Sochi Games: US hints at need for more security information from Russia

Mounting threats to target the Sochi Games prompt some Olympians to tell their families and friends to stay home. US officials, meanwhile, offer some reassurances on security – even as they make concerns clear.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
Flags are aligned in front of the Bolshoy Ice Dome at the Olympic Park in the Adler district of Sochi, Jan. 24, 2014. Amid mounting threats to security, Russia insists that the Games, set to kick off Feb. 7, will be safe.

[Updated Jan. 24 5:45 p.m.] American speed skater Tucker Fredricks’s parents were on hand in Turin, Italy, in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010 to root for their Olympian son. But when Fredricks skates in the Sochi Games in Russia in February, his mom and dad will be at home – where their son has asked them to stay out of concern for their safety.

Normally, Olympic athletes encourage family and friends to attend the Games to cheer them on. But this year, as concerns mount over the threats that militants from Russian hot spots – such as the Caucasus region where Sochi sits – may pose to the Winter Olympics, more athletes from the United States and other countries are asking loved ones to stay home.

The list of countries to announce that their Olympic committees have received specific threats is growing. Hungary was the latest country this week to reveal it has received e-mails warning that its athletes could be targets.

Russia insists that the Games, set to kick off Feb. 7, will be safe – and it has deployed an unprecedented number of security forces of all stripes to back up that vow.

On Friday, Mitt Romney, former Republican presidential nominee, told NBC’s "Today" that he would feel confident sending his family to the Sochi Games. Mr. Romney, who was CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Winter Olympics that took place just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said, “There’s never been a Games I know of that have been so targeted for specific threats as you’re seeing in Sochi,” But it's also the case, he added, that “the level of security preparations appears to be at an unprecedented level.”

That appears to apply to both Russia and the United States. US officials, acting on their own threat assessments, are deploying resources to the Olympics site and to the area. The US is offering assistance and antiterrorism technologies to Russian authorities.

Publicly, US officials are acting to calm rising jitters about Sochi, even as agencies from the military to the FBI take steps to address security concerns –and to prepare to evacuate American athletes in the event of terrorist attacks or other disasters.

Senior administration officials on Friday afternoon offered some reassurances about security planning. "Cooperation between us and the Russians on the Sochi Olympics goes back quite some time," one official said during a conference call with reporters, noting a variety of bilateral working groups on security and other issues.

Citing estimates that as many as 10,000 Americans could attend the Games, the officials noted that the State Department has issued a travel advisory recommending that Americans take precautions but has not advised against travel to Sochi.

The officials also cited the same "uptick in threat reporting" that other administration officials have referred to this week. "It's a difficult environment," one official said, adding that the US has "longstanding concerns about the North Caucasus region."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that “an uptick in threat reporting prior to the Olympics,” while “not unusual for a major international event,” is prompting the US to step up planning and preparations for threats to the Games. The US is offering Russian authorities “any assistance they might need to counter that threat,” he said.

Mr. Carney’s comments followed a phone call Tuesday between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which included discussion of Sochi security.

“The United States has … been working with the Russian government through the international security advance group on Sochi preparations specifically, as we do with any host country,” Carney said.

The Russians have been less accepting of US offers of security assistance than the US would have liked, some security analysts and former US officials have said. One senior administration official speaking with reporters Friday hinted at less-than-optimal cooperation, saying, "We always wish our partners would share more information with us."

Among possible US assistance is technology for detecting and jamming roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), that the US developed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said after meeting his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in Brussels this week that the Russians had expressed interest in the anti-IED technology. The US plans to share technical information on the equipment with the Russian military, Dempsey said, and could share the US technology if it is found to be compatible with Russian equipment.

Dempsey said he reminded Gerasimov that the US “would favorably consider requests from them.”

As of Friday, there has been "no formal request by the Russians" for specific US technology, a senior administration official said.  

Until recently, Mr. Putin has preferred to underscore the image of a Russian security apparatus that has everything under control on its own for the Olympics, which are a point of pride for Russia and for Putin in particular.

Dempsey, in remarks after his meeting with Gerasimov, offered an empathetic element to his portrayal of the task Russia has before it, saying any country hosting the Olympics this year would have to prepare for terrorists seeking to disrupt such a high-profile international event.

He added, however, that holding the Games in close proximity to Chechnya and Dagestan – two republics of the Russian Federation with separatist Islamist insurgencies – poses additional threats. 

This week Russian authorities announced they had killed a militant leader in a shootout in Dagestan, raising fears of “revenge” actions against the Winter Games.

Russian officials also announced on Tuesday that they are on the lookout for as many as three “black widows” – widows of militants killed in the conflicts in Chechnya and Dagestan who reportedly have been trained to carry out suicide bombings.

Worries are growing that, while the Olympic events and immediate venue environs are likely to be secure, other areas within and around Sochi's “ring of steel” that will be controlled by 40,000 Russian police and special security forces may be more vulnerable.

Romney said it is “soft” targets in the Sochi area that might remain worrisome. He added, “My guess is that Russians have done everything humanly possible to protect the Games."

That assessment differs from the one he delivered on security preparations for the London Summer Games in 2012. At the time, Romney was critical of British security planning, leading British Prime Minster David Cameron to swipe back: “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”

Sochi is demonstrating that the clever dig might not necessarily be true.

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