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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For terrorists out to make a splash, few events are more tempting than the Oscars, a star-packed salute to American culture watched live by millions across the globe. The Academy long has been on guard against all manner of potential intruders, from anti-war protestors to animal-rights activists. But since the World Trade Center attacks, its security efforts have dramatically intensified — and a scare on Feb. 19, when a man pulled over for reckless driving at Hollywood and Highland claimed to have a bomb in his trunk (the LAPD bomb squad later found no explosives at the scene), already put several of those security measures to work. The Dolby Theatre, which opened shortly after 9/11, was specially designed to withstand chemical attacks and even small-scale bombings. (Rumors of a secret underground tunnel network never have been publicly confirmed.)
This year, in the wake of ISIS atrocities abroad and the Charlie Hebdo murders, authorities are mounting their most sophisticated security effort yet, deploying an astounding array of high-tech gadgetry and armies of police officers to keep the party safe. Operation Oscar is headquartered in a state-of-the-art underground bunker downtown, with a makeshift command post at a Hollywood soundstage. Led by a Los Angeles Police Department commander, the task force unites nearly 1,000 officers from agencies including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. They divide the area around Hollywood and Highland into concentric rings that require progressively higher levels of protection. “As you get closer to the inner circle, you’re trying to make that tighter and tighter,” says Tim Horner, a managing director at global security firm Kroll.
The work begins several months before the red carpet rolls out, with extensive background checks on the thousands who’ll have access to the event, from janitors and journalists to host Neil Patrick Harris. Stalkers, violent criminals and radicals of all stripes are singled out for special attention. Party crashers, too. (In 2013, the notorious Vitalii Sediuk tried to infiltrate the Oscars dressed in a replica of Bjork‘s famous swan gown. This year, he’s barred from both the event and the country.) Those who receive credentials are explicitly forbidden to post them on social media, lest the images be used to create counterfeits. In 2008, an actor named Scott Weiss penetrated the arena by expertly forging a pass. He turned his caper into a documentary, Crasher, that the Academy later required its entire security team to watch.
All this prep work culminates early Oscar Sunday, when the LAPD embarks on a block-by-block sweep of the neighborhood. By 3 p.m., the maze of streets around the Dolby is as locked down as a military base. Sharpshooters are positioned atop buildings, while close to 600 uniformed cops surround the perimeter in a daunting show of force.
Buses and subways are rerouted out of the area; businesses are shuttered. Garbage cans — potential receptacles for explosives — are carted away. Every vehicle entering the red zone is searched for bombs and guns. Guests are ushered into a large tent, discreetly located out of sight of cameras. There, celebrities and civilians pass through a metal detector, reluctantly throwing bejeweled cellphones and YSL clutches in plastic bins. Struggling to find a balance between protecting the event and turning it into an armed fortress, police work hard to blend in. Undercover officers in formal wear mingle with celebrities, while cops in sneakers and L.A. Clippers hats man the bleachers.
Ultimately, officials know that no plan is perfect. “There’s contingency plans, but you hope you never have to use them,” says security expert Anthony Burnside. “We want things to be boring.”
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