Aftermath of the Munich Olympic Massacre

Aftermath of the Munich Olympic Massacre

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The 2012 London Olympics marked the 40th anniversary of the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich games. An international calamity, the murder of the athletes by the Palestinian extremist Black September group on September 5, 1972, naturally spurred increased security measures at all subsequent Olympic games. The incident also forced the United States federal government, especially the State Department, to modernize the way it handles diplomatic security.

Black September Attack

At 4 a.m. September 5, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into to the Olympic village building where the Israeli team stayed. As they attempted to take the team hostage, a fight broke out. The terrorists killed two athletes, then took nine others hostage. A globally televised standoff ensued, with the terrorists demanding the release of more than 230 political prisoners in Israel and Germany.

Germany insisted on handling the crisis. Germany had not hosted the Olympics since the 1936 Berlin games, in which Adolf Hitler tried to showcase German superiority in the pre-World War II years. West Germany saw the 1972 games as a chance to show the world it had lived down its Nazi past. The terrorist attack on Israeli Jews, of course, stabbed right at the heart of German history, since Nazis have perpetrated the extermination of some six million Jews during the Holocaust. (In fact, the infamous Dachau concentration camp sat about 10 miles from Munich.)

German police, with little training in counter-terrorism, botched their rescue attempts. Terrorists learned via TV reporting of a German attempt to rush the Olympic village. An attempt to take them at a nearby airport where the terrorists believed they had passage out of the country, collapsed into a firefight. When it was over, all the athletes were dead.

Changes in U.S. Readiness

The Munich massacre prompted obvious changes in Olympic venue security. No longer would it be easy for intruders to hop two-meter fences and stroll unchallenged into athletes' apartments. But the terror attack also changed security measures on a more subtle scale.

The U.S. State Department's Bureau for Diplomatic Security reports that the Munich Olympics, along with other high-profile terrorist incidents in the late 1960s and early 1970s, caused the bureau (then known as the Office of Security, or SY) to reevaluate how it protects American diplomats, emissaries, and other representatives abroad.

The bureau reports that Munich caused three major changes in how the U.S. handles diplomatic security. The massacre:

  • Put diplomatic security in the "forefront of U.S. foreign policy concerns;"
  • Changed SY's focus from background checks and evaluations to committing the personnel and technology necessary to combat terror;
  • Put the State Department, White House, and Congress all in the diplomatic security policy-making process.

Executive Measures

U.S. President Richard Nixon also made executive changes to America's terror preparedness. Foretelling the post-9/11 administrative reorganizations, Nixon ordered that U.S. intelligence agencies cooperate more effectively with each other and foreign agencies to share information regarding terrorists, and he created a new cabinet-level committee on terrorism, headed by Secretary of State William P. Rogers.

In measures that seem quaint by today' s standards, Rogers ordered that all foreign visitors to the U.S. carry visas, that visa applications be closely screened, and lists of suspicious persons -- code-named for secrecy -- be submitted to federal intelligence agencies.

Congress authorized the president to cut U.S. air service to countries that aided hijackers and made attacks against foreign diplomats on American soil a federal offense.

Shortly after the Munich attack, Rogers addressed the United Nations and -- in another tactic that presaged 9/11 -- made terrorism global concern, not just that of a few nations. "The issue is not war… or the strivings of people to achieve self-determination and independence," Rogers said, "it is whether the vulnerable lines of international communication… can continue, without disruption, to bring nations and peoples together."