Here’s the cold hard truth: Security for The Big Game is more comprehensive and taken more seriously than it was for January 6. The intensely watchful intelligence apparatus says there is no known threat—it says that every year—and yet that doesn’t stop intense preparations, the very kind of preparations that weren’t taken for the Congressional electoral certification in January 2021.
And in that there should be a lesson about American priorities, and government failure: First, the priorities: Duh. And as for government failure? If the feds are not pointed in a certain direction, attention wanders, whether in terms of focusing on BLM and Antifa while ignoring “Patriot” groups. Or in the perpetual obsession with weapons of mass destruction when more conventional and less sexy threats are far more likely. Meanwhile, there’s a game to play.
Super Bowls, for more than two decades, have been classified as Special Event Assessment Rating (SEAR) Level 1 events, a Department of Homeland Security designation that means that “extensive federal interagency support” is required to coordinate a federal response. (January 6 wasn’t so designated.) In Los Angeles this year, the chief of the Inglewood Police Department, with 186 sworn officers, is nominally in charge. They are backed up by neighboring police and Sheriff’s departments, as well as California Highway Patrol and state agencies. Then there’s the security force of Sofi Stadium’s private contractor force as well as the NFL‘s dedicated security force, both of which supervise the magnetometer and physical search stations that fans step through at every regular game.
But all of that pales in comparison with the federal resources thrown into the defensive line. This year, that includes well over 1,000 agents, officers and technicians, by far the largest security entity. That includes the FBI, Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security (more than 500 overall personnel), Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Transportation Security Administration, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the National Guard, the Department of Energy, and even the EPA. They all get to play, because, well, it’s the only game in town.
The FBI playbook for a typical SEAR-1 event includes abundant firepower and intelligence support in case things go wrong. These resources—over 700 people— operate both at ground zero in Los Angeles, and back in Washington. It even includes 87 members of the elite Hostage Rescue Team. Ten surveillance aircraft of various types are typically present.
The federal “missions” assigned to these various agencies and departments are vast: stop terrorism, stop counterfeit merchandising, stop human trafficking, stop improvised explosive devices, stop attack drones, and stop chemical, biological and radiological weapons. COVID might be the biggest actual threat, that and a fistfight or two, but for all the extraordinary unlikelihoods, the feds are ready.
And it is here that they get to show off their latest toys and tactics.
In the days leading up to the game, for instance, the National Nuclear Security Administration conducted ground and air background surveys to be able to monitor radiation levels in real time. A Consequence Management Team from the Domestic Emergency Support Team is on site, borrowing assets from the NNSA’s National Security Test Site in Nevada. The National Guard has its own Civil Support Team specializing in WMD and hazardous material at the ready. As do the police, California state agencies, and other federal government entities. The intelligence agencies are also looking at ISIS and al Qaeda, and at potential threats as far afield as Iran, North Korea, and Russia, sniffing out any intelligence regarding preparations to attack the site or the broadcast.
Given the overblown concerns regarding the most catastrophic possibilities (and given the SEAR 1 rating), the Secret Service is overall in charge of “security design.” (The Special Agent in Charge of the Los Angeles Field Office is the “Federal Coordinating Officer.” The deputy FCO is the local administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.) Under the SEAR 1 rules, the feds treat the site as they would one prepared for a presidential event. In this, various agencies provide uniformed and undercover officers to protect the lives of a Star Wars bar ensemble: Eninem, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jhené Aiko, Mary Mary, Yola and Zedd. Oh, and there are the players—American monuments—and some other luminaries from Inglewood, Hollywood, and as far afield as Bollywood. Oh, and some government officials and lesser VIPs like what’s-his-name, the governor of California.
All of the agencies also bring their gaggle of “counter” teams to play: counter surveillance, counter sniper, counter-IED, counter cyber, counter-WMD, counter UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems). It is the Super Bowl of preparedness. This year, the homeland security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) stars, brought up from the minors. The agency that protected the 2020 elections from everything except Donald Trump will ensure that various Wifi and mesh networks are protected from intrusion, that is, so that the attendees can safely take selfies. CISA conducted a “Special Event Strategic Cyber Assessment” months in advance of the game. Here’s the homeland security cyber security assessment for Super Bowl 50, held in Santa Clarita, California, before CISA was created. (Warning: The report is Unclassified / Traffic Protocol Level Green, so if you’re not cleared for that…compartment…you’re on notice.)
Customs and Border Protection will also use “NII”—non-intrusive-technology (secret portals and detectors)—to scan all cargo coming in the stadium. And they will provide surveillance helicopters. Other air assets, including UH-60 Blackhawks.will be on standby to respond to air space violations. Lurking behind them are air defenders belonging to NORAD, as well as various other surveillance planes and drones, monitoring and scooping up stray communications that might augur an attack.
Of course, gathering threat intelligence ahead of a Super Bowl is a challenge. You’re supposed to talk trash about the team you hate. So, if, on your social media accounts you use the word “obliterate” to describe what you’d like the Rams to do to the Bengals, or even the word “bomb” to denote a football play or a diggity crush, there’s a non-trivial chance that some analyst somewhere will catch it. That includes the local California intelligence fusion center, the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC), located in Norwalk. (This is what analysts at these fusion centers really do.)
The FAA has already issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), prohibiting, basically, every aircraft that isn’t scheduled to land at LAX, from being anywhere near a circle of air in Sofi Stadium’s vicinity. One slight problem: Sofi Stadium is within a mile of LAX runways 25R and 25L. Air traffic controllers will have to vector traffic over the Pacific Ocean. Don’t want to disturb the festivities.
Over the years, threat assessments prepared for other Super Bowls take note of the general environment, always reiterating their self-necessitating point that bad actors have a variety of ways to “malignly influence” the setting. (For instance, they warn officers to search people with bulky clothing lest they be suicide bombers. Don’t act too suspicious if you are planning on being within the Super Bowl “area of operations.” Here’s a list of the behaviors the Houston Police Department found suspicious when that city hosted the Super Bowl in 2017.
Don’t believe it? Don’t believe that so many preparations can be made for an event that has nothing to do with the national security – and where no actual threat exists? And think that somehow this year is so intense because of January 6th? We’ve obtained threat reports for three of the last five Super Bowls, all of them “for official use only” and most published here for the first time. They show, with some shifts in emphasis (such as drones or cyber security) that Super Bowl security is based upon one set play, always against the same zero threat:
When it’s all over, when the FBI beats ISIS, when the Secret Service smashes the money launderers and cartels, when ICE sacks the makers of counterfeit NFL clothing (no kidding), when the feds decisively beat the drones, and on and on, every agency participating will crow about how its expensive footprint made the games safer. (Look! No WMD were used.). We’re fairly certain that significant amounts of data on people, places and things will be collected and stored for future exploitation. And we’d bet that no one will track the duplication of resources, or effort, or assess whether the assets deployed were needed in the first place.
It’s all in the game though, in the theater of security that allows practice and the testing of new technologies and surveillance methods. It really is tragic, the contrast with the preparedness for the crowds on January 6. Remember: This is all done when there is no threat. We know that the argument many will use is that somehow the feds—the law enforcement entities—looked the other way because they were sympathetic with the Capitol protestors and even the insurrectionists. It’s a completely fallacious supposition. On January 6, the feds just did not sufficiently prepare. Beyond blaming it all on Trump, we still don’t really know why.
This story is co-published with The Secrets Machine
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