By Sophia A. Niarchos
It seemed an innocent enough statement in the Reuters report just two weeks before the start of the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, but it demanded further inquiry of this Greek-American reporter. Quoting a U.S. counterterrorism official who insisted on staying anonymous, the Reuters reporter wrote:
“There is no credible information about terrorist threats to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Italy..” But it was the addition of “in contrast to security concerns that dogged the 2004 Athens Games” that heightened my concern. Because the world had apologized for its lack of faith that Athens could provide a secure environment at the first Olympic Games since the attacks of September 11, the Reuters reporter’s reviving the fingerpointing at Athens prompted additional exploration, especially when the rest of her story presented conflicting information about the security of Games participants in Italy.
If, as she wrote, it was true that, “The Italian secret service warned that there was a high risk of attack within the next two to three months, from the start of the Olympics to Italy’s general election in April even if there was no specific threat related to the Games,” why wasn’t the U.S. concerned? After all, Italy is an ally of the U.S. in the war on Iraq and, according to a Los Angeles Times report nearly two weeks after Reuters’, “hundreds of potential troublemakers in Italy [were] under surveillance ahead of the Games.”
So why was the U.S. concerned before the Athens Games and not before Turin? Could that expressed lack of concern be the result of Italy’s cooperation with the U.S. vis-à-vis the Iraq war?
Robert Sikellis, the senior managing director and associate general counsel with the risk-management firm of Vance International, is a former state and federal prosecutor who has worked with the intelligence community prior to and during his employment with Vance and was involved in security consulting for both the Athens and the Turin Olympics. He told Greek News how Italy’s handling of security issues has been different from Greece’s.
In addition to Italy’s having been a longtime source of Islamic radical recruits, and its longstanding experience with a large radical population, requiring of its public officials a high level of security awareness and activity, he said, “The passage of time has brought about new technology with advanced capabilities [for the Turin Games], and that is something Greece didn’t need in advance of the Games.”
Having been on the ground in Greece planning the security measures for two years prior to the 2004 Games, Sikellis noted that Greece did set up state-of-the-art missile batteries and employed 1,000 security personnel. Its “primary mistake,” relative to security measures, he noted, “was its failure to have an effective security PR machine in place.”
“Greece was doing [security] well, and people in the inner circle were aware they were okay; but there were people with another agenda, and Greece had no mechanism in place with which to respond to security criticism.”
He described one incident where a “radical anarchist kid” had thrown a Molotov cocktail and the CNN headline was that Athens was “rocked by a bombing.”
“They went on for hours. Americans landing in Athens would have thought they were landing in Iraq.”
However, unlike Italy, which allowed outsiders into its inner circle to help develop its intelligence-gathering ability, Greece had “the classic Greek paranoia of not wanting to let outsiders in,” Sikellis opined, quickly adding that it was “as a Greek and as someone who loves the country” that he made that statement.
An additional error Greece made, in Sikellis’ estimation, was putting security “in the hands of the Greek police, who I don’t think understood what was going on in the rest of the world. Having ‘Sgt. Mitso’ on the street corner saying how safe Greece was wasn’t as effective as if they had had an independent high-level authority reassuring people.”
And, he said, it didn’t help that “no one in the United States [government] went out of their way to help Greece.” Sikellis doesn’t believe that this was intentional on the U.S.’ part; rather, he attributed it to the prevalent anti-Americanism in Greece that was unlike Italy’s pro- America stance.
The result, he feels, hurt Greece unnecessarily.
“One benefit of hosting the Olympics is that it portrays a country in a favorable light, but in Greece’s case, people [at least initially] walked away saying how lucky they were instead of how great a job [Greece] did.”
This kind of response reflects what Sikellis thinks is a lack of appreciation for “the level of security that went into Greece’s preparations. It was top-notch, and it’s unfortunate that Greece took a public beating, but it wasn’t from a lack of capability.”