2010: It's the terror, stupid

Terrorism could occur right in your neighbourhood. Try to imagine what would happen if a "dirty" suitcase bomb, combining nuclear materials and conventional explosives, were detonated at a major Vancouver intersection, spewing radiation over several blocks. How about an anthrax attack, in which a fatal bacterial disease got dispersed through ventilation systems or drinking water? Then there is the possibility of a few suicide attackers hopping on the SkyTrain one morning, setting off bombs, and taking hundreds of commuters' lives.

If a group like al-Qaeda wanted to make a really sensational splash, it might try to disrupt the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies at BC Place Stadium. Crashing that event would guarantee a global audience, especially if Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles were in the building at the time.

Sound ridiculous? Not according to Peter St. John, a security expert and academic who gives confidential briefings on terrorism to police forces. He told the Georgia Straight that Vancouver is a "candidate" for any of the above-mentioned attacks, particularly during the 2010 Winter Games. Keep in mind that back in 1991, St. John predicted in a U.S. television interview that terrorists would one day crash airliners into two high-rise office buildings in New York City.

St. John, who teaches a course on terrorism and espionage at the University of Manitoba, noted that Osama bin Laden has specifically mentioned this country as a target because Canadian armed forces are in Afghanistan. "Canada is certainly going to be hit by al-Qaeda sooner or later," St. John said. "So we can anticipate that Vancouver might be a venue where they would try to do something."

When Vancouver held a 2003 plebiscite on the Winter Olympics, the media didn't focus much on terrorism. Nor did many citizens think about the possibility of a major pre-Olympic crackdown on dissent and harsh new surveillance measures.

The mood is beginning to change since the July 7 suicide attacks on the London transit system. Harsha Walia, a Vancouver organizer with a human-rights group called No One Is Illegal, told the Straight that she worries Ottawa will exploit fears over Games-related terrorism to impose a security dragnet. She said that the U.S. government will likely continue pushing Canadian officials to adopt stricter antiterrorism measures, which could also be justified in the name of the Olympics.

Walia claimed that these changes could include privatized immigration-detention centres, preventive detention of Olympics dissenters, and extrajudicial removals of immigrants. "The other thing about the Olympics is a lot of things are able to be passed through administrative directives as opposed to going through the legislative process," she said. "That adds to secrecy."

Dale Beyerstein, a Langara College philosophy instructor, told the Straight that taxpayers should expect police and other agencies to demand more public funds to enhance security during the Olympics. Beyerstein, a civil libertarian, warned that police agencies will want to spend a lot of money on certain security devices that in his opinion are of dubious value, such as voice-stress analyzers and closed-circuit television cameras.

"Once they've bought them, they're going to say, 'Might as well leave them up rather than put them in storage'," Beyerstein predicted. "So I have no doubt that Vancouver will be less a place for personal privacy during the Olympics and after than it is today."

B.C.'s Olympic organizers forecast a security budget of $177 million, split 50-50 between the federal and provincial governments. B.C.'s auditor general, Wayne Strelioff, deemed this to be "reasonable" in 2003. Almost two-thirds, $110 million, was the estimated cost for police personnel. No allowance was made for inflation. Deputy auditor general Errol Price recently told the Straight that his office will take a second look at the Olympic cost estimates later this year, and publish a new report in 2006.

In the meantime, some are already predicting that the final Olympic security bill will be much higher. Chris Shaw, spokesperson for the group 2010 Watch, told the Straight that he has been unable to obtain any information concerning the basis of the original $177-million estimate. "This number was so glaringly out of whack for the security costs, you almost have to demand how they got to it," Shaw said. "Of all the budget [numbers], this was the one that was most obviously low-balled, and had to go up."

The security budget for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics rose from US$84 million to US$330 million. The Greek government says it spent US$1.5 billion on security for the 2004 Summer Games. According to media reports, 70,000 security officials were on patrol, outnumbering athletes by a 7:1 ratio. NATO provided air support, the U.S. 6th Fleet guarded the Mediterranean Sea, and Patriot missile bases were installed to resist large-scale attacks.

Ron Foyle, a retired Vancouver police inspector, knows how difficult it is to try to cover off all the potential risks at major events. He oversaw security during the Vancouver world's fair in 1986. He supervised the VPD's role in providing VIP protection for Pope John Paul II, George Bush Sr., Margaret Thatcher, and Prince Charles and Lady Diana. After retiring from the police department, he headed up BC Transit's police force.

Foyle, now the head of R.J. Foyle Security Consultants, told the Straight that Vancouver Olympic organizers' $177-million security budget is not nearly sufficient to address all the potential threats. "I think they're about halfway," Foyle said. "I don't think that they've put enough money into security. That's my personal feeling."

Sen. Colin Kenny, chair of the Senate committee on national security and defence, told the Straight that Foyle is probably "low-balling" it when he says the Vancouver Olympic security budget should only be doubled. Kenny pointed out that security budgets have risen astronomically since the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where terrorists kidnapped Israeli athletes. He suggested that the cost of security could easily outweigh the economic benefits that come with submitting a successful bid.

"Take a look at the last Olympic Games," Kenny said. "I think they spent over a billion."

Leo Knight, a senior vice-president of Paladin Security Group Ltd., told the Straight that he thinks the $177-million estimate for security is "reasonable". However, he conceded that this budget could increase by three or four times depending on what happens in the world during the next five years. "September 11 threw out the rule book, and people are now forced to think the unthinkable," he said.

The RCMP declined comment on its security preparations pending the return of spokesperson Sgt. John Ward on August 15, which was after the Straight's deadline. VANOC, which is organizing the Olympics, declined the Straight's request for an interview.

Knight, a former RCMP officer, revealed that RCMP Sgt. Maj. Hugh Stewart has been brought out of retirement to become the senior planner for the Mounties' 2010 Integrated Security Unit. "They're talking over 4,000 police officers and over 4,000 security officers, plus volunteers," Knight said.

Stewart was nicknamed Sergeant Pepper after he pepper-sprayed protesters at UBC during the 1997 APEC conference in Vancouver. The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP concluded that Stewart did not give the demonstrators enough time to clear the road, and that his use of pepper spray was "not a justifiable or appropriate level of force". The report, written by Ted Hughes, found that the unnecessary pepper-spraying was the "direct result" of the inadequacy of police planning and the lack of a contingency plan. RCMP officers were cleared on many other complaints.

According to several people contacted for this article, including St. John, Vancouver would be a soft terrorism target because of its geography and because Canadian political leaders are complacent about security. The rugged terrain along the Sea to Sky Highway is ideal for ambushes. The region's many bridges serve as choke points where large amounts of traffic can be disrupted. The new RAV line, which will travel underneath Cambie Street and downtown Vancouver, will afford opportunities for suicide bombers. The ferry system is vulnerable because anyone could drive onto a vessel in a vehicle packed with explosives. There will be two Olympic villages to protect, one in Whistler and one in Vancouver. And the distances between Olympic venues stretching from the Callaghan Valley to Richmond mean that athletes and officials will require lots of transportation, elevating security risks.

"It's a terrorist's haven and paradise," St. John said. "It's a counterterrorist's nightmare, but you have to do it."

St. John said that the best defences against terrorism are effective intelligence and superb cooperation between local and national police forces and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. "Unfortunately, the leaders of Canada don't care about security and they don't take terrorism seriously," he claimed. "And they'll palliate the public by throwing money at it. Of course that's not the answer."

Shaw pointed out that two people disrupted the Athens Olympics, even with all the security measures in place. One prankster jumped onto a diving board during a competition; another man interfered with the marathon.

Foyle said the biggest Olympics-security expenses will come from supplying personnel and equipment, particularly closed-circuit television cameras. He calls himself a fan of video surveillance, and hopes these devices are installed along the Sea to Sky Highway.

"Those...expenses are huge to start off, but that highway would be well-patrolled before and after the Olympics with CCTV coverage," Foyle said.

There were more than 60 exhibitors at a recent Security Canada Conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel, including several companies in the business of supplying closed-circuit television systems. RCMP Supt. Robert Harriman, chief operations officer with the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit, was listed as one of the speakers at the event.

On May 18, the Vancouver police board quietly ditched a proposal to install 25 closed-circuit television cameras on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, Gastown, Strathcona, and Chinatown. At an in-camera meeting, the Vancouver police board voted instead on Insp. Axel Hovbrender's recommendation to allow the VPD to explore other areas of the city where CCTV could be used to "maximum benefit".

Hovbrender told the Straight that he knows of no plans to come back with a new proposal for CCTV near the city's Olympic facilities. "What this basically provides is an opportunity for other district commanders to look at this," he said.

Hovbrender declined to comment on what the federal government or Olympic security planners might be contemplating with regard to public surveillance systems. "Certainly from the VPD's perspective, that isn't on the horizon," he said.

Lawyer Jason Gratl, president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, told the Straight that his group is monitoring this situation very closely. "Advocates of CCTV will attempt to use any wedge issue to bring the technology to Vancouver, including the Olympics or including any kind of terrorist strike that makes the news," he said. "There are consultants and manufacturers of CCTV products that have an eye to the sale of those products and the sale of those services."

Gratl claimed there is no proven record that CCTV prevents crime or attacks. Hovbrender's report to the Vancouver police board cited a recent British study for the Home Office, which examined 13 CCTV systems in a variety of settings. It found that CCTV had "little effect" on crime levels. CCTV systems with greater coverage appeared to achieve a larger reduction, and the effect was increased in enclosed areas. Foyle claimed that CCTV makes it easier to apprehend criminals after they commit offences, which reduces this activity in the future.

The debate over Olympic security has been intense in other host cities. Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a University of Toronto sociologist who studies the Olympic industry, told the Straight that she expects a clampdown on freedom of expression and on protests in Vancouver. Lenskyj noted that prior to the Olympics in Atlanta, Sydney, and even to a certain extent in Salt Lake City, politicians amended legislation or created new laws to criminalize "all sorts of behaviours associated with being poor".

"No Olympic host city likes to have the world's media ferreting around behind the scenes for the kind of stories that put them in a bad light," she said. "They try to suppress that kind of thing."

The International Olympic Committee's Charter states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

If authorities enforce this dictum with excessive zeal in Canada, they could run afoul of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms-which is exactly what happened during the APEC demonstrations. In the meantime, security experts continue worrying about the potential of Olympic-related terrorism. Civil libertarians fret about a coming Olympic-related police crackdown that will change Vancouver forever. And if the security budget sharply escalates the way it has with previous Games, more people across the province will begin questioning the cost of B.C.'s Olympic adventure.