State Department’s travel advisory could impact Team USA

Security is on everyone's mind heading into Sochi. But did U.S. State Department go too far?

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Now that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory to Americans that all but screams don’t go to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, you have to wonder: Why is the U.S. government taking such a contrary position about these Olympics?

And what will be the consequences?

For any travelers who do go? For the U.S. team? The U.S. Olympic Committee? Longer term, for the prospect of an American bid for the 2024 Summer Games — the International Olympic Committee tending to have a long memory about governments that don’t play ball the Olympic way, especially when it’s the American government.

Seriously: why this disconnect?

The State Department does not always issue travel alerts; it does so to “disseminate information” when the U.S. government identifies “short-term conditions” it believes “pose significant risks to the security of U.S. citizens.” The government issues “travel warnings” for more serious situations in which it urges Americans not to go.

In this instance, one wonders whether the distinction makes a difference, given the publicity the advisory generated — Associated Press, the New York Times and other major outlets — and the language it contained.

The advisory also runs the considerable risk of putting the USOC — and, worse, American athletes — in an awkward, or worse, position. At the 2014 Games, the USOC has to rely on the State Department, some number of FBI agents and other American assets but, mostly, the Russians themselves for security.

In Sochi, the U.S. team will also be largely at the Russians’ disposal for logistics and transport.

To be clear, since the attack by Palestinian terrorists on Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Games, security has been priority No. 1 at the Olympics, Winter or Summer. Further, at any edition of the Games, the Israeli and American teams always get special security attention.

All of life is a relationship business.

One has to hope the relationships the Americans have forged and cultivated with their Russian colleagues at the staff level will now carry on without disruption through the 2014 Olympics.

Everyone, and especially President Obama and the State Department, knows full well the Sochi Games are a prestige project for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The issue is whether the White House and State Department have, indeed, fully thought out the consequences of their approach.

The advisory comes weeks after President Obama announced the White House delegation to the Sochi Games would not include any senior political figures but would include notable gay athletes, including Billie Jean King.

Last week, Olympic insiders were being told there was no State Department advisory.

Then late Friday, one appeared, in two parts, the alert itself and a corollary Sochi Games fact sheet.

In sum, the State Department cautioned Americans that terrorists have threatened attacks on the Games. It expressed concern about the scope and nature of medical care in the region. It also drew attention to the Russian law passed last summer that purports to bar “propaganda” aimed to minors about nontraditional sexual relations.

The alert itself noted the suicide bombings in recent weeks in Volgograd, several hundred miles from Sochi. It also noted that “other bombings over the past 10-15 years” have occurred at Russian “government buildings, airports, hotels, tourist sites, markets, entertainment venues, schools and residential complexes,” adding, “There have also been large-scale attacks on public transportation including subways, buses, trains and scheduled commercial flights, in the same time period.”

Volgograd: understood. The document notes radical militant Doku Umarov has threatened the Sochi Games. He has called them “satanic.”

As for attacks around Russia over the past “10-15 years”: really?

If that is the standard, what about the 2012 Games, and the bombings that shook the London transport system in 2005, literally the day after London won the right to stage them?

If that is the standard, what about any of the horrific episodes of mass murder by automatic weapon in the United States over the past decade?

In Connecticut? Colorado? Texas? Should those prompt warnings to Russian tourists not to visit anywhere in the United States?

The alert expressly notes it is unaware of any specific threat to U.S. interests related to the Games. The opening ceremony is set for Feb. 7.

The day before the advisory was issued, on Thursday in Washington, the FBI director, James Comey, had said, “The Russian government understands the threat and is devoting the resources to address it.”

The fact sheet, meanwhile, under a section entitled “personal privacy note,” reminds all potential travelers that Russian law “permits the monitoring, retention and analysis of all data that traverses Russian communication networks, including internet browsing, e-mail messages, telephone calls and fax transmissions.”

Connoisseurs of irony might find that delicious, of course.

Here are the Americans, caught up in a long-running controversy with the Russians over the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency, warning Americans who might be traveling to the 2014 Olympics that Russian law permits the collection of virtually anything and everything.

Again — really?

As for the LGBT issues, the fact sheet notes the law is vague. It then goes on to declare, in what seems less like “fact” and an awful lot like “opinion,” indeed advocacy and outright politics creeping in to a State Department document avowedly set up to “disseminate information”:

“The United States places great importance on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people,” including the LGBT community and Olympic athletes and spectators, adding, “The U.S. calls on Russia to uphold its international commitments regarding freedom of assembly and association and freedom of expression, now and in the future.”

Once more — really?

This even as the Kremlin was announcing the very same day — of course, Moscow is several hours ahead of Washington, so you’d think the State Department would be on it enough to notice — that political demonstrations would be allowed during the period of the Games at a specially designated site in the village of Khost, about seven miles from Olympic sites.

To use the site, activists must secure a special permit from the authorities; the police assuredly will be on hand. Then again, you generally have to get a permit for a rally in the United States and, typically, the police show up, too.

Who knows whether, as in Beijing in 2008, the site may go relatively unused? The fact is, it has been made available.

Here is a call on behalf of all people of good will to nothing bad happening.

Here’s also to the Russians winning, or at least winning a medal, in one of the very first events of the Games, the men’s 10-kilometer sprint in biathlon, due to start at 6:30 p.m. on the first Saturday of the Olympics, Feb. 8.

Nothing will take the focus off security and everything other issue as much as the home team winning; biathlon, the ski-and-shoot double, is one of Russia’s national sports. To be blunt, the Russians are not likely to win boatloads of medals in Sochi, and they already know it.

So one here would go a long way toward a good mood.

For everyone.

Alan Abrahamson has covered the last six Olympics for NBC. He is also a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.