Thursday, January 16, 2014




(Thursday January 16, 2014 Moscow, RS)  From the heavily fortified United States Embassy complex here the city of Sochi Russia is 850 miles south.  Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea will soon begin greeting athletic contingents and spectators for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.  While the location for the Games may be impressive there remain many serious questions regarding the security of the thousands expected to be in Sochi when the Games begin on February 7, 2014.  While Russia has put on a good show of force across their sprawling once divided nation many security, intelligence and counter terrorism professionals in the United States and some Allied countries are still expressing serious reservations regarding the Russian’s ability and resources to provide the level of security required.  The Olympic Games come at a time when many observers in the West see some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives as less than progressive.  Some fear that Putin is slowly creeping back towards a more “Soviet Era” brand of totalitarianism and assuming a more belligerent posture towards the United States and other countries. The US Department of State has already issued a “travelers advisory” for any Americans planning to attend the Games and extraordinary security precautions will accompany American athletes to the Olympic Village as well as each specific sporting venue.

One need not look too far into the past to see other Olympic Games that have been more about geopolitics then amateur sport.  In 1980 both the Summer and Winter Games were boycotted by President Jimmy Carter as a protest against the USSR invasion of Afghanistan.  There were other countries that stood with the United States in the boycott. Jumping farther back in Olympic history to the 1930’s and, in particular, the 1936 Berlin Games were touted by the new Fuhrer of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Hitler was determined to show the world the best that his country had to offer while simultaneously demonstrating the athletic and genetic superiority of his “Aryan Nation”.  Much to Hitler’s chagrin American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, an African American, won four gold medals. 

Between the nationalistic saber rattling of the Berlin Games played in the emerging shadow of a world war and the boycotts and protestations of the 1980 Games the 1972 Munich Games have gone down in history as an episode of terrorism and violence that the Olympic Games and the world were dramatically altered in their aftermath.  During the second week of the Munich Games pro-Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the Olympic Village and held 11 Israeli athletes hostage.  The siege ended in the death of all the Israelis held captive and a West German police officer.  What had quickly acquired the sinister designation of “The Munich Massacre” represented a paradigm shift in the world of terrorism and forever elevated security as the top priority of host cities, Olympic athlete’s housing and all sporting venues. 

It is quite an undertaking to play host to the Olympics.  Many host cities have learned this the hard way.  In recent years whatever economic windfall a host city was previously poised to reap, ever increasing costs associated with security on a grand scale and often widely scattered venues have offset, if not devoured, Olympic-generated revenues.

The Olympic Games pose a particularly appealing target for terrorists of every stripe.  Most of the countries of the world send at least a few athletes to compete in an event or they send large contingents composed of athletes that will partake in virtually every single event.  This is not just a grand stage for those competing or the host; it is equally as grand a stage as any terrorist could ever hope for.  Yes, there have been Olympic Games held in the post – 9-11-01 years and security was especially tightened.  What adds a layer of danger and complexity to the Sochi Games is time and place; Russia today is becoming increasingly volatile.  Once the unifying mortar of the old USSR eroded away and the Berlin Wall came crashing down burying the Cold War beneath the rubble, nation/states that had been independent sovereignties prior to the Communist Revolution wanted their independence back; they no longer would be repressed, oppressed, abused and ruled by an iron fist thousands of miles away.  Some of the most hazardous regions are in Central Asia known as the “Caucuses”. 

The Caucuses become better known to Americans after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda extremists were allowed to live, train, ploy and plan in the Taliban controlled perpetually ungovernable country of Afghanistan.  The countries immediately bordering Afghanistan are known as the “Other Stans”: Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Waziristan.  The Stans exist in some of the most rugged unforgivingly harsh environments on the planet.  The terrain itself is challenging; weather conditions can swing wildly from season to season.  This is no place for the uninitiated or uninvited.  The Soviet Union learned this lesson the hard way when the then CIA-backed mujahedeen warriors lead by bin Laden sent them devastated in defeat and retreat.  The Stans are predominately Islamic countries comprised of Muslims from the more moderate end of the spectrum to the ultra-zealous extremists. Russia has also had their former Soviet States of Chechnya and Georgia to contend with in recent years.  This very brief, crude synopsis of the geopolitical gears and levers of the region are presented only to emphasize the daunting task of keeping these Olympic Games safe and secure while terrorist activity has been on the upswing all across Russia, the Stans and Chechnya recently.


Within minutes of the July 4th, 2007 announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that Sochi Russia would be the host of the 2014 Winter Games, the pistons and valves of our vast but still cumbersome Intelligence and Security apparatus went into motion.  From the very start in corridors from the stately CIA campus in Langley Virginia to the Pentagon’s Department of State Security Service, it was realized that having the Winter Games in Russia was going to be a challenge of immense proportions when it came to securing the athletes and spectators.  Some of the most vocal harbingers were in the CIA, seated at the Central Asia (The Stans) Desk, and they immediately began banging the warning drums that when the Olympics descended on Sochi they, along with a wide range of allied and cooperative security services were going to be in uncharted waters as the 2014 Games edged ever closer.

For some in our Foreign Service Security Detail, FBI, CIA and other Law Enforcement Agencies Russia is still an inherently dark almost evil land; some of the long time veterans see the Russia of today in the vein as the Soviet Union of yesterday. Certainly current events indicate that Putin’s Russia is determined to be a player on a larger scale internationally.  Russian leaders of Putin’s generation sometimes seem to long for the days when the USSR was a “Super Power” to the outside world.  We all learned after the collapse of the Iron Curtain that it was in reality a paper lion.

Putin has driven Russia incrementally down a retrograde path regarding personal freedoms, liberty and has enacted more repressive laws.  Now, with the eyes of the world prepared to focus on Sochi his domestic policies are under greater scrutiny.  Russia is a sovereign nation and as such has the absolute prerogative to enact whatever laws they see fit.  In some ways these tougher laws may have set the stage for the heavy military and security presence he has ordered for the duration of the Games.


Providing the necessary security for the athletes and spectators in Sochi and off-site venues is of course the responsibility of the Russian authorities.  As the host they play the lead role in all matters of safety and security.  That said, some matters of jurisdiction are a bit hazy; they are not as cleanly defined as one might think.

As has been reported elsewhere in the media the United States has dispatched a substantial contingent of security, intelligence and counter terrorism experts to Moscow and Sochi to liaise with their Russian counterparts.  It is the right of each participating nation to send security and protective personnel along with their coaches and athletes but the United States and some of our closest allies already have such personnel in place.  Over the course of the last six months American and allied experts have been in Russia coordinating the security efforts so that they will be firmly established by the time the Games begin.  Some reports have indicated that Russian authorities have been “less than cordial” regarding the presence of American personnel.  Whenever there is an event of this size with all its complex logistical elements and variables to consider, some degree of clashing is bound to occur.  Even here local Police Departments such as NYPD find themselves at odds with the FBI and Secret Service.  Inter-agency efforts are easy to map out on paper but the reality is often more clumsy.  Given the fact that the United States’ relations with Russia have been increasingly less cooperative, even hostile in some matters, it is vital that national interests do not interfere or impede in the implementation of security measures.  It is when some points of contention consume unreasonable amounts of time and effort that important details “slip through the cracks”, as one State Department Security Service official commented days ago.


By charter the Central Intelligence Agency is prohibited from conducting any operations on American soil; it has no jurisdiction in any way domestically.  But, since the Games are not being hosted here they have been very engaged in the planning of the Games.  Speaking not for attribution a CIA analyst who has worked the Central Asia Desk in Langley for many years recently said, “The Caucuses have been and will continue to be a nasty thorn in Moscow’s side until some of their concerns are rightfully addressed by Putin and the Duma (the Russian Parliament).  Now various groups have been conducting small isolated campaigns of terror.  A bus blown up here, a market attacked there and it does not seem like much.  However, if any one of these groups were to organize on a larger scale, they could really do some serious damage.  This is why we (the CIA) have been so active on the ground in the Caucuses”.


With the opening ceremonies in Sochi just 20 days away there are some positive items to report but they must be taken in context of the larger issues as have been discussed here.  For their part Russia is sparing nothing regarding security for the Sochi Games; they have assigned a host of their domestic law enforcement and security apparatus towards that end.  They realize that if anything of a terrorist nature was to occur during the Games it would transpire in front of a world-wide audience and that is a huge motivating factor for Putin.  He realizes just how much he has at stake here and appears determined to leave no stone unturned to assure the Games progress peacefully and smoothly.  Yes, he has been rattling his homophobic saber of late insisting that homosexuality is a byproduct of libertarian capitalism and contrary to Russian laws and society.  This is largely a cosmetic charade intended to poke a finer in the eye of the United States. 

Reports from American personnel already on the ground in Russia have been more cautiously optimistic than nervously pessimistic.  Hopefully there will be no unplanned events to interfere with the planned events and all will compete in the spirit of national pride and athletic sportsmanship.  That remains to be seen and , as one NYPD Detective stationed at Scotland Yard in a counter terrorism post commented, “We will all breath a huge sigh of relief when it’s all over.”

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