated.

Finally, after the advance planning has been completed and all operational components are in place, the whole system must be exercised – not just once, but over and over again – until all of the “bugs and wrinkles” have been worked out. The cardinal rule of event security, like most security situations, is that any such event is only as safe as its weakest link.  At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics the Achilles’ heel was Centennial Park.  It is vitally important that the planners of future such high-capacity events develop a seamless and well coordinated security program that is both inclusive enough and flexible enough that any deficiencies can beentified before the fact, and that appropriate fixes can be implemented before they can be exploited by terrorists or other evildoers.


Editor’s Note: In earlier articles for DPJ, Dr. Livingstone discussed the routine security measures required, in the post-9/11 era, for major public events at theaters, field houses, concert halls, sports arenas, and other facilities where large crowds are expected. (See Facilities Management in the Age of Terrorism, in the 29 June 2005 issue of DPJ; and Stadium and Venue Security, in the 24 September2008 issue.)

________________________ About the photo: This photo was taken at the Glastonbury Festival 2005, and shows the Pyramid Stage Pit Team.  Photo compliments of Specialized Security, one of the UK’s leading Crowd Management Companies, with a wealth of experience, particularly in dealing with the unique problems of large-scale music festivals and mass gatherings.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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