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London 2012: Where Olympic Security Is Concerned, Being Unprepared Might Just Be Part Of The Process

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OLYMPIC SECURITY
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The US sending 1,000 agents to protect its personnel against civil disobedience? A 11,000 person shortfall in the number of security agents required by the government? And an admission that ground-to-air missiles may be deployed to defend vital targets?

It might sound like a week in the life of a crumbling dictatorship.

In fact it's just another day of news out of the London 2012 Olympics - and security experts agree that whatever happens, London is probably going to have to get used to it.

For the closer the Olympics come the more security issues will arise. And the tightrope is just getting tauter.

The Games and London have each historically been a target for terrorist activity. The Olympics were targeted in Munich in 1972 when Israeli athletes were massacred and in 1996 when a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, while London has a long and sad history fighting domestic and international extremists.

Those worries are starting to sink in. The Home Office and Olympic organisers have been forced to find another 11,000 security personnel for the event, and the United States is considering sending 1,000 security agents, including 500 from the FBI, to protect its athletes and diplomats at the games.

According to the Guardian, the police response to the summer riots has undermined US officials' confidence in the event and there are also concerns about recent restrictions placed upon 'stop and search' measures.

Diplomatically the leaks will likely make things worse, not better. Lord West, the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for security, told Sky News that the extensive intervention from US authorities had been "extremely unhelpful".

"Of course all countries will be interested in the security of their athletes, the security of their president... [but] they do go a bit over-the-top sometimes," said Lord West. "I think they’re overreacting."

In addition Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond was pushed to admit that ground-to-air missiles may be deployed to protect London's airspace if the military deems it necessary.

For experts, however, increasing security concerns, and budgets, are relatively normal the closer a host city moves towards the games.

According to Dr Pete Fussey, a senior lecturer at University of Essex who studies how large events like the Olympics work, security concerns will always start to intensify as an event moves closer.

The UK and the UK provided extensive help to Athens in the run up to its Olympic Games in 2004 amid similar concerns, and Beijing also intensified its security in the run up to its 2008 Olympics.

"I suspect what will happen is there will be a usual last-minute focus on increased policing numbers and police presence," Fussey told The Huffington Post UK.

"They are standard moves and they happen in pretty much every games in the run up to the event. The classic example was Salt Lake City in 2002, which happened just a few months after 9/11.

"If you look at the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1980, the Olympic Village there they turned into a prison when the games were finished because it was so heavily fortified. The London games are pretty compact by Summer Olympics standards. You've got venues spread over three different countries. You've got an open network and so you've got vulnerabilities."

The fact that US agents, even up to 1,000 of them, will be in London during the games is likewise not unusual, Fussey said.

"Teams will necessarily bring in their own security teams to some extent," Fussey said. "That's supposed to be done in collaboration and partnership of course. Now what's happening with this report is that somebody is articulating a more deeply held sense of annoyance at this incursions into what are seen as sovereign plans."

The International Olympic Committee will also have a role to play, as its charter necessitates security measures such as taking a tough line against protesters and maintaining security cordons around venues.

"The IOC has a part of their charter that deals with just security arrangements," he said.

"They will necessarily tell the British, 'look we want these things in place'… By hosting the Olympics you have to say you won't allow any kind of protests to take place. People were critical of the Chinese for this but actually it was the IOC and it was the charter we signed up to in the UK as a condition of hosting the games."

The Home Office argues that for all the pre-event planning, security issues (like construction budgets) are simply difficult to accurately tackle until the competition schedule and venue layouts are finished. Security plans are continually reassessed the closer the event comes, and it would perhaps be stranger - and a bigger story - if they were not.

"Since winning the bid, a huge amount of collaborative work has been completed. We finalised the competition schedule, with 650 sporting sessions over 18 days, built and selected over 100 competition and non-competition venues, and designed the transport and accommodation plans," a Locog spokeswoman said.

"This all needed to be in place before the detailed security plans could be confirmed. This is being done in close collaboration with government and the security agencies whose role it is to determine the risk, and this detailed work has been taking place for the last year."

Ultimately for all the vast plans and manpower that will be in place ahead of the games, it is likely that whatever problems may occur will be as unexpected as the riots that hit London and other English cities in the summer.

Fortunately, experts point out, the riots happened before the games. As such that type of disobedience is now to some extent, if not expected, at least an expected unexpected.

"Of all the many things that the US authorities might worry about it's not entirely clear why they'd be particularly concerned about the risk of domestic disorder," said Tony Travers, director of LSE London. "Unless they imagine in some way that will deflect the British police from security for the Olympics.

"In many ways the British police and security forces are among the most experienced in the world at dealing with terrorism or the threat of terrorism. They've had it to a greater degree that the US arguably, and certainly over a longer time."

The games are taking place in 32 venues and in three countries - and whether there are 10,000 security personnel or 21,000, it will be impossible to protect everything, all of the time.

And so the merry-go-round continues.

Because, as Travers says, being unprepared for something is something worth being prepared for.

"Civil disorder is no longer an unknown unknown, it's something that will have been factored into the calculations for next year," he said.

"Now of course that does not mean something else unexpected could happen, but preparing for even that is inevitable."