Sochi Emergency Simulation Found Flaws in Russian Plans
(MOSCOW) -- In early December officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow huddled together to run a simulation in hopes of answering an important question: If there was a mass casualty incident at the Sochi Olympics, like a terrorist attack or earthquake, would Russia's emergency plans work?
The results were sobering, according to several U.S. officials briefed on its findings. "Things got real ugly, real quick," one official told ABC News.
The exercise, based on partial information American authorities have gleaned from Russian authorities, found vulnerabilities in Russia's plan for evacuations, emergency communications, and medical care, the officials said. Specifically, one U.S. official said they believe the Russians have not sufficiently considered second or third options in case their primary emergency plan fails.
U.S. officials fear Russian authorities are so convinced that they can prevent a terrorist attack that they have not spent enough time preparing a plan for if they fail.
They also fear that, while the Olympic park will be secure, so-called "soft targets" like hotels nearby or even the lines to enter the park could be vulnerable to suicide bombers and the like -- a concern previously voiced by American security officials. All visitors and vehicles entering the Olympic Park are thoroughly inspected, but the process takes time, and U.S. officials said they fear the backup could create a target. The officials told ABC News the Russians have not employed behavioral experts who could detect a suspicious face in the crowd before they attack.
Concerns extend beyond terror and into issues like what Russia might do in case of a building collapse or gas explosion.
"I'm nervous," another American official said about the Russian response plan.
The American officials cautioned that this was a routine simulation -- standard procedure ahead of a major event. They also stressed that it may have been based on incomplete information because Russian officials have been reluctant to share every detail about their security plans. Calls by ABC News to representatives of the Russian security services and to the mayor's office in Sochi for comment went unanswered.
But the exercise's findings, amid renewed fears of an attack in Sochi, laid bare the concerns that U.S. officials have been reluctant to state publicly.
President Vladimir Putin has ordered a massive security plan dubbed the "ring of steel" with tens of thousands of troops and police flooding the region, as well as air defense missiles and a massive electronic surveillance program. Much of the security remains hidden from view, but it is clear that the Olympics will take place on lockdown.
"I do think this perimeter is very fortified," Rep Michael McCaul, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told ABC News in an interview during a visit to Sochi earlier this month where he was briefed by Russian and American officials on security plans in place.
"I think the intelligence and the information sharing could be better, and that's something that I talked to officials about to try and strengthen that. But in terms of the actual physical security, I think they've done a good job," McCaul said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Dan Richards, the CEO of the evacuation and emergency planning company Global Rescue, expressed confidence in Russia's ability to respond adequately.
"It's easy to criticize or find any holes in any plan," Richards said.
His company has been hired by the U.S. Ski Team to evacuate its athletes in Sochi in case of an emergency, but he stressed that it was not involved in the embassy's simulation and had no knowledge of its findings.
"The Russians have done everything possible to prevent and mitigate the effects of an attack," he told ABC News.
He also dismissed some of the American criticism, namely that Russian authorities would have trouble communicating in an emergency if the cell phone network were overloaded.
Richards called the idea "ridiculous."
"I'd be very surprised if they did not have methods to communicate amongst themselves," he said.
By all accounts, Russian authorities have deployed a massive security presence that would spring into action during a crisis. Yet emergency experts say an effective response plan is not just the sum of its parts, but rather how well they work together during a crisis.
Retired Marine Col. Steven Ganyard, an ABC News consultant who has worked on emergency response planning in California, said training is critical.
"It's all well and good to have lots of capabilities in place but if they have never worked together then there is little chance they will work well in an actual emergency," he said. "There has to be practice and exercise to be credible. Static plans won't work."
U.S. officials point to Russia's response to previous emergencies as one reason they are worried.
In 2002, Chechen militants seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, taking 912 people hostage. After negotiations failed, Russian counter-terrorism forces filled the building with a potent sleeping gas, allowing them to storm the building and kill the terrorists. But 130 of the hostages died from effects of the gas because authorities had not planned to have ambulances or the antidote on hand.
Raymond Mey, a former FBI agent who helped develop security plans at the past seven Olympics, said Russian security officials have traditionally not invested in emergency response planning as much as their American counterparts.
"I would bet my pension on the fact that the Russians are not that committed to the same level of accountability that we are held to in the U.S. as a result of the failures of 9/11, hurricane Katrina etc," he told ABC News by e-mail.
"The Russians have not developed this same organizational capability to respond to crisis incidents," said Mey, now is president of his own security firm, Security Consultants International Corporation.
U.S. officials have repeatedly offered to help with security and emergency preparations. American security authorities invited Russian officials to the Super Bowl in 2012 to show them how the United States handles security at major sporting events. While it's unclear whether Russian authorities have used anything they learned there, broader cooperation has been elusive.
U.S. officials say Russia has yet to take them up on the offers.
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