On Wednesday the NFL, flanked by federal, local and state law enforcement officials from every imaginable agency, assured football fans and the United States as a whole that this Sunday's Super Bowl would one of the most tightly secured sporting events in our country's history. Even New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton promised that there are "no threats directed against this event that we're aware of."
To gather an inside picture of the planning, ideas and honest concerns of security experts for Super Bowl XLVIII, SB Nation spoke to James A. McGee, a retired special agent with the FBI, a private security consultant and author of multiple books on event security as well as the memoir "Phase Line Green: The FCI Talladega Hostage Rescue." In addition, SB Nation interviewed a group of active and retired FBI agents who have coordinated on-site security for multiple Super Bowls both before and after 9/11, including last year's event in New Orleans. The agents spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The FBI's fantasy terrorism scenarios are crazier than your Dungeons & Dragons game
"If you can think of a way to attack an event like this, we're pretty confident we've already thought of it and put a plan in place to mitigate the threat," one FBI agent said.
And when teams of law enforcement officials spitball malevolent tactics, their imagination often exceeds the scope and budget of a terrorist or lone gunman (hopefully). Once you get past the concept of bombs or guns from inside a stadium crowd, or the use of planes and public transportation outside, the abandoned Bond movie plot threads start.
"New Jersey has industrial transportation. Maybe a purposeful train derailment that causes the release of a harmful chemical," McGee posits. "Say it's something like liquified chlorine. If you're aware of the weather patterns, that could be released into the air and sent to the stadium."
Or the Walter White method:
"How about ricin? Bad shit there," the FBI agent said. "Put that into the stadium concessions or maybe a chemical or bacteria into the beer."
"Ricin would be terrible. Inserting a pathogen into food or a water supply, but we've [simulated the scenario] before," McGee says. "The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is involved with the Super Bowl. People probably don't realize that, but they've run their own scenarios. They'll have a presence in New York."
McGee said that an underpublicized avenue for terrorism at sporting events and large public gatherings is cyber, normally associated with white collar crime or theoretical attempts on a city's utility grids.
"That kind of act is more likely than most others to disrupt the game. Hack into a stadium and take over their Jumbotron. That's a big way to deliver a message."
The cold weather does complicate security concerns
While New Jersey's February weather has rankled the national media and corporate sponsors because of comfort concerns, it will also create a new literal layer of complication for on-site security. Winter coats and layered clothing will cause standard entrance security searches to move slower, obscure visuals of potentially suspicious persons on closed circuit security cameras and make it harder to spot a potential gunman or bomber.
"If you're trying to carry a homemade bomb or weapon into a stadium that doesn't even allow purses, you're going to try and conceal it with bulky clothing. In Tampa or Arizona you'll stick out immediately on video surveillance. In New York it's not as easy," one FBI agent said.
While the NFL isn't keen on comping thousand-dollar seats for plainclothes law enforcement, the agents we spoke to said that there are "hundreds" of undercover law enforcement mixed in with the Super Bowl crowd at each level, walking through tunnels and open concession areas in attempt to spot odd behavior. That's in addition to an already large amount of uniformed local police, present in highly visible areas for "the psychological effect of deterrence."
"Those guys are looking for anything suspicious relative to normal behavior. Their entire job is to just wander a particular area looking for anything that's strange. Cold weather changes behavior, so too does alcohol, so we have to take that into consideration. And then if you have a small incident, you've got guys in place to see if a fan is walking around suspicious just because he's drunk and reached over and grabbed something off the field like a helmet, which we've seen before."
Also, if you plan on attending Sunday's game, wash your filthy hands after you go to the bathroom. The police are watching.
"We've got guys hanging out in the bathrooms, sure. Look, a bathroom is a prime place for an incident. A crowded, confined area where one person could detonate a device. You could have hellacious casualties," one agent said.
An "awesome show of force" is a button push away
Yes, there have been snipers positioned in the rafters of domed Super Bowls. The agents we spoke to confirmed those teams were present in New Orleans in 2002. That year's Super Bowl was considered the largest top-level sports event after 9/11 and received an upgrade in security staffing, funding and methodology.
"There are guys up there, but the image of guys in full gear fast-roping down onto the field in an emergency isn't real. We've got guys positioned closer to the field in the tunnels and seats. The team up top wouldn't have tie-offs to fast-rope down. It would honestly take longer than to just use the guys at field level," an agent said.
(Photo via Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)
Officially, joint security task forces as notable and wide-reaching as the multi-agency Super Bowl group don't like to show their whole hand, but the layers of multiple agencies provide a "show of force like something in the military," according to the agents we spoke to.
"People would probably be surprised to know how much could be done in a matter of minutes. You're talking hundreds of law enforcement and armored vehicles on the field in around three minutes. And you're in live contact with every local and regional agency as well as the military. It's a full command post."
Because of that integration, the agent we spoke to who worked last year's Super Bowl said that the security task force never viewed the loss of stadium lights in the third quarter as a potential threat. While the game itself was brought to a halt, according to the agents we spoke to there was no loss of communication or visuals for any level of security.
"The immediate reaction we got on our end was to stand down. It was exactly what it looked like, and we knew that because we had people in place who could see what was going on with the power grid. We have a comm system that runs independent of everything else, which was unaffected. The biggest concern for our guys in the stands was the potential for criminal activity in the darkness, like theft."
McGee, who helped lead the security effort inside the Superdome in 2002, was in Qatar when he heard the news.
"Quite honestly it was embarrassing to begin with. You're teaching people how to secure major events, and that happens back home."
"At first I thought it might have been malicious, a hacker maybe. But I wasn’t that surprised, I was disappointed. They should’ve tested that before the game. That’s crazy. You have to test all those systems. The grid was overloaded and hadn't been tested to that extent since (Hurricane) Katrina," he said.
MetLife Stadium is not the most likely target for a terrorist attack
"Terrorists don't want to hit a hard target now. They've got a limited budget, and they want most of all to be successful in their mission," McGee said.
Law enforcement and security consultants have begun to shift their concern past primary venues in post-post-9/11 thinking. The agents we spoke to explained the concept of hard and soft targets, "hard" being a stadium where a game is being played and "soft" being any other location involved in the event, including team hotels, outdoor concerts, nearby tourist attractions or fan-targeted events like the NFL Experience.
"If I'm a terrorist, I don't care about football or the Broncos or the Seahawks. I want to get a message to the world, that's it," one agent said. "So I'm going to the NFL Experience where the security isn't as tight. And it doesn’t even have to be Super Bowl day, because there's lots of kids and families at those places. It's packed, like Mardi Gras. You crank a bomb off in there and now you've stopped the Super Bowl. Now your cause is going to get the publicity you wanted."
Soft targets cause massive anxiety for law enforcement. Years are spent in advance of each Super Bowl planning out stadium incident exercises, but the further away from a primary target you get, the more likely you'll find a better opportunity to strike. There's a plan in place at each Super Bowl stadium to instantly contain indoor and outdoor ventilation in a potential "dirty bomb" or chemical weapon attack, but that level of attention can't be given to periphery locations.
"Unfortunately you have to prioritize," said an agent who worked last year's Super Bowl. "In New Orleans, we had our teams at the practice facilities and team hotels, but if it’s a hotel that’s also open to public you can’t stop every single person with luggage or a backpack going through the lobby. You're never going to have enough dogs to run over everything. And in today’s society, if you have a dog sniff over every luggage you’re going to get the hell sued out of you."
"There's a level of tolerance Americans have for security," another agent adds. "After 9/11 everything was acceptable for about two months, then after that it's, 'Why do I have to take off my shoes?' Americans are never going to act like Israelis or even Europeans, so it creates chances for bad people to slip through."
(Photo via Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
The Boston Marathon bombing is a terrible footnote for the Super Bowl in New York City
"There is a reality," the agent who worked last year's Super Bowl says, "and it's that if you want to hurt a lot of people, you don't mind dying in the process, and you don't tell anyone about it, there's a good chance you can be successful doing it."
"We haven’t seen a suicide bomber in this country, and I think it’s coming, and sometime soon," McGee says. "I don’t know why we haven’t seen it yet. I’m a little baffled by it to tell you the truth. But that’s the next step, and once that happens you’ll see very big changes."
McGee and the agents we spoke to all hold strong opinions on the Boston Marathon bombing, and all note that the incident will impact the planning of this weekend's Super Bowl.
"I talked to several people since Boston, and my advice has been to change it so the finish is in a stadium. So then you have to buy a ticket and get screened to get in. They're not going to do that because, like, the history associated with the route, so that’s on them. If it was me, I’d have them finish in some kind of stadium in Boston where you can create more of a controlled environment."
"What we train for the most in SWAT for these events is two scenarios -- 'guy with a gun,' and a bomb in something like a bag or backpack like you saw in Boston," one agent said. "Now this game is New York, so it's my gut that if some guy pulls out a gun, it's New York, and everyone around him is going to beat the shit out of him. So to me the scenario in which a guy drops off some kind of bomb into a crowd is the bigger threat."
And much like the 2002 Super Bowl following 9/11, the Winter Olympic Games are looming. Sochi, Russia has become the talk of the security community. Unlike the 2002 Games in Salt Lake, or the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece, the United States and many of its allies will have absolutely no input, knowledge or involvement in the security for the Sochi games.
"Putin has refused any outsiders, so you've got world leaders in security expertise shut out of helping and all the bombings in Russia leading to the games," one FBI agent said.
"You've got an event on foreign soil with that kind of [media] coverage and the host country is A) openly hostile towards the United States and B) refusing outside security consults from Americans and Western Europe? You're talking about the attention of the world, a U.S. presence and millionaire athletes and you're in the backyard of the Chechens? Yeah, I've got some security advice: Don't fucking go to Russia."
Back at home, McGee strongly advises against absolutes despite the assurances from Wednesday's official press conference.
"When I used to work alongside the Secret Service, they loved to say things like, 'this facility is 100 percent secure.' Nothing is ever 100 percent secure. I beg to differ."
McGee mentions the infamous YouTube video that circulated following last year's Super Bowl in which two college students from Florida drove to New Orleans for the express purpose of sneaking into the Super Bowl. They were successful, and with alarming ease. Within minutes they were on the field during the halftime show after posing as concession stand workers.
"They okey-doked the gate people and walked back to loading dock. I'm familiar with that area. Based on who is standing there, no one might notice," McGee said. "The guys were dragging a cooler behind them, 'going to stock employee lounge' or something, and the next thing they were standing out there in the stands on the 50-yard line. It just goes to show you, it can always be porous. You can’t get around that."
McGee said that if he was running this weekend's game, his number one concern would be the breakdown shown in the YouTube clip.
"The number one issue is access control. You're concerned that everybody has been trained, everybody knows what to look for and that when they see something suspicious they know who to call, that the command post will respond properly. Are you doing your job? Will the people working outside in the cold get tired and start making exceptions, letting people through faster?"
"Once you lose access control, you've been breached."