The Security Savants Protecting the Winter Olympics


When the world’s attention swings to South Korea on February 9, the spectators and participants will be thinking about more than gold medals. The saber-rattling between the neighboring Koreas makes for an ominous backdrop to the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, a tension that seeing the countries’ athletes march under the same flag and skate on the same ice can’t quite erase.

The Korean situation is unique, but all modern Olympics face threats, including terrorism and the personal-security dangers that come with big international crowds. There are decidedly modern risks to manage, as well. Chief among them: drones and computers. “What’s different now from past Olympics is increased use of unmanned systems and the cyber domain to stage attacks,” says security analyst Peter Singer. “The attacker doesn’t even have to be onsite. They can do it from afar.”

For instance, terrorists could use unmanned air or ground vehicles to deliver chemical agents or explosives, Singer said. Remote hackers could stage denial-of-service attacks on networks supporting the games or steal travelers’ credit card data. They might try to sabotage the Games by altering drug test data, interfering with scoring systems, or doxing competitors by releasing private information to embarrass or distract them before a big event. There are endless avenues that lone wolfs, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, or state agents can take to achieve an equally broad range of nefarious goals.

For this reason, secreted in that tension-filled background will be the security forces of dozens of countries, led by the South Korean government’s own key agencies, all working to benefit from a collective expertise that rarely unifies. Allied nations consult readily with each other during planning and amid the nearly two weeks of events, and even typically adversarial countries are more likely to share information at the Games.

South Korea’s security forces will run the show, but it’s no surprise the United States will have one of the largest forces at the Games. This is where the Diplomatic Security Service gets its turn to shine. The State Department’s security and law-enforcement agency is charged with protecting embassies and US citizens abroad, and will have 100 agents in the country, plus dozens of additional personnel. They’ll be working in support of the United States Olympic Committee’s own security office and alongside smaller teams from other American agencies that comprise the State Department’s International Security Event Group. Among them: the FBI and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which specializes in satellite data analysis and global threat monitoring. In total, the US is sending 240 athletes and 200 security personnel to Korea. And just like those athletes, these are specialized competitors who spend much of their lives training for events like this all-important two-week stretch on the global stage.

While less known than the similarly structured Secret Service, the Diplomatic Security Service is no wannabe. It has 2,000 agents and 45,000 personnel stationed in more than 170 countries. In addition to routinely contributing to Olympic security, it does the same for the FIFA World Cup, and it even has its own security Super Bowl: the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York City. Months or years before an event like the Olympics, it inserts dedicated agents to the host country to help coordinate. Here, the strong ties between the US and South Korea prove helpful. So does Korea’s tech savviness—the home of Samsung and LG is no stranger to cybersecurity.

“We’re very confident in South Korea’s capabilities in staging the games,” said Rick Colón, director of the Office of Protection at the DSS. “We’ve been working very close together from the beginning, and it’s clear that the South Korean government has developed a comprehensive security plan for the Winter Olympics, as well as for the Paralympics that will follow.”

Indeed, the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games (POCOG) includes a robust roster of authorities: the Korean National Police Agency, the National Intelligence Service, the Presidential Security Service, and the nation’s military.

Pieces in Place

The DSS started prepping for these Games nearly two years ago, when it sent two agents to Seoul, working out of the American embassy there. Their early efforts centered on security inspections at the various venues, establishing protocols for communicating with other agencies, contingency planning, and coordinating the placement of the DSS agents during the Games.

The remaining agents who will converge on South Korea were chosen mostly for their experience with major events or the region in particular, any Korean language skills, and other factors. They will receive refreshers in first aid and the communication systems set up for the Olympics, along with additional training specific to all the potential scenarios that might play out. The DSS will station more than 20 agents (dubbed field liaison officers) at each of the two venue locations—the PyeongChang mountain cluster, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies and the skiing, snowboarding, and sliding events (bobsleigh, luge, skeleton); and the Gangneung cluster at the coast, for skating, hockey, and curling.

“There will be agents assigned to each venue, monitoring specific teams competing or practicing at those locations,” says Craig Reistad, the agency’s Olympic security coordinator. “Their role is to be on the ground to serve as eyes and ears at the venues. If there are any anomalies—anything out of the ordinary—they’ll know how to get the team out of danger and where to move them.”

In Seoul (two to three hours by train from those venues), dozens of additional agents will be stationed at a joint operations center, to communicate with the agents at the venues, the other security agencies, and local police, fire, and military services. Other DSS agents will work out of South Korea’s own command center. And a pair of situational awareness teams will be stationed at each cluster, monitoring the areas outside the venues for potential problems. That means sometimes mundane work: confirming that a road is clear for a VIP’s arrival, or verifying that any road accidents are indeed mishaps, not mischief. This is in addition to persistent vigilance to all the other potential threats that might appear first outside the venues.

Though it’s not directly involved in the security of the Games, there will be another group kept on virtual speed-dial throughout: US Pacific Command (PACOM), the Department of Defense command that has maintained a presence in South Korea since 1957, after the Korean War. That presence manifests in US Forces Korea, which maintains more than 30,000 troops in the country that can be mobilized in minutes should any worst-case-scenario trouble arise.

Sharing Is Caring

During the Games themselves, the lead DSS personnel, along with reps from other agencies, as needed, will brief the staffs each morning about any incidents, local police activity, and other notable intelligence reports, and the host nation will conduct daily intelligence updates. The DSS will itself report back daily to the State Department and communicate with the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a voluntary organization of US companies and entities that operate overseas and which may be involved in the Games. (NBC, for instance, will have 2,000 employees distributed between the two clusters, while major sponors like Coca-Cola, Bridgestone, and GE will send their own delegations.) Again, it’s all about communication. “The main strength we bring is information sharing,” Reistad says. “It doesn’t help any of us to stay compartmentalized over here.”

The nature of the information exchange varies widely. “The joint operations center works in concert with the liaison efforts and is plugged into the host government's security structure,” says Thomas Hastings, a security consultant formerly with the State Department and the FBI, who oversaw the State Department’s counterterrorism efforts during the 2000 and 1996 Summer Games. “Shared reports can be as serious as a credible and specific terrorist threat to an Olympic event, venue, or athletes to as routine as the key events occurring during the next shift, how the local and international media is covering the events, etc. Cyber threats would also be discussed as would social media activity, including among traditional adversaries and what they might be posting on social media.”

The participating agencies will supplement their information-gathering tactics with some swanky tech, likely including facial recognition systems, surveillance blimps, smart security cameras programmed to detect unusual behavior, and sensors to detect chemical or biological attacks. The DSS wouldn’t confirm its technological resources, but the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which interprets satellite data and imagery acquired from the National Reconnaissance Office to support combat and intelligence operations, says on its website that for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, it built detailed interactive digital maps.

Even at ground level, the DSS taps every advantage, including new mobile devices that “transmit situational awareness of their agents and points-of-interest,” even in low-bandwidth situations. “We do try to employ as much technology as possible,” Colón said. “It’s a big enabler, in addition to our personnel. We use multiple communication technologies in order to make it as fluid as possible.”


Recent signs of collaboration between North and South Korea are encouraging, but they hardly mean all’s well going into the Games. The DSS wouldn’t divulge operational details relating to its contingency planning, except to say that it will conduct simulations at the joint operations center before the opening ceremony, covering a variety of scenarios.

In terms of the most modern panoply of threats, analyst Singer says there are many tactics the security forces present might use to answer them. “Defenses against robotic aerial attacks, for instance, will first involve creating an airspace ban around the venues, then surveillance and detection technologies to track potential drones,” says Singer, the security analyst. “They’ll have technologies to shoot it down or disable it through jamming—hacking into it to hijack or block it, or just overwhelm it electronically.”

On the cyber front, the countermeasures will primarily be threat intelligence, which hinges on—you guessed it—sharing information with other agencies. “Simply tracking that will add to the resilience against an attack,” Singer says. “Good threat intelligence is not just saying that you see some type of malware, but learning that this group or that group is plotting something. If a threat is detected, knowing that groups used certain techniques in other situations helps identify them as suspects in a current one.”

Finally, there are the potential major catastrophes—terrorist attacks, a nuclear strike, or a natural disaster. Those are thought out too. “There’s always a plan,” Reistad said. “Yes, we look at the worst-case scenarios. We sit down together and conduct tabletop exercises and worst-case planning.”

Ultimately, the goal in South Korea is simple: keep the drama on the snow and on the ice. And however the Games go, the DSS and the rest of the world’s security agencies will be taking notes and honing their approach for the next major event in a world where geopolitical tensions show no signs of calming.

Safe > Sorry

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