Athens public left out of Olympic security plans

Even as nervous Olympic planners pour more money into security, one low-cost but potentially potent resource is being overlooked: the eyes and ears of the public. Some neighbors near Olympic venues say they haven’t been contacted by security forces – despite appeals from counterterrorism officials for a watchdog program, citing the prominent role it played in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The concept is simple: Ask residents to be tipsters about anything suspicious in their neighborhoods. The result, security officials say, gives authorities the potential for round-the-clock vigilance and a last line of defense against possible attacks from terrorists who may be hiding in the community. That strategy hasn’t been incorporated into the August 13-29 Athens Games’s security plan, which carries a record price tag of more than $750 million and includes surveillance cameras, some 40,000 police officers and troops, and a fortress-like wall around the Olympic Village. «We pray to God to protect us,» said Anna Houkiari, who for the past seven years has operated a kiosk near the main Olympic Stadium. «I am worried and I am concerned because they haven’t come yet to inform me. They should have come.» Greek police spokesman Col. Lefteris Economou said the «phase of informing citizens on a closer basis» won’t start until near the time of the Games for fear it could reveal «sensitive aspects» of the security plan. Athens’s Olympic Organizing Committee declined to comment. With little more than eight months left, anti-terrorism expert Walter Purdy believes it may be too late to establish a full-scale neighborhood watch program. «It would be a grave mistake if Athens organizers didn’t engage the community as a whole,» said Purdy, who helped in the security planning of the 2002 Olympics. «They need everybody, every set of eyes and ears, every citizen of Athens and the outlying communities.» In Salt Lake City, he noted, such a program was in place at least a year before the opening ceremony. Officers went door-to-door near key venues and other sites, giving residents stickers with a police number. Last month, the head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism unit, David Veness, told Greek security officials that efforts to safeguard the Olympics should be expanded to include citizens. In Greece, that would require energizing the cool relationship between police and residents. Many Greeks still harbor suspicions – or outright antagonism – toward police because of the 1967-74 military dictatorship. Later, police became widely discredited as a dumping ground for political patronage jobs under the Socialists, who have led the country for most of the past 20 years. Policing here also is controlled by a national force, which has very little community outreach or neighborhood beat patrols. «The police can do only so much and they can be only in so many places,» Purdy said. «If you don’t have these programs, the terrorists will look for voids in law enforcement and take advantage of any vulnerabilities.» On Tuesday, Greece’s government held its largest Olympics security meeting to review plans for the Games following the terrorist attacks in neighboring Turkey last month. The closed-door meeting included officials from seven ministries, police chiefs and the Athens Organizing Committee. Also present were the heads of Greece’s armed forces and National Intelligence Service. «We have entered the final stage of preparations for the security of the Olympic Games,» said Public Order Minister Giorgos Floridis, who chaired the talks. «This was a meeting held to coordinate all the agencies involved.» According to some residents, Greek officials have made little or no contact with them regarding the security measures. «No one came asking us for information,» said Efthymis Antonopoulos, the owner of a car repair shop near the main stadium. «No one has even informed us which roads will be closed.» Eleni Pistioli, who lives near a gymnastics venue, said she would willingly serve as a neighborhood lookout if asked. «Everyone is afraid I think,» Pistioli said.