The safety of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has become a major concern for American policymakers because of brazen pledges by Islamic militants to disrupt the events.
The Olympics, which officially start Feb. 7, have historically been a target for terrorism -- the 1972 and 1996 Summer Olympics were attacked -- but concerns about the safety of this year's 17-day competition, in a region rife with instability and militancy, have risen to a new level.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that a force of 40,000 officers has been deployed and the competition site has been blocked to cars not registered in Sochi as part of security tactics dubbed the "Ring of Steel." Over the past month, counterterrorism operations have been carried out across the Caucasus region.
In a sign of the seriousness of the situation, the U.S. government publicly announced that it has begun planning for worst-case scenarios if athletes need to be evacuated.
“Air and naval assets, to include two Navy ships in the Black Sea, will be available if requested for all manner of contingencies in support of — and in consultation with — the Russian government,” said Rear Adm. John F. Kirby.
President Obama and Putin spoke by phone recently about how to secure the games.
Earlier this month, the FBI announced that it would send dozens of agents to the country, in concert with Russian intelligence services, according to the Washington Post.
But despite those precautions, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said he was worried about “soft targets” not within the security perimeter set up around the competition sites.
These would include transportation networks, explained Mike Baker, a former CIA cover operations officer.
“The Russians have taken extraordinary measures to protect the perimeter around … the ‘Olympic zone.’ … [But] you don’t just have the ‘Olympic zone.’ You have the transit points, you’ve got to get to Sochi, you’ve got to leave Sochi,” Baker said on CNN.
Last month two suicide bombings killed more than 30 people in the city of Volgograd, about 400 miles from the Olympic site a major rail hub for tourists traveling to Sochi. An Islamic militant group claimed responsibility for the attacks, while Chechen rebels in the region continue to issue menacing warnings.
Even as concerns mount, traditional friction between the Cold War-era antagonists is hampering efforts between the U.S. and Russian intelligence communities to work together. Policymakers concerned about the security risks are stressing the need for a softening of pride and a hardening of will.
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu, offering assistance if requested. The phone call, which was relayed to the press by the Pentagon, offered no hint that Russia was interested in U.S. help.
“The Russians have not been fully cooperative on a security front with sharing information that might be helpful in the securing of both our athletes and the participants," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, agreed, saying on the same show, “Fundamentally, they don’t want to admit they don’t have complete control here and that they might need some help.
“There’s a long history of cooperation between nations who are hosting the Olympics … and the United States intelligence community,” Morell said. “We did not get that cooperation with the Russians.”