With the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia scheduled to start in twelve days, U.S. officials and policymakers have repeatedly raised the possibility of a terrorist attack by Chechen militant groups. On Friday, the State Department issued a qualified travel alert for U.S. athletes and visitors to Sochi: “There is no indication of a specific threat to U.S. institutions or citizens, but U.S. citizens should be aware of their personal surroundings and follow good security practices.” That same day, secretary of defense Chuck Hagel declared: “If we need to extract our citizens, we will have appropriate arrangements with the Russians to do that.”
Several policymakers claim that Russian security services have been unwilling to accept counterterrorism cooperation from the United States, and have refused to share specific threat intelligence with their American counterparts. On ABC News This Week today, there were two passages that perfectly captured why such counterterrorism cooperation between two adversarial powers is inherently difficult.
First, from a reported piece by ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz:
Raddatz: One informal request by Russia’s top general to joint chiefs chairman Martin Dempsey for American roadside bomb jamming technology may go unheeded.
Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero (ret.): As far as jamming technology, we’re not going to share that.
Raddatz: Why not?
Barbero: Because it’s very closely held. If you understood how we jammed, you could defeat it.
Rep. Peter King, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, then offered this illustrative observation:
Jonathan Karl: You’ve said that now twice, the Russians have not been cooperative. But we’ve just heard in Martha’s story that they have asked for some equipment, technology that we’re unwilling to share.
Rep. Peter King: Well, again, technology is different from sharing information, because usually intelligence is a mosaic, you get bits and pieces from different countries and you piece it together. The Russians don’t want to share what they have, because they’re afraid that that will enable us to learn how they obtain their intelligence and we’ll use it against them in the future.
As far as using technology, I don’t want to get into that as to what our policy is, but I can understand why people in our government would be reluctant to share a very sophisticated piece of technology, which could be used against us in the future.
There you have it in exacting detail. The safety and security of everyone attending the Winter Olympics is being put at further unnecessary risk, because of the reciprocal distrust between Russia and U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence agencies. Russia does not want to provide information that could reveal the sources and methods of how it collects human and signals intelligence, while the United States will not share jamming technology that could defeat radio-signal car bombs, because Russia could share or use that information to develop countermeasures that overcome those jammers. If the Olympics were being held in the United States, and Russia possessed some remarkable counterterrorism technology, the two countries would undoubtedly switch their roles in defiance of each other. As policymakers and the media continue to discuss and debate what is being done in the face of reported terrorist threats to Sochi, it is worth keeping these two passages in mind.
(3PA Correction: The initial version of this blog post said that it was Gen. Martin Dempsey who was interviewed by Martha Raddatz, based on an ABC News transcript. It has been pointed out by Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, that our initial reliance on the ABC transcript was in error, and it was Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero (ret.) who was interviewed.)