The non-descript warehouse is located at the tip of a dead-end road in an industrial park near the Bellingham, Wash., airport, 30 kilometres south of the Canada-U.S. border. A one-storey structure without signage, it offers no clue from the street what goes on behind its cream-coloured walls.
But inside the building, amid an expanse of cubicles and TV screens, the purpose is plain: The U.S. federal government has turned the 25,000-square-foot space into a high-security co-ordination centre for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The centre is the most visual part of the U.S. effort to prepare for any possible emergency that might occur from mid-January to late March. Around 40 federal, state and local government departments in the United States have been meshed into an intricate network that could muster up resources at a moment's notice to respond to lethal threats at the border, a health pandemic or acts of terrorism. On a less apocalyptic scale, the groups could bring together crews to deal with snowstorms or major collisions that shut down highways.
The groups are among more than 130 government departments - including 17 federal and provincial government agencies from Canada - that have been participating over the past two years in regular meetings of Washington State's security committee.
Canadian authorities plan to spend $900-million on security measures, preparing to handle any emergency that may arise during the Games. Around 16,500 RCMP officers, military personnel and private security have been enlisted to ensure the Games are remembered for athletic achievements and nothing else.
However, despite the unprecedented preparations in Canada, the United States is doing its own homework. No one is saying what the price tag is - the expenses are spread through numerous government budgets and not easily tabulated, officials say. The centre alone has a budget of $4.5-million (U.S.).
U.S. authorities repeatedly emphasized in interviews that their efforts are intended to complement initiatives undertaken by the Canadians, not overtake them.
"I actually think that this is why this facility is here - because we do care," said Doug Dahl, deputy director of the emergency management division in the Whatcom County sheriff's office.
"We want to be able to provide folks, up in the B.C. side of things, with information before it gets to them - and vice versa.
"If we are aware of something that may be impacting them - and we get that information - it will go up to B.C," he said this week during a tour of the Olympic co-ordination centre in Bellingham for The Globe and Mail. "They will know as soon as we know."
The U.S. efforts are mostly directed at responding to incidents that may occur in Washington State or at the border. "The idea is to prepare for all hazards. We do not know which one it is going to be," Mr. Dahl said.
If the centre works out as planned, information will flow seamlessly across the border, as if the boundary didn't exist. Sending people across the border, though, is not in the plans.
"It's not like [the Canadians]need more people," Mr. Dahl said. "But they may need information from the other side of the border, or they may need support on the U.S. side."
Effort a partnership
Mark Beaty has been working on security-related issues arising from Vancouver's Olympics for nearly 4½ years.
He is currently the federal co-ordinator for the 2010 Winter Games, appointed by the Secretary of Homeland Security. In an interview this week, he said the federal, state and local government agencies in the United States became involved in preparation for the 2010 Olympics in anticipation of the number of people who will pass through Washington State on their way to Vancouver. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to cross the border for the Games.
The federal Department of Homeland Security brought together every federal, state and local department that has an interest in security. "This is preparation, prevention and pro-action," Mr. Beaty said, adding that the effort did not stem from any intelligence that suggested something specific might happen.
One of the purposes in bringing everyone together, he added, was to identify resources that would be available to support local and state responses to emergencies. U.S. resources would be available across the border if Canada requested them, he said.
"It is their lead," he said. "We look at this as a partnership. Canada is well represented as the lead agency at our security meetings."
The RCMP are in the co-ordination centre and U.S. representatives are afforded the opportunity to have a presence in the Canadian command centre, he said.
Michael Byers, a professor of international law and politics at University of British Columbia, said he saw no problem with Canadian and U.S. authorities planning together for responses to emergencies, provided there are procedures for consent by the Canadian government before the United States takes action in Canada.
Canadian consent should be contingent on the U.S. response being proportionate to the needs that arise, he added. "If there is sign-off by the Canadian government, our sovereignty has not been infringed," he said.
But the U.S. assets should not be in Canada in anticipation of what might happen, Prof. Byers added.
"If we need to, we will call on them and they will be close by. But they should be stationed on the U.S. side of the border," he said.
If a massive earthquake occurs or a dirty bomb explodes at the Olympics, Canada will want all hands on deck, he said.
"I personally do not care whether it is a Canadian or American soldier who digs me out of the hole. But I would want political sign-off on that," Prof. Byers said.
Major-General Timothy Lowenberg, the head of the security committee for the Washington Governor's 2010 Olympics task force, said the U.S. effort is intended to be synchronized with what Canada does.
The security committee has met every 90 days for more than two years. Canadian agencies that have participated in the meetings included the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canadian Forces Navy Commander and Canadian representatives from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command.
The lengthy list of U.S. participants includes representatives from the military and law enforcement agencies, domestic nuclear detection office, environment, health and communications departments.
'Not a soft target'
The heart of the Washington State facility is a room with several large mounted screens and pods of cubicles. A dispatch centre, adjacent to the operations centre, will be stocked with radios to talk to different federal and state agencies, such as the state patrol, sheriff's office and fire department. The room will also have amateur radio operators as backup, if all other means of communication fail.
The FBI will run a portable centre in what is now unfinished space, as well as a high-security intelligence operation to track criminal and terrorism-related activities.
The Olympic co-ordination centre will not assume command of any emergency response, but it will be among the first to know about any incident, including any event north of the border. "This is a place where people out in the field can come to get resources," Mr. Dahl said. "No one in here is actually going to go out in the field and actually do anything."
The Department of Homeland Security opened the warehouse to The Globe to convey a message to bad guys on the other side of the border, said Joe Bates, a public-relations officers for the Olympic co-ordinating centre.
"This is not a soft target. Don't come here," he said. "There is more concentrated on this little part of the border than maybe you think."
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