Terror Watch: On Alert

The night before the Democratic National Convention was to begin, federal security forces in Boston went into high alert. A National Guard trooper reported spotting a possible parachutist drifting through the sky toward the "hard zone" security perimeter that surrounds the Fleet Center convention hall. Police radios crackled with urgent messages. Within minutes, local TV stations were reporting that two suspects were in custody.

The city buzzed with tension: had an Al Qaeda commando squad launched an air attack on the Democratic gathering?

In a secret bunker in the bowels of a nearby government building, officers of the Federal Protective Service, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, quickly started clicking on their Web browsers, which have real-time links to 75 surveillance cameras positioned around the downtown Boston area. The browsers were loaded with software enabling monitors in the bunker to manipulate the cameras toward various angles and to enlarge the shots.

Within minutes, Ron Libby, the service's New England regional director, told NEWSWEEK, the camera operators had figured it out: The guardsman who thought he spotted a parachutist had actually seen a tent canopy flapping in the wind atop a nearby building. Radar showed no aircraft anywhere in the neighborhood. And the TV reports of "suspects in custody"? It turned out the TV stations had been scanning the Boston police radios. There had indeed been two suspects detained not far from the Fleet Center. But they weren't invading airborne terrorists. They were a pair of drunks picked up for disturbing the domestic peace.

The brief parachute scare provided a notable example of just how jumpy state and local security agencies are in their efforts to protect the first national political convention since the 9/11 attacks. So many assorted security and police agencies have been enlisted to participate in the massive operation that incidents like the parachute scare--called in by one government security force and then knocked down by another--were bound to flare up. Yet overall, federal and local officials say, security operations at the convention so far have been proceeding smoothly. Despite continuing concerns about an onslaught of unruly demonstrators, the only incidents so far have been minor ones.

The concerns about the convention have been heightened by U.S. intelligence reports in recent months indicating that Al Qaeda terrorists are indeed planning an attack on the U.S. homeland sometime before Election Day. Much of the new intel, sources tell NEWSWEEK, comes from interrogations of Al Qaeda operatives detained in Afghanistan and elsewhere; one senior White House official last week described the reports as the most serious the U.S. intelligence community has seen since the notorious "summer of chatter" that preceded the 9/11 attacks themselves. But, as with many of the threat warnings in the past, the information is fragmentary and confusing--and devoid of any specifics as to time and place. According to officials in Washington, the CIA and other intelligence agencies have no indications of any particular threats to the Boston convention from Islamic or other terrorist groups.

Still, the Feds are taking nothing for granted. Last Friday, the FBI field office in Boston reported that unspecified "anarchist" cells might try to attack the "media center," a jury-rigged complex of temporary buildings and smelly Porta-Potties adjacent to the convention hall where NEWSWEEK and other press organizations maintain temporary offices. One federal official said the threat appears to have come from some sort of white supremacist group or skinheads. "There are a lot of people that don't like the media," noted another. But so far no tangible evidence of such a plot has emerged. Among the only threats that hazardous material and WMD-detection squads have had to deal with are reports of suspicious liquid-filled bottles--suspected Molotov cocktails which, upon further investigation, turned out to be bottles of urine. "We have a lot of those," said one federal officer.

The Feds and local authorities do say that intelligence indicates that protests by radical demonstrators may heat up as the convention draws to its climax Thursday night, when John Kerry gives his acceptance speech. The principal threat appears to come from a small core of violent agitators, many of them associated with fringe antiglobalization, which have tried to create incidents at meetings of the World Bank and other international organizations in recent years. Wendell Shingler, the Federal Protective Service's national director, said that authorities had picked up "chatter" that such groups using tactics known as the "black bloc" might try to foment violence toward the end of the week by blocking roads and even vandalizing buildings (as protestors had done during a trade summit several years ago in Seattle). There is also some fear that anti-abortion activists using similar "pink bloc" tactics might also turn to violence. The Feds and locals say they will be on guard.

At least five command centers scattered around the Boston area have been put on 24-hour shifts to monitor potential convention-related threats, from disorderly drunks and abandoned cars to suspicious persons loitering near federal facilities. At the Federal Protective Service's bunker, NEWSWEEK reporters were escorted into the operations center by a public-affairs representative toting a gun and protective gear. All the data streams coming into the bunker, including the 75 live video feeds, are also piped straight into a mobile emergency operations trailer parked some distance away from the hard zone.

In a state-run bunker in Framingham, 20 miles west of Boston, officers from federal and state agencies, including National Guard commanders and the head of the state department of prisons, have been maintaining 24-hour shifts and sleeping in cold-war era dormitories designed to house Massachusetts' 300 top citizens in the event of a nuclear war. At a briefing attended by Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, State emergency planning officials demonstrated a new database which monitors Boston area hospitals in real time for the number of beds and active facilities in the event of a disaster or emergency.

But during a visit to the Framingham bunker by a NEWSWEEK reporter on Tuesday, the threat reporting was utterly routine, including one involving a tree falling on a car. Some officials in the bunker were, however, hunkering down. It was quiet now, they said. But there was major trouble ahead: The Weather Bureau reports a clump of severe storms are heading this way, expecting to cause flooding in western Massachusetts and possibly to drench delegates attending the Democratic beanfest in Boston.