Russian security expected to be very visible and rigorous at Sochi games

While finishing touches are being put on the Olympic facilities in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. State Department has urged caution for anyone traveling to the games. How will athletes be protected? Judy Woodruff gets perspective from Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Dan Richards of Global Rescue.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to another look at the upcoming Winter Olympics, which kick off one week from Friday.

Tonight, we examine efforts to keep American athletes and visitors safe during the Games.

Workers added final touches to the Olympic Village in Sochi today, but, for many, security at the Black Sea resort has eclipsed facilities as the overriding concern.

Olympic Village director Dan Merkley of Canada:

DAN MERKLEY, Olympic Village: I'm very confident that these villages are really among the safest places to be in Russia right now. And I am also extremely confident in the way our security agencies have prepared for the safety of athletes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even so, on Friday, the U.S. State Department issued this travel advisory, urging caution for those planning on making the trip. Private security firms have also been contracted to safeguard the 230 U.S. athletes and to help evacuate them if need be.

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: If we need to extract our citizens, we will have appropriate arrangements with the Russians to do this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday the U.S. military is standing by if there's an emergency.

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, the Russians have not requested any specific assistance or technology. We want them to know that, if they need our help, we want to help. I think, as you -- most of you know, we will have two ships in the Black Sea during that time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In addition, Air Force transport planes will be ready in Germany, about two hours away.

It's all because of threats by extremists in Russia's North Caucasus region. They have vowed to attack the Games, and last week, authorities said a potential suicide bomber may have entered the city. There have already been multiple attacks outside Sochi in recent weeks, including suicide bombings in Volgograd, 600 miles away, that left 34 people dead.

LYUDMILA RODENKO, Sochi, Russia, resident (through translator): We saw on TV that a terrorist attack happened in Volgograd, so, it is not impossible. But anything may happen. What can I say? Our reliable police will be our hope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's a hope that thousands of athletes and spectators will share.

So, just how safe will the Olympics for American athletes and spectators?

For that, we turn to Dan Richards, CEO and founder of Global Rescue. It's providing crisis management and response for the U.S. ski and snowboarding team, as well as for corporate clients. And Andrew Weiss was the director of Russian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He's now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And welcome to you both.

Andrew Weiss, to you first.

How would you describe the efforts the Russians are making to keep these Games safe?

ANDREW WEISS, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: The Russians are sparing no expense to make the Games safe.

The question is, there's a hard target around Sochi. There seems to be a relatively robust Russian troop presence in the mountains around Sochi. There's cops on the street. The question is, there's plenty of soft targets across Russia, and as we have seen in Volgograd, any attack that happens between now and the Games or during the Games I think is going to be portrayed as being connected somehow with the Olympics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Soft target meaning something more vulnerable?

ANDREW WEISS: Anyone who has been on the Moscow subway at rush hour knows that it's a mass of humanity. So, God forbid something bad happens. We have seen that already now recently in Volgograd.

I think there is going to be a jump to conclusions, saying this is a blow against Putin, this shows that Russia is not safe, this shows that Sochi is not safe. So, that's what -- that's the message that the Putin government is trying to control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Richards, what's your sense of how safe it is or will be?

DAN RICHARDS, Global Rescue: You know, I think that within Sochi and the proverbial ring of steel here, that it's going to be quite safe.

It's, as Andrew mentions, targets outside of Sochi that might not be as hardened nearly as the Olympic Village itself or within the regions surrounding Sochi that might represent more attractive targets for terrorists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why are you confident that it's safe within the immediate, as you say, ring of steel?

DAN RICHARDS: Well, the likelihood that the environment within that ring of steel is selected as a target, obviously, it's an attractive target should a terrorist want to disrupt the Games. That goes without saying.

But the Russians have expended basically every available resource in order to secure that area, both in terms of manpower, in terms of money, and other resources that would help secure the air, the land, the sea. They're monitoring all the communications.

There's been an unbelievable amount of effort that's gone into the security. It doesn't mean that the likelihood that something happens is zero. It's not zero. But it's arguably the most protected environment that the Olympic Games has ever seen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Weiss, we know the U.S. military has some offshore -- what is the U.S. military doing?

ANDREW WEISS: I think, at this point, what we're seeing are largely attempts by the U.S. government to reassure people that we're watching this closely.

We are going to be relying primarily, though, on the Russians. This is their show. So, when you talk about warships in the Black Sea, there were warships off the coast of Athens during those Olympic Games. So this is something that has been done. There's precedent for it.

The question is, it all depends on the Russians to be cooperative and provide the environment. So if you have a plane and you're trying to get into Sochi International Airport, you need flight clearance from the Russians.

So the idea that someone can -- the cavalry can steam in and pluck Americans out of there, that's a bit of a stretch. The real challenge is for the Russians, if something, again, something terrible were to happen, manage the event, can they manage the consequences, can they provide a sort of atmosphere of calm and that they -- that they can sort of organize a response.

That's something where the Russian in the past haven't been very good, and I think that's where people are worried.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Dan Richards, let me take that to you, because, as I understand it, what your firm is providing is crisis management and an ability, if something were to happen, to help get the athletes and anybody else out of there.

DAN RICHARDS: That's correct.

But what Andrew says is also correct. And that is, you know, the airspace around Sochi is 100 percent controlled by the Russians. Nobody's going to fly over it or land at the Sochi Airport without their say-so.

But Global Rescue has been retained to provide not only potential air transport, but also support on the ground for our clients, USSA among them. So if there are medical emergencies or other types of emergencies that require either consultative support or direct on-the-ground resources or transport at some point to a different level of care, that's what we're positioned to do.

But we're positioned to do it in conjunction with the support of the Russians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us -- can you tell us anymore about how that works? I mean, is this different from what you would do at other Olympics in another place where you didn't have this kind of security, massive security threat?

DAN RICHARDS: That's a great question.

The reality is, any time that we're using air assets or flying in or out of somewhere, we have got to get permission not only for the place that we're landing, but also any countries that we're flying over. So getting those kinds of permissions, working with the host nation, in this case, obviously, the Russians, it's all par for the course, actually.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Weiss, do all the teams presumably have their own -- need to have their own security arrangements, ability to get out if something goes wrong?

ANDREW WEISS: I think, since the Munich Games, the world of security for Olympics has been transformed.

So you have seen Secret Service, CIA, FBI, all these kinds of entities providing the contingency plans and coming up with a sense of the security environment that would make our Olympic athletes understand what they're going into and understand what the relative risks are. But, as your other guest indicated, this is a place that's going to be intrusively secure.

So guests are going to be forced to get a background check to get their ticket. When they go to the venue, they are going to be scanned multiple times. So it's not going to be sort of the sort of freewheeling time on the mountain. It's going to be very regimented and very Russian.

And what the Russians are doing is, they're deploying cops on the street every 50 meters. There's going to be just this very obtrusive physical security presence that's intimidating. The Russians are going to use racial profiling to make people who sort of match the profile of the insurgents that they're worried about in the North Caucasus feel uncomfortable.

So, again, compared with Moscow, where on any given day of the week, you have two million migrants running around making their livelihoods, Sochi is going to be a very different atmosphere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dan Richards, would you agree that description, that it is going to be very different from other Olympics?

DAN RICHARDS: Absolutely.

You know, as Andrew said, there's going to be a very visible and overt security presence. And the kinds of things that might have been permissible 10 or 15 or 20 years ago at an Olympics absolutely are not going to be permissible here. You're not going to be walking around carrying bags of items, unidentified substances or bags into events where there are going to be large numbers of spectators.

There are going to be a large number of security personnel on the street, so I would agree with them completely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally to both of you, and I will stay with you, Dan Richards, when people ask you, should I go, is it safe, what are you saying?

DAN RICHARDS: I think that anybody that is attending the Olympics should go in with their eyes wide open.

And the possibility that something happens is not high. In fact, it's very, very low, but it's also not zero. So, you know, I think that the Olympics is in general going to be a safe environment for spectators and for athletes. But nothing in this world is 100 percent, and that isn't either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Weiss, what do you say to people when they ask you whether they should go?

ANDREW WEISS: I think it's what he said. You have to be aware of the environment.

But this is -- before every Olympic Games, there's usually a lot of fixation on security. We saw this in London. We saw this in Athens. And the Russians in this case are holding the Games in a neighborhood which is quite unstable and where there's a lot of skepticism about Russia's ability to deliver security. I think, all told, there's going to be a real sense of unease until these Games are over. And we're just going to have to see how things play out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

Andrew Weiss, Dan Richards, thank you.  

DAN RICHARDS: Thanks for having me.