By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2014 – Top Defense Department officials have offered the Russian government U.S. help with security during the Feb. 7-23 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, but have received no requests, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this afternoon.
Hagel and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held a joint news conference after their meeting at the Pentagon today, and both answered questions about national responses to threatened terrorist attacks during the games.
Participants and spectators expected in the Russian city include a U.S. team of 230 athletes, along with 270 coaches and support staff, as well as about 10,000 American spectators.
“Right now, the Russians have not requested any specific assistance or technology,” Hagel said.
“We want them to know that if they need our help we want to help,” the secretary added, noting that the department will have two ships in the Black Sea during the winter games.
“We have had conversations with the Russian government on the protection of our citizens, of course,” Hagel said, “[and] if we need to extract our citizens, we will have appropriate arrangements with the Russians to do that.”
Hagel noted that Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had an in-depth discussion this week in Brussels about Sochi and other matters with Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, his Russian counterpart. The secretary added that he spoke recently with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Speaking through a translator, Le Drian said that Russia has not asked France for support. “If the question is, ‘Do you have the intention to ensure the protection of your citizens that might have problems in Sochi?’ the answer is yes,” he added.
As is true for other Olympic games, the host country, in this case Russia, has primary responsibility for security.
Later in the afternoon, senior administration officials speaking on background held a media conference call to discuss increasing attention on security, reports of threats to the games, and U.S. government preparations for security support if needed.
The U.S. Olympic Committee says Team USA’s safety and security are their top priority, a senior administration official said, and the committee is working with the State Department, local organizers and law enforcement agencies to ensure the safety of U.S. delegation members and other Americans traveling to Sochi.
State Department consular services will be in force there, and U.S. officials are on the ground now to provide information, support and services to Americans visiting Russia, the official added.
Another senior official said the State Department Diplomatic Security Service leads an interagency group called the International Security Event Group. “We have been working long and hard prior to the Olympics to liaise with the Russian government, Russian security services and Russian forces there, the official added.
“In Sochi, we have diplomatic security agents and representatives from other federal agencies, including the FBI,” he said, adding that experts on the ground will man an information hub called the Joint Operation Center.
During the games, diplomatic security agents will accompany American team members to all venues and will be on site at all times to work with Russian government security services and generally oversee security levels, the official said.
Another senior official described the uptick in threat reporting and said they are aware of reports of potential threats during previous Olympic games, media accounts of female suicide bombers and a video posted online claiming responsibility for recent bombings in Volgograd and promising more attacks during the Sochi games.
“We take all such threats seriously,” the official stated.
The U.S. Olympic Committee security coordinator has advised the athletes not to wear team colors or team uniforms outside accredited areas. “It’s just good common sense,” a senior administration official said during today’s conference call.
The United States continues to work with Russian and international security partners to look into such reports and will continue to update its security information for American citizens, another official said.
In terms of contingency planning, the official added, “the United States relies primarily on the host country, but the State and Defense departments are doing prudent planning and making sure assets are available if needed by the U.S. government or requested by the Russian government.”
The full resources of the U.S. government are aligned in support of athletes, delegation members and Americans attending the Olympics, the officials said.
“U.S.-Russian defense cooperation on different specific projects — among them [countering] improvised explosive devices — predates the issue of Sochi,” a senior official said, “so there is very good defense cooperation between the U.S. and Russian militaries in specific areas … because of our common broader interests in cooperating on counterterrorism.”
The United States and Russia have a working group under the Bilateral Presidential Commission, and the issue was also discussed in the call between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin this week, the official added.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow leads an effort to engage with the Russian government directly on issues of security in Sochi to make sure that U.S. liaison officers have the right credentials and will have access at the site, according to the officials.
On e senior official said the United States has many sources of information it’s using to assess the situation, an official said, adding that one of the most important venues for such cooperation is with the U.S. Five Eyes partners, which include the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
On the Defense Department’s potential role in Sochi, a senior administration official said that commander of U.S. European Command, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, “wants to make sure he has complete visibility on the assets in his region and to know what he has available, including potential airlift and perhaps even sealift, if he’s called upon for that kind of a mission.”
DOD takes its lead from the State Department on such overseas events, the official said. “All we’re doing at this point is the kind of prudent planning and research into assets available to make sure we [know] what we have and where we have it, just in case we’re called.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinAFPS)
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