The FBI said on Thursday there was “absolutely no indication” of a terror attack threat in Chicago, although the city was considered a potential target even before President Barack Obama and other leaders meet for this weekend's NATO summit.
FBI agent Ross Rice said the agency will be on heightened alert in Chicago, with extra agents brought in to react if its intelligence network sniffs out a plot. The FBI has agents in 70 countries, gathering intelligence.
“Several international terrorist groups have elevated Chicago in their mind to their No. 1 target for terrorist attack,” Rice said in an interview at the US government's nerve center inside a non-descript suburban Chicago office complex. Reporters were asked to keep the location secret.
“But there's absolutely no indication that we've developed that any group or organization has a plan afoot to disrupt the summit this week,” Rice said.
Rice cited the October 2010 plot in which two Chicago-bound cargo planes contained bombs concealed in printer cartridges that originated in Yemen. The intercepted packages were addressed to Jewish synagogues in Chicago, but were believed to be designed to go off while the planes were over the city.
An army of police, FBI and Secret Service agents will blanket the center of America's third-largest city for the two-day summit. Any incident including a terror plot, a protest run amok or a traffic accident will be communicated to the Multi-Agency Communications Center, or MACC, officials said.
A separate group will man the government's Joint Information Center to answer questions from the media.
Inside an auditorium at the MACC, a bank of large TV screens faced seven rows of desks with phones for dozens of officials.
There are seats for the US Postal Inspection Service, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Nuclear Energy, the gas and electric public utilities serving Chicago and the police and fire departments of Chicago and a few of its suburbs.
“There are 43 agencies represented. Some of them I've never heard of myself. But they can pick up the phone and take care of the problem,” said Chicago Police Captain Hootan Bahmandeji.
Suburban nerve center
Representatives of the FBI and several other federal agencies will have officials on hand, with the FBI deploying agents out of an operations center near the downtown convention center where the summit will be held.
The nerve center is designed to allow the sharing of information in person, rather than via telephone. The Secret Service will supervise and coordinate the flow of information.
“We can't do it alone,” said Roger Goodes of the Secret Service, who was brought in from Indianapolis for the summit. “The planning has been going on for a long time, and it's been exhaustive.”
Planning began in July 2011, when Chicago was designated by the Secret Service for the city's first-ever “National Special Security Event.”
“Each event poses its own problems that are unique,” said Derrick Golden of the Secret Service's Chicago office. “When we come in there is no template to prepare for, we build it from the ground up each and every time.”
Much of the public focus -- whether from Chicago commuters or business people -- has been on planned and unplanned protests and how the city's police department will handle things if provocateurs start trouble.
Many recall the bloody 1968 clashes between police and anti-Vietnam war protesters during that year's Democratic convention.
The entire police department has undergone training, and is a much more professional force, Bahmandeji said.
“We're hoping it's quiet,” he added. “Then we'll be watching the cross-town classic” between the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox baseball teams playing three games at Wrigley Field just north of downtown. “I'll be rooting for the White Sox.”