- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal., John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy covering diplomacy and national security.
Russian security services and the U.S. Olympic Committee are taking no extra security precautions for the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, despite a pair of suspected terrorist attacks on a train station and city bus that have claimed at least 32 lives in Russia in the past two days.
Patrick Sandusky, a spokesperson for the U.S. Olympic Committee, which represents the American delegation of athletes, told The Cable that his group is not treating preparations for the Sochi games any differently than other competitions, including the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, Utah. "We treat them all equally," Sandusky said. "Terrorism happens everywhere, not just in Russia," Sandusky said.
Among the delegation to the Sochi games, which begin February 7, will be about 250 American athletes, as well as American officials, tourists, and business people. And while U.S. security officials will be on the ground working with their Russian counterparts, it’s the Russian government that’s ultimately responsible for keeping all athletes and attendees safe.
"Russian authorities will be responsible for overall security for the Olympic Games," White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told The Cable. "U.S. personnel will be in Russia in liaison roles."
But officially, the Russians are taking no extra measures to shore up security or increase screening of attendees. "No additional security measures will be taken in Sochi in light of the terrorist attack," Aleksandr Zhukov, the president of Russia’s Olympic Committee and a senior member of Parliament told the Interfax news agency. "Everything necessary has been done."
Agents from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security will have the lead role for the U.S. government and will "liaise with host-nation security and law-enforcement officials," Hayden said. "This is standard operating procedure for large events, such as the Olympic Games in Sochi, where thousands of U.S. citizens, athletes from Team USA, American corporate sponsors, and members of the U.S. media are present for an extended period of time."
But American involvement at such events is mostly reduced to a coordinating relationship, a senior U.S. diplomatic security official told The Cable. "This is on the Russians. If something goes wrong, it’s really the host country that has a huge stake," he said.
"I doubt the Russians are even letting us in the country armed," added the official, who noted that during the 2012 summer games in London, U.S. diplomatic security officials did not carry weapons. "It’s more about coordinating intelligence and making sure everything runs smoothly" with the Russians, he said.
The high-profile assignment follows a difficult chapter for the Diplomatic Security bureau, which was criticized for providing inadequate protection for U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attack last year that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. In December 2012, Eric Boswell, the head of diplomatic security at the State Department, resigned after a hash internal report detailed missteps ahead of the attack. But some officials say the bureau was made the scapegoat for a broader failure by the military and the CIA to protect American diplomats.
Rep. Michael Grimm, a New York Republican who’s the co-chair of the House Russian Caucus, urged securtiy officials to respond in light of the bombing. "That begins with taking every threat seriously and acting accordingly, so that the Winter Olympics remain a dream for athletes around the globe, instead of becoming a nightmare like Benghazi," Grimm said in a statement.
The twin bombings in the city of Volgograd, about 400 miles from the site of the Olympic venue, have turned the focus of security officials in Russia and the United States to Chechen leader Doku Umarov, the head of the Caucasus Emirate organization, which is seeking to break off from Russia. Umarov pledged in July to use "maximum force" to disrupt the games. Russian President Vladimir Putin met Monday night with security officials and sent the chief of the Federal Security Service to Volgograd to oversee the investigations, according to the Kremlin.
The White House issued a statement Monday condemning the attacks, adding, "The U.S. government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and we would welcome the opportunity for closer cooperation for the safety of the athletes, spectators, and other participants."
Administration officials had said that security relations between the United States and Russia improved following the Boston Marathon bombing in April, after the accused perpetrators were identified as Chechen immigrants and Putin pledged his country’s cooperation with the U.S. investigation. But diplomatic ties have been strained in the past six months, after former National Security Agency contractor fled to Russia and was granted political asylum after leaking classified documents about intelligence operations.
The question remains whether the bombings in Volgograd were isolated, or a prelude to more violence in Sochi next month. "My feeling is that it might be a diversion, to distract attention of the secret services from Sochi," said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and expert on the country’s security services. Soldatov noted that before the hostage-taking at a school in Beslan in September 2004, suicide bombers took down two planes out of Moscow. And days before Chechen militants took hostages in a theatre in Moscow in October 2002, a car was blown up in the Russian capital.
"The [federal security service] should think of how to provide security not only in Sochi/Moscow, but in Central Russia as a whole, and in Volgograd in particular," Soldatov said.