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Major Event Security Cases

Our most celebrated and high-profile events, like the Super Bowl and the State of the Union Address, make ideal targets for terrorists and other criminals. Explore DHS’ process for covering every angle and thwarting would-be attacks.

Bane of Security, BAE of a Nation Supporting Pope Francis' visit to the United States

Some tune into the Super Bowl for the action, others for ads, others more for the “puppy bowl”, and—let’s be honest—most do for the Beyoncé halftime shows. Some may even do it for the football. Whatever one’s viewing-motivating factor, the Super Bowl intercepts more viewers than any other television event of the year, far outpacing the Academy Awards.

If, at its most basic, the chief aim of all terrorism is to arouse terror, then the Super Bowl is a target like no other. Not only would an attack on the Super Bowl directly affect the 80,000+ spectators in the stadium itself, the estimated 115 million more watching it unfold on live television would also be deeply effected and understandably terrified. It would not be unlike the climactic scene in The Dark Knight Rises, where the super-villain Bane blows up a major football match just after kickoff, and announces on live television that he’s taking the entire city of Gotham hostage.

2014’s Super Bowl XLVIII was played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and cohosted by New York City—the real-life inspiration for Gotham. Here’s how the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) worked to ensure the “Bane scenario” never had a chance of playing out at Super Bowl XLVIII.

In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited MetLife Stadium, where he was briefed on security operations at and around the stadium. However, in truth, security planning for an event of this magnitude begins well over a year in advance.

Super Bowls are designated Special Security Events. For these, a Federal Coordination Officer is appointed to run point on all matters related to the security of the event. This person coordinates with federal, state, and local partners to implement those protective measures. They are, in essence, the security team’s quarterback. For Super Bowl XLVIII that was Andrew McLees, Special Agent in Charge, ICE Homeland Security Investigations – Newark.

If the Federal Coordination Officer is the quarterback, then the component agencies that make up DHS are the first string lineup of players. Here’s a summary of their playbook that kept the 2014 Super Bowl secure:

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deployed its Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams. From the Wednesday prior to the game through the Monday following Super Bowl Sunday, VIPR helped secure transit to and from the stadium. VIPR teams are deployed in a random manner and provide a visible presence to detect and deter terrorism. Among their tactics were explosive detection canines as well as behavior detection officers who look for suspicious behavior.

Since most fans took mass transit to get to the stadium, the Secaucus Junction Station was a key checkpoint for these TSA security measures. Secaucus Junction is the station through which all trains destined for MetLife Stadium must pass. Before being permitted to board the stadium bound trains, all passengers had to go through TSA bag screening for explosives. TSA officers also used radiological detection devices as part of these screening procedures.

TSA’s Federal Air Marshal Service was also deployed as part of the aviation security environment for the game.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers manned inspection equipment to scan all cargo entering the stadium to ensure no weapons, explosives, or other contraband were getting in. CBP's Air and Marine Operations (AMO) monitored the nation's airspace prior to and during Super Bowl XLVIII, and enforced the FAA's Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) zone around the venue. In addition to intercepting aircraft that violated the TFR, airborne AMO crews provided live video streams to the Joint Operations Center (JOC) to increase situational awareness for law enforcement officers. AMO personnel assigned to the JOC monitored the airspace around the venue and coordinated the movement of AMO assets.

CBP also worked closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on operations targeting counterfeit vendors of game-related sportswear. In addition, ICE worked to disrupt and dismantle human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and other criminal rings capitalizing on the crowds.

U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) worked to secure and enforce maritime security in the waterways adjacent to MetLife Stadium.

Special Security Events, like the Super Bowl, are a shared responsibility. To keep fans safe before, during and after the game, DHS entities worked closely with the State of New Jersey and the NFL, and with the support of 13 other federal agencies. The result: Super Bowl XLVIII was tightly choreographed to go off without a hitch, even before the battling teams stepped out onto the pitch.

DHS Components and Offices Involved

In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Soccer Sancti

This summer, the eyes of the world will turn to Brazil as it hosts the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. But with pomp and pageantry comes great pressure. Large sporting events, especially those with global media interest, are prime targets for potential terrorists. Thankfully, Brazil will be ready, in part because of the support and training the Transportation Security Administration provided Brazil in advance of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

For any host city, the Olympics are a logistical nightmare. Municipalities must manage to cram and ferry tens of thousands of visitors from around the world across the city to its various competition venues. Getting those international visitors into the country in the first place is also a complex security issue. Brazil has the second largest number of airports and air fleet in the world after the United States. For the 2014 World Cup, TSA—with the support of the Department of State’s Joint Operations Center at U.S. Embassy Brasilia, the Diplomatic Security Service, and other federal agencies including the FBI—collaborated with Brazilian authorities to ensure the host country’s aviation security apparatus was ready.

Security measures TSA implemented for the World Cup included:

  • training and advising Brazilian authorities on passenger, baggage and cargo screening, as well as effective checkpoint procedures;
  • assessing existing security procedures to optimize security resources;
  • and 24/7 monitoring operations by TSA transportation security specialists on all air travel between the United States and Brazil, providing real-time intelligence on potential threats.

TSA's holistic approach and engagement with Brazil is an example of TSA's Foreign Airport Assessment Program in action. As the DHS component whose primary responsibility is securing the nation’s civil aviation system, ensuring the security of international flights bound for the U.S. falls under its purview. To achieve this aim, TSA identifies airports that provide service to the United States, and forges collaborative working relationships with them to ensure adequate security measures are being effectively carried out and maintained.

These foreign airport assessments are done with the permission of the host government, and are collegial and consultative in nature. Here’s how they work:

  • A TSA team of inspectors, which generally includes one team leader and one team member, visit the airports agreed upon and assess them over the course of 3 to 7 days.
  • An airport’s security effectiveness is measured against aviation security standards from the International Civil Aviation Organization (a UN organization) and TSA best practices.
  • These standards address recommended practices for ensuring passengers and baggage are properly screened, and that unauthorized individuals do not gain access to restricted areas of the airport.
  • After the assessments, TSA will recommend various types of training and technical assistance to improve the security performance of these airports.
  • In some cases, TSA will also authorize loans of aviation security equipment to foreign countries to help airports there enhance their existing capabilities and practices.

Considering the high volume of passengers and flights arriving in the United States from foreign locations, and the recent history of terrorist threats against inbound commercial flights, the Foreign Airport Assessment Program plays a critical role in advancing our national security interests.

The improvements in aviation security achieved through TSA‘s collaboration with the Brazilian authorities for the 2014 World Cup have helped to establish Brazil as a regional leader in this area.  Just as they did in 2014, these efforts may yet prove to ensure that the thrill of sport—and not terror—rules the day at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio.

DHS Component Involved

Holy See (Something, Say Something) Supporting Pope Francis' visit to the United States

Most everyone is familiar with the U.S. Secret Service’s mission to protect the President, Vice President and members of the First Family. However, few are aware that the Secret Service is also responsible for ensuring the safety and security of events of national significance, known as National Special Security Events (NSSEs). Perhaps the most well-known NSSEs are the annual State of the Union Address and the annual sessions of the UN General Assembly. Other events, such as visits by prominent foreign heads of state can be designated NSSEs—as it was in the case of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in 2015.

On November 23, 2014, 10 months before the Pope’s arrival, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Charles Johnson designated the visit of Pope Francis to the United States to occur from September 22-27, 2015 as an NSSE.

Many factors are taken into consideration by the DHS Secretary when designating an event as an NSSE. Some of these factors include:

  • Anticipated attendance by officials of the United States Government, foreign heads of state and/or other dignitaries.
  • The size of the event, and whether a large number of attendees is anticipated.
  • The significance of the event—i.e. whether it will be of historical, political and/or symbolic importance, generating significant attention.

Pope Francis’ visit exhibited all of these factors, particularly the planned two-day Philadelphia leg of his trip for the World Meeting of Families festival—expected to attract upward of a million people.

Upon Secretary Johnson’s NSSE declaration, the United States Secret Service assumed its responsibility as the lead agency for the design, coordination, and implementation of security operations for the event.

In developing the operational security plan for the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia, Secret Service worked with its partners in the Holy See, the State of Pennsylvania, City of Philadelphia, and the organizations hosting the Pope’s events. This allowed security concerns to have a central role in the selection of event venues and parade routes.

Secret Service then went about designating the locations of the security perimeters that would be put in place around key event venues. Secure Zones are divided are like concentric circles on a dart board. The innermost portions are where the most stringent security measures are deployed. People allowed to enter these areas will have had access in close proximity to the Pontiff, and therefore required complete vetting and credentialing beforehand. Vetting is done via background check by the Secret Service, and is similar to that undergone by those visiting the President and Vice President. For the outer sections of the secure zone, street traffic remained prohibited, but ticketed spectators were allowed in following security screenings at checkpoints.

The City of Philadelphia repeatedly vowed that the city as a whole would remain open for business. For this, the Secret Service took unprecedented steps to work with local area business owners to help facilitate keeping business centers in Philadelphia open. Secret Service agents personally met with business owners and residents whose buildings were within the Secure Zone to address their concerns and accommodate workable solutions.

Coordinating NSSEs is a Herculean task. The NSSE Working Group assists the Secret Service with the NSSE planning and implementation process. For Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia, the Department of Homeland Security’s other component agencies were key members of the Working Group. Here’s what they did:

  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents helped ensure the safety of everyone arriving to see and hear the Pope. They provided venue security and augmented dignitary protection. HSI law enforcement personnel were also present at local command centers, airports, and parade routes.
  • Transportation Security Administration officers from more than 70 airports across the nation volunteered to assist in the screening of arriving spectators and their bags at Secret Service checkpoints along the security perimeter.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency was in place to provide emergency management and coordinate responses to protect public health and safety as necessary.
  • U.S. Coast Guard committed personnel and vessels to support airspace and maritime security in fixed Security Zones in the waters surrounding Philadelphia.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided hundreds of personnel for venue security, communications, and non-intrusive inspection of items coming into the city.

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was just one of three National Special Security Events taking place within two weeks of each other. The 70th Regular Session of the UN General Assembly was occurring simultaneously with Francis’ visit, and a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping occurred directly after. Together, the three constituted the single largest domestic security operation in the history of the United States. Thanks to the U.S. Secret Service—the premier security agency in the world—and its Federal and local partners, all went off without incident.

DHS Components and Offices Involved

Last Updated: 01/10/2022
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