Secret Service coordinator in the eye of convention storm

Steve Hughes, the Secret Service's chief coordinator for GOP convention security, has spent 15 months preparing for the event.

As he traverses the red-carpeted floor of the convention hall, Steve Hughes says confidently, "This will be the safest place to be." Why? He can't say -- on the record at least. But trust us, his off-the-record explanation was convincing.

Hughes, the Secret Service's chief coordinator for convention security, has been stationed in New York City for the past 15 months, overseeing security arrangements at Madison Square Garden and beyond the security perimeter. Hughes and two colleagues spent an hour earlier in the week walking Convention Daily through the hall and its security components -- well, at least the ones they're willing to talk about.

When Hughes arrived here last year, the Secret Service was already three months into its evaluation of the security scene at the Garden -- a five-month project that produced a phone-book-sized document that detailed every security hole and how to plug it -- including the security perimeter and all entry and exit points. It also designated ultra-secure places for holding VIPs and spots to position countersniper and counterassault teams.

Asked how this venue is different from Boston's FleetCenter, Hughes will say only, "Every site is different." Nudged a bit further, he says, "It is an urban setting here," meaning that the security team had to work around New York City's skyscrapers and traffic.

Before coming to New York, Hughes, 39, was a supervisor on President Bush's security detail for two and a half years. Before that, he was on President Clinton's security detail. Hardwired for secret-keeping, this tall, slim, blue-eyed agent with the short-cropped, conservative haircut divulges why he joined the Secret Service only after gentle prodding. It was the Reagan assassination attempt, he eventually confesses. After seeing the attempt on President Reagan's life in 1981, Hughes began reading up on the Secret Service and found his calling. Of the convention, he says, "It's unlike anything I've ever done before."

Working with the New York City police chief and even the secretary of Homeland Security, he's been star-struck in a security sense. "That's an opportunity we normally don't get," he admits.

Hughes's primary job here is ensuring that the right security forces are doing the right thing in the right place at the right time -- and lessening the tendency of police agencies to step on each others' toes. Although the Secret Service is in charge of the Garden, and the New York Police Department governs the universe outside the security perimeter, the picture is not quite that simple.

Inside the Garden, the NYPD supplies about half of the total security personnel. The rest are from the Secret Service, whose New York field office is one of its largest. The U.S. Capitol Police from Washington, the New York State Police, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Homeland Security Department are also assisting.

Hughes co-chairs the Law Enforcement and Public Safety Steering Committee with Assistant Chief John McManus of the NYPD. The committee has 18 subcommittees, one of which -- venue security -- Hughes also co-chairs. And on take-your-daughter-to-work day in April, Hughes's 5-year-old joined the monthly venue security meeting. "That was the high point," he says.

Scanning the hall for hidden security measures he can talk about, Hughes points to the hundreds of construction workers buzzing around the convention floor. He says, "Everyone in here has a background check."

Another hidden security threat, for example, could be high up in the Garden's rafters, where techies install lighting and speakers. So, bomb-sniffing dog patrols, known as EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) teams in security parlance, sniffed their way around the catwalks to ensure that no one had planted a bomb while screwing in lightbulbs.

"They're very agile dogs -- acrobatic dogs," jokes one of Hughes's colleagues. Yes, Secret Service agents do joke occasionally, but not for attribution.