I've found that while routine days can fade into the past, the days when something goes wrong often produce the most vivid recollections. Thinking about the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea brought back a memory, and not a pleasant one, of my involvement in providing the security for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
That summer, I was on the ground, running protective intelligence operations for the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). The security plan for those games had been months in the making. As anyone in the business knows, protecting large-scale events requires a massive undertaking — and given their international participation and high-profile attendees, protecting the Olympics is an especially complex task. Every agent who has ever worn an earpiece and stood watch during those types of events is aware of the terrorist attack brilliantly executed by the Black September Organization during the 1972 Munich Games. The tragedy left 11 Israeli athletes and a German police officer dead and forever changed how Olympic athletes were protected.
In the lead-up to the Atlanta games, the DSS's Threat Analysis Division had its hands full as agents assessed the event venues, noting possible vulnerabilities and factoring in visits by high-profile personages. When big names attend specific events, they can "drag" the threats that they always face along with them, raising the risks to the venues. The security preparations that year included countless meetings with the FBI, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the National Guard and the Atlanta Police Department. The U.S. intelligence community was on point, alert for chatter that would indicate a threat was developing. As the opening ceremonies approached, we believed that everything that could be done to make the games safe had been done.
At least, until the phone call.
“We’ve just had a bombing in Centennial Park,” the voice on the other end of the line intoned in the wee hours of July 27, 1996. I took some measure of comfort in my realization that the park, the site of an evening concert that had attracted thousands of revelers, was not within our secure zone on the campus of Georgia Tech. But I immediately wondered whether more attacks were coming. Ten days earlier, a similar notification had rippled through the U.S. intelligence community after TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic after taking off from New York. Many signs at the time pointed to terrorism as the cause of that tragedy.
The thought that there may have been a nexus between the plane crash and the Centennial Park attack troubled many of us that night in Atlanta. The eyes of the world were on the United States, and what better way to disrupt the Olympic Games, and strike a blow at America, than to captivate the global media with a major terrorist attack? Having worked plane crash investigations and bombings, I also knew that the investigations into both the plane crash and the park bombing would take time. (Later, it was determined that an electrical short in a fuel tank likely caused the TWA explosion and that a domestic terrorist, Eric Rudolph, had planted the Centennial Park pipe bomb.)
Since the Atlanta Games, the role of the DSS in security preparations has changed: It is now the lead U.S. agency for overseas events such as South Korea's Winter Olympics. I understand that the DSS began coordinating more than three years ago with the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. Pacific Command and South Korean officials to develop a security plan for the Pyeongchang Games. During the games, the agency will be fully integrated with the U.S. intelligence community, scanning for indications of threats. Every nation sending athletes to South Korea will have a vested interest in passing along "adverse intelligence" of threats. It's a sure bet that Israeli intelligence raised the Munich attack with the South Koreans and the DSS as a grim reminder of what can go wrong. More than 90 DSS special agents and support staff will be on the ground in South Korea covering all the venues and the U.S. delegation, which includes Vice President Mike Pence.
Security agents in South Korea will be briefed on Atlanta, although for many of them, it will be ancient history. The focus will be on keeping eyes peeled for emerging threats on the ground and staying alert in case current terror threats suddenly develop — including any new twists in the North Korean crisis. On a practical level though, agents on protective duty live in the moment, always laser fixated on the 3 to 6 feet around them, scanning for a weapon or studying body language and faces as they look for possible assassins.
In Atlanta, the bomber struck outside our secure zone, demonstrating the biggest challenge in protecting wide-ranging events such as the Olympics — you can't cover every gap.