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World Cup Security Raises Concerns

DAVID CRARY   06/13/10 03:57 PM ET   AP

World Cup Security
A security guard stands outside the hotel where the Brazilian national soccer team stays in Johannesburg, Thursday, May 27, 2010. Brazilians are preparing for the upcoming World Cup, which gets underway on June 11. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

JOHANNESBURG — Someone walks through a metal detector and the buzzer sounds. Smiling guards wave him forward without making him empty his pockets or even explain why the alarm might have gone off.

That scene, unthinkable at an airport terminal, has been repeated many times at several stadiums in the first days of the World Cup. With the attention of billions of soccer fans, the monthlong event hosted by South Africa could be a tempting target for terrorists.

The laid-back security treatment at stadiums and the main media center appears to be reserved mostly for credentialed visitors such as journalists and VIPs. Bag searches are often cursory or nonexistent, and credentials often are not closely examined.

Horst Schmidt, a senior FIFA security expert who is an adviser to the World Cup organizers, expressed confidence that regular fans were being rigorously screened, but said it was possible that people with credentials were treated with more deference.

"Maybe it's more relaxed," he said. "But there are strict orders... They checked my accreditation. They looked into my face to compare with the photograph."

Thus far, no serious security problems have been reported at the venues during matches – fans have been exuberant and mostly well-behaved. Police say they are pleased, and FIFA – while acknowledging widespread inexperience among the venue screeners – is confident there will be steady improvement as the tournament progresses.

"This was the first time they were facing this amount of people getting in," Schmidt said. "It takes some time to make them aware and familiar with the situation."

Nevertheless, in a post-9/11 era when high security is the norm – and in a time when assassins posing as journalists have succeeded in killing public figures – security is visibly more porous than at other modern multinational events, including recent Olympic Games.

Journalists with The Associated Press and other organizations have repeatedly encountered lax security.

One AP editor has set off metal detectors several times without so much as a bag check. Another who misplaced his credential got into the media center without even being asked to show it. A photographer entering the Port Elizabeth stadium said guards barely glanced at the gear in her case, which included cables and radio transmitters.

At the stadium in Durban, an AP reporter wandered by mistake into the supposedly off-limits presidential section, observing crisp white tablecloths and wine glasses at the ready, but unquestioned by private security guards who were there.

Cathal Kelly, a Toronto Star columnist, depicted security for the U.S.-England match Saturday in Rustenburg as "a smiling shambles."

Indeed, many of the reporters who noted security lapses have commended the security workers for their cheerfulness. That's a sharp contrast to the relatively grim-faced screeners who have abounded at some past Olympics and World Cups.

Routinely at those events, credentials were electronically scanned every time one entered an official venue, while at this World Cup there's no such scanning. At the Beijing Olympics and to a lesser extent at the Vancouver Games, reporters' bags were often searched thoroughly – here, to date, that's been relatively rare.

The local organizing committee has primary responsibility for conditions inside the stadiums. Its spokesman, Rich Mkhondo, said the committee was unaware of any major problems with venue security, and his office referred detailed questions to the South African Police Services.

"We are extremely satisfied that our operations are running as planned," said Vishnu Naidoo, a police spokesman. "Much credit must be given to the fans for their exemplary behavior."

Schmidt said FIFA had been satisfied with the training provided to the security workers, who were hired by private companies. But he said there's no substitute for game-day conditions.

"You can train for this theoretically," he said. "But you cannot have the experience without being in the stadium. If people have no experience, it takes some time."

Schmidt said he was pleased that the screeners' friendliness had been noted.

"Yes, we have rules," he said. "But there should always be a human touch ... not just people being so strict and saying only no."

Schmidt was asked if one factor in the security arrangements might be related to South Africa's past as a racially segregated land of white-minority rule. Would some members of the mostly black security contingent tend to avoid confrontations with whites entering the venues?

"I remember discussions after the Confederations Cup (held in South Africa last year) about whether people have a problem saying no," Schmidt said. "But I think it has changed. They have been well-trained. They can be strict if necessary."

There were signs that security was tightening as the tournament proceeded. One reporter who observed casual screening of journalists at Friday's opening South Africa-Mexico match said security was tighter the next day at the Argentina-Nigeria match – with screeners checking bags and using hand-held metal detectors.

For the highly anticipated U.S.-England match Saturday evening, security around the stadium in Rustenburg seemed to tighten as the day progressed.

One reporter said he entered the venue without being scanned or body-checked, even though he was carrying bulky outerwear over his arm that could have concealed dangerous items.

Later in the day, reporters were checked with hand-held metal detectors, and asked to account for any items that triggered a beep.

Security staff operating an X-ray scanner specifically ordered a cameraman entering the Rustenburg venue not to put his bulky TV camera and tripod through the machine. Asked about that, a guard replied, "Guns have to go through the machines, but not the cameras."

For fans in Rustenburg, it was a different story. Those taking buses to the venue had to show their tickets to board, and some had to wait an hour in lines leading through metal detectors at the entry gates.

South African police had received no substantive complaints about lax security, said Naidoo, the police spokesman. "On the contrary, only praises are forthcoming," he said.

He said venue security personnel had been instructed to be vigilant even when dealing with accredited people, making sure they passed through metal detectors and checking them thoroughly if an alarm was sounded.

"If we have a problem with the private security, then we as the joint security forces will step in and take over security at the stadium," he said.

Outside the venues, security has been a constant concern for many World Cup participants, and several foreign journalists have been robbed of their money and gear.

Most teams in the tournament – and some media organizations – have their own security personnel, and there has been tight, effective security at many of the teams' training sites. So far, no team official or star player has publicly conveyed any unease with security arrangements.

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Filed by Adam J. Rose  |