WASHINGTON - A Greek government official downplayed Wednesday's bombings in Athens that coincided with a key countdown to the 2004 Olympics, but said that terrorism fears could quadruple the initial security budget for the games to an estimated $1.2 billion.
"The environment we have now is different than when we got the games [in 1997]," said George Voulgarakis, the Greek minister of public order, who referred to recent terrorist incidents. "We've had Sept. 11, Madrid, Istanbul. It's a different environment. We have enlarged the whole venues [protection] idea beyond hotel, port and street. The whole of Greece is a venue."
Voulgarakis' three-day visit to the nation's capital included meetings with Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge; Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice; FBI Director Robert Mueller; CIA Director George Tenet, and Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is of Greek descent.
Those meetings began Wednesday, which marked 100 days to the Aug. 13 opening of the Olympics. Early that day in Greece, three time bombs were detonated outside a police station in an Athens suburb. The incidents caused more concern internationally than they did in Greece, where officials have linked them to local anarchists.
"This incident was not connected to the Olympic games, and had nothing to do with Olympic security," Voulgarakis said. "It was an isolated incident, the kind that frequently happens in Europe without any specific meaning. ... In Europe, we have a different sense of such incidents. This is not al-Qaida. It has nothing to do with bin Laden."
Voulgarakis, who has a Ph.D. in economics, has been on his post less than two months. He was appointed after the Karamanlis government was voted into power March 7.
"We didn't have to do anything different; we just have to go faster," said Voulgarakis, as security preparations had been slowed by an organizing committee that has lagged behind badly in many areas.
While plans for some venues have been scrapped and construction delays have made others difficult to secure, Voulgarakis said the security budget is three times what was spent in Sydney, Australia, in 2000 and in Salt Lake City two years ago for the Winter Olympics. It will enlist more than 70,000 men and women, including 55,000 police officers and members of the army, air force, coast guard and fire brigade.
Greece has signed agreements with 22 countries to exchange intelligence on security issues. NATO forces will supply air and sea patrols. A $320 million contract was won by a U.S. company, Science Applications International Corporation, which will install 1,400 security cameras. Eight readiness exercises have been held in the past three years. All venues will be locked down July 1, and Voulgarakis said Greece's Balkan borders must be watched closely.
"After the Olympic games, in security matters, Greece will be a superpower," Voulgarakis said. "If we can control human traffic, drugs, guns, that will give us the ability to be a very important country in the region in security matters."
Others are not as confident. Given the geopolitical climate, Australia has announced that it will have two Qantas jets ready in the event of an emergency evacuation. The International Olympic Committee has taken out a $170 million insurance policy against war, terrorism and natural disaster, such as an earthquake, disrupting the games.
The Olympics are expected to attract 2 million visitors and 10,500 athletes, including Michael Phelps, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer who is one of the hottest athletes in the world.