Most News Organizations Are Using Security Contractors to Help Keep Their Teams Safe in Sochi

Fears mount over militant activity

With the Winter Olympics underway, the governments of several countries (including the U.S.) have battened down the hatches in case of violence, attracting both sports and political coverage to Sochi. U.S. counterterrorism officials have cited “specific threats of varying degrees of credibility that we’re tracking,” and news organizations must report on breaking news while protecting workers from the ever-present threat of violence.

NBC and CBS didn’t comment, citing safety concerns; ABC did not return a request for comment. But all news organizations mentioned are believed to use outside security contractors on such assignments. The Sochi Olympics are a rare junction of geopolitics and feel-good sports coverage—NBC will be trying to get its money’s worth out of the $4.38 billion contract to air the games until 2020, but every news division will be on high alert for the promised terrorist attacks.

There are also virtual impediments to coverage—Homeland Security is warning watchers that opportunistic hackers are likely to set up fake versions of news sites to acquire personal information, and Russian intelligence is monitoring social media, email and telephone traffic so closely that it’s been described as “the NSA on steroids.”

“The news organizations have had enough practice making themselves secure, particularly around the 2005-2006 period,” said TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall. Inexperienced newsies in Sochi, though, “rely on the Russians. Really, you can’t do anything else,” Tyndall said. “You can’t assign your cameramen a bodyguard each.”

Bill Rathburn of Rathburn and Associates (which provided security for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where a bomb exploded in Centennial Park) was pessimistic about traditional security. “A bodyguard will be useless,” he said. “The kind of security threats that exist in Sochi are not the kinds that bodyguards can protect against. If you’re on an bus and a suicide bomber detonates his vest, you can’t do anything but jump on the bomber, and you won’t have the time to do that.” There are further handicaps, too. “Russian security won’t allow bodyguards to carry weapons,” Rathburn said.

Nick Paton Walsh, a correspondent for CNN based in the region, said the Russian government is spoiling for a fight, particularly Vladimir Putin. “This is a man who came to power saying he was going to shoot militants in the toilet,” Paton Walsh said.

The reporter said he’s safe—he’s a veteran of the region. But the danger is there. “Putin’s said there won’t be a problem,” he said. “Militants want to prove him wrong.” Experience, ultimately, may be the best protection.

For his part, Rathburn sees holes. “When there’s a shortage of personnel,” he said, “there’s pressure from the operational people to go ahead and hire folks even when you haven’t done a background check.”