Unseen multi-agency security force on the job at GOP convention

Nearly 22,000 officers are standing guard at or near the convention site, and 66 federal, state, and local agencies are working together at a nerve center.

While a nearly 22,000-strong security force stood watch in and around Madison Square Garden Saturday, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced the arrest of two terrorism suspects who authorities say were casing several subway stations, including one around the corner from the Garden, as well as bridges and other venues in the city.

The announcement -- the result of a yearlong surveillance by NYPD intelligence officers -- underscored the theme of the week for life in and around the Republican National Convention compound: What you don't see is what's keeping you safe. What you do see mainly makes you feel better.

Kelly told reporters he had "no indication" that the two men -- 21-year-old Shahawar Matin Sinaj and 19-year-old James Elshafay -- were plotting to disturb the convention, and he says that they have no known ties to international terrorist organizations. But it seemed more than coincidental that the police would arrest two men they had been following for a year as soon as they discovered the two were casing the Herald Square subway station near the Garden -- three days before the Republicans began their confab.

The highly trained NYPD officers assigned to more-routine tasks such as checking credentials and directing confused pedestrians are well aware that they're more the face than the central nervous system of convention security. "It's what you don't see that is probably the actual response -- not people standing there with a rifle on the street corner," says Detective Vincent Aprea, a 13-year veteran of the NYPD and a member of the elite Emergency Services Unit.

Indeed, the real nerve center is what's known as the Multi-Agency Coordination Center, or MACC in conventionspeak. It's housed nearly eight miles from the Garden, on the eighth floor of the police department where 66 federal, state, and local agencies are represented, all of whom have a line into their own agencies' information systems.

But that won't be the only command post. In fact, convention security planners have established other secret shadow command posts in case the main one is taken out, according to a Department of Homeland Security official. And the MACC will be in continual contact with the Tactical Operations Center inside the Garden, as well as the Fusion Center, which is an intelligence outpost in Chelsea that draws together intelligence from the NYPD, FBI, and CIA.

In addition, across the bridge in Brooklyn, the city's Office of Emergency Management is standing watch at its own operations center, with 80 agencies plugged in. Other operations centers involved are as far away as Albany and Rome, N.Y.

On the ground, the NYPD alone is dedicating 10,000 officers to convention duty. They're carrying sidearms and high-tech gas masks. Sergeants also are carrying radiation detectors and can summon vans full of armor and hazmat suits on a moment's notice. "There's more cops here per square inch than I've seen in my life," said one NYPD officer, Brian Nyhus, standing watch Saturday morning in front of the Garden.

In reserve are 200 firefighters -- some of whom will be manning both a hazardous-materials unit and a decontamination unit dedicated to the Garden.

In Pennsylvania Station and throughout the subway system, armed guards are on patrol and bio-agent detectors are in place. Some 1,500 train cars and buses are checked each day. Hotels are also being guarded, though in a more understated way to avoid a prison-like feel. On the water, the Coast Guard is patrolling conspicuously. In the sky, both NYPD and Coast Guard helicopters are watching, with the Defense Department waiting in the wings.

Even garbage procedures have changed. Although normally done by private companies, refuse collection will be undertaken by city employees during the convention. And all trucks and buses delivering goods or people to the hall are being inspected at one of eight "sally ports," where the underside of the vehicles are scanned for bombs.

Protesters are probably the most challenging non-terrorism security target to contend with, not because they're inherently dangerous but because they're a distraction. "With this day and age of terrorism, this isn't going to help us do our job," says Detective John Heidrich. "It makes it easier [for terrorists], because it's a drain on our resources."

Even with physical security, the most important components "are things we can't talk about," notes Steve Hughes, the Secret Service's chief coordinator for the convention -- although visible security can also deter terrorists.

Of course, what we also don't see or hear about are the nonspecific threats or the scary potential-threat information, like the truck tanker that has recently gone missing in New York City, according to one Homeland Security Department source. Commissioner Kelly brushed off such concerns. "They usually don't pan out," he said.

Certainly, that's what President Bush is hoping for. For a president running on a safer America, a safe -- visibly safe -- convention is crucial.