"Security Theater in New York City"

For the U.N. General Assembly:

For those entranced by security theater, New York City is a sight to behold this week. A visit to one of the two centers of the action—the Waldorf Astoria, where the presidents of China, Russia, the Prime Ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the President of the United States—are all staying. (Who gets the presidential suite? Our POTUS.) Getting to the Waldorf is a little intimidating, which is the point. Wade through the concrete barriers, the double-parked police cars, the NYPD mobile command post, a signals post, acreages of metal fencing, snipers, counter surveillance teams, FBI surveillance teams in street clothes, dodge traffic and a dignitary motorcade or two, and you’re right at the front door of the hotel. A Secret Service agent from the Midwest gestured dismissively when a reporter showed him a press credential. “You don’t need it. Just go in that door over there.”

At the door over there, another agent sent the reporter back to the first agent. The two agents—each from different field offices, no doubt—argued a bit over which of the Waldorf front doors they were going to let the general public in. Maybe the agents had just been “pushed”—or there was a shift change. In any event, the agents didn’t seem to mind when the reporter walked right past them. A standard magnetometer and x-ray screening later, and I was in the packed front lobby. African heads of state were just about to have a group lunch, and about three dozen members of the continental press corps awaited some arrivals. Some of the heads of state walked in through the front, tailed by a few of their own bodyguards and tired looking USSS agents.

Posted on October 2, 2009 at 12:23 PM22 Comments


max October 2, 2009 1:12 PM

Interestingly US security theater appears to have been a factor in the recent rejection of Chicago for the olympics. From the NYTimes:

In the official question-and-answer session after the Chicago presentation, Syed Shahid Ali, an I.O.C. member from Pakistan, asked the toughest question. He wondered how smooth it would be for foreigners to enter the United States for the Games because doing so can sometimes, he said, be “a rather harrowing experience.”

Frank Ch. EIgler October 2, 2009 1:34 PM

Wait, I thought “security theater” was supposed to be ineffective gesticulation. Nowhere in the text quoted is there a suggestion that someone bypassed the security.

Chris Wellons October 2, 2009 1:34 PM

This sounds a bit like when the television show The Chaser’s War on Everything managed to slip into the 2007 APEC summit with someone dressed up as Osama bin Laden. All they had to do was show up in a fancy motorcade with fake security guards and the APEC security waved them on in.

Dave0 October 2, 2009 1:42 PM

I think Jim’s comment points to the dark side of security theater:

It seems that whenever there it going to be a “controversial” gathering ie Political convention, Summit, etc. the new conventional wisdom is to put thousands of police officers who are dressed up like the military (and possible add in some National Guard troops) out on the streets. I have yet to really see any valid reason for this rather shocking action. In St. Paul last summer it was ostensibly to protect everyone from the total societal meltdown that thousands of anarchists were to bring to the Twin Cities. Those “anarchists” turned out to be maybe a few hundred mostly peaceful loonies and a handful of angry youths bent on destruction. That left the vast majority of other peaceful protesters at the mercy of riot police who I’m sure really believed that they saved the town from utter destruction instead of violently stifling peoples freedoms. And because that model “worked”, I’m sure teargas and riot batons are now a permanent fixture in this country’s political discourse, and that is truly sad.

Roy October 2, 2009 1:56 PM


It gets darker. Those who throw the first stone at the police are probably undercover police officers acting as agents provocateurs, not so much to encourage others to follow their lead but to give the police an excuse to wreak violence on the protester.

My advice to legitimate protesters: If you see someone about to stone the police, grab him, strip him naked, leaving his money, but making off with his ID, his badge, and his gun.

Adrian October 2, 2009 1:58 PM


“Wait, I thought “security theater” was supposed to be ineffective gesticulation. Nowhere in the text quoted is there a suggestion that someone bypassed the security.”

Security theater may be coupled with real security precautions. Security theater helps discourage people from attempting to break security, while real security provides the needed protection.

I’m sure there are situations where some security theater is appropriate, but I feel that too much security theater can intimidate the law abiding public and make them feel like criminal suspects in their own cities.

Lance October 2, 2009 2:10 PM

Sounds much more than just “Theater”. Especially since there is a connotation that Security Theater is all for show and implies a distinct lack of security.

There is definitely a part of all of this that has theatrical aspects and that is a necessity in providing a sense of security.

Just because a reporter didn’t need a press badge and there was a miscommunication on which door to use isn’t evidence of a breakdown in security.

mcb October 2, 2009 2:22 PM

@ Lance

“Just because a reporter didn’t need a press badge and there was a miscommunication on which door to use isn’t evidence of a breakdown in security.”

Inconvenience is not security. Delay is only sometimes an intentional part of a security plan. Security is almost never about locking everyone out. Good security includes letting the right people in so they can do their job.

moo October 3, 2009 11:49 AM

Off-topic: This slashdot story suggests that the U.S. lost its bid for the Olympics in part due to the hostile welcome that visitors arriving in the U.S. get from the border agencies:

The comments are full of anecdotal examples and complaints about the security theater.

Indeed, I have avoided travelling to or through the U.S. since 2002 for exactly this reason: its too much of a hassle and indignity. Instead I prefer to visit other countries where I am actually welcome, and spend my tourist dollars there instead.

Jonathan Wilson October 4, 2009 4:28 AM

The #1 reason I am becoming less and less likely to visit the US is because of the “blank cheque” open-ended search permission that the US customs authority seems to have these days.

Like the fact that they can take and examine/copy data from (and in some cases keep) computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices. And what they can (and may in the future) do with any “evidence” they find.

Traveller October 5, 2009 2:03 AM

To add on security theater:

I have the Swiss citizenship and had to travel to Chicago sometime ago. Since I haven’t a biometric chip enabled passport, I had to ask for a visa at the American embassy. You lose half a day and have to travel 200km for that, give out your fingerprints, etc.. Side story, I had a bike-flashlight on that day with me, and made a security breach for trying to smuggle electronic devices inside the embassy, had to queue from start again as a punishment. I can understand they don’t want me to bring phones and cameras, but a tiny flashlight.. Was my mistake anyway..

The point is: They checked I had a visa in Europe, in my departing airport, but once I arrived in Chicago, the border agent asked me: why do you have a visa, you are Swiss? He didn’t even know that I needed a visa because of my “paper-and-picture only” passport.. (actually non-biometrics passport are still accepted if issued before 2006, mine was in 2007, that the rule he didn’t know)

Result, I got really annoyed that I had to lose half a day and 200$, for a security measure that is not even enforced. As a result, I will minimize my trips to the US as much as I can.

Ricky Bobby October 5, 2009 7:56 AM

When dealing with the importance of the President’s life, the secret service must account for all probable risks. So, all of these safeguards are put into place, because they feel the risk merits it. So, why is this security theater? Just because a few of us here believe we can do better? Or because the security is in your face? All of these safeguards are mitigating factors for an attack, so why would this be Security Theater? This term is thrown around everywhere and is not even accurate in many occasions.

bob October 5, 2009 9:07 AM

What happened to the concept that the POTUS was simply “first among equals” and did not have the right to disrupt other people’s lives? (A: probably Kennedy[s]’ assassination) Still, I can’t help feeling that if Presidents were treated more like citizens and less like royalty they might make themselves aware of the lives of the citizens they are supposed to serve and lose some of that “taxpayers exist to make my life better” attitude.

While we’re at it, I believe the UN should be evicted from the US. Move it to some tiny island in the Caribbean or someplace similar where the entire contiguous land mass can be a country to itself, and the organization can provide whatever security it feels it needs to purchase (kind of like I do for myself) and have all the boondoggle featherbedded contractors they want to pay for. Stop making me pay for ‘security’ for all those 2-bit dictators [and 64-bit scoundrels]. Plus free up some valuable Manhattan real estate for productive use. Now here’s someplace where Justice Souter could practice his art for good instead of evil

spaceman spiff October 5, 2009 9:08 AM

So, what happens there when some joker in the crowd yells “A Gun! He Has A Gun!”? …

KingSnake October 5, 2009 12:26 PM

The more faces there are in the crowd — even if all those faces are adorned in security-oriented uniforms — makes it easier for an infiltrator to pretend he is part of security, and thus infiltrate the event.

David October 5, 2009 4:08 PM

@KingSnake: And the more different groups are involved, the more chances for something to slip through the cracks. In the excerpt, we saw mention of the NYPD, the FBI, private bodyguards, and the Secret Service.

The more different security-oriented uniforms there are, the easier it will be for a hypothetical infiltrator.

Αnonymous October 6, 2009 2:24 AM

“…In the excerpt, we saw mention of the NYPD, the FBI, private bodyguards, and the Secret Service.

The more different security-oriented uniforms there are, the easier it will be for a hypothetical infiltrator.”

While true, private bodyguards rarely wear uniforms, and the Uniformed Division of the USSS doesn’t operate outside Washington D.C. So there seems to be just two uniforms here.

David October 6, 2009 11:50 AM

@Anonymous: Yes, only two uniforms, but two different security groups (actually, potentially many, unless all African heads of state get their bodyguards from the same place) not in uniforms. That looks to me even worse.

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