It’s a Sunday during the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, at one in the afternoon—at least in this simulation. The US security forces in charge of protecting Team USA receive word of an explosion outside the main entrance of the hockey arena, where teams have been battling for gold.
“Fans begin to panic, resulting in a stampede,” says Donald Grinder, a crisis management expert with the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. His first question to the room full of special agents, analysts, and intelligence experts goes to Mark Woods-Hawkins, deputy Olympic security coordinator at the Diplomatic Security Service: How do you start gathering the information the team will need to address the unfolding crisis?
“We’ll first reach out to our people in the venues to get reporting and accountability,” Woods-Hawkins says, referring to the agents stationed at the arena, several of whom would likely already be moving the U.S. athletes to a secure area. “If the cell network goes down or is overwhelmed, we’ll use the radios.”
The DSS’s tech specialist, sitting at a nearby station, interjects to explain how those systems will work, as well as the satellite-based communications that will pipe real-time intel to the command center. “We can make sure they’re OK and get confirmation on their status,” he says.
Woods-Hawkins continues with his game plan. They’ll contact the situational awareness team outside the arena to see what they see. Two DSS agents assigned to South Korea’s own security command center will corroborate the reporting coming in from the US agents. Some team members will pull security camera streams from the arena and surrounding area. Others will reach out to local hospitals to gauge casualty numbers and identities, to US Forces Korea (the Department of Defense’s longstanding military presence in the country) to discuss possible medevac flights, and to Korea’s crisis response teams to determine the nature of the blast, whether intended or accidental. If they suspect the former, they’ll seek out intelligence on other possible attacks. The FBI representative offers help sending out a bomb tech team for evidence recovery, if terrorism proves to be the case.
This whole scene is unfolding at the Joint Operations Center, the command post at the US Embassy in Seoul. The tightly packed room, lined with dozens of identical black laptops and telephones, is home to the American effort to keep the Winter Games safe. The team is led by the Diplomatic Security Service, the State Department’s security and law-enforcement agency.
“You can see how this spins up quickly,” Grinder says, “with multiple nodes of information.”
Quickly indeed. All of this would transpire within minutes—were it to be a real incident—and precede a full initial report to Washington, DC, outlining what is currently known. Fortunately, though, this scenario is a mockup, one of several worst case situations played out in the operations center during a two-hour pre-Games simulation that grows progressively grimmer. A cyberattack cuts power, strands thousands, and plunges the country into a deep-freeze in the dead of winter. Troops north of the DMZ mobilize, prompting the White House to order the evacuation of thousands of US civilians from the Korean peninsula—all confused and terrified by the prospect of high-spirited athletics suddenly igniting global war.
Keeping It Real
These scenarios aren’t exaggerated visions conjured up merely to hold the attention of the security and intelligence experts gathered in this space. “These are all plausible. They can happen,” Grinder says. “We’re here to protect US citizens. Our job as a group is to gather as much information as we can during such crises. We’re the first piece of the puzzle that connects the dots in an emergency.”
So while athletes practiced on the snow and ice, representatives from a host of US agencies—the DSS, FBI, TSA, DHS, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, US Forces Korea, and other government and military groups with relevant expertise—convened for their own Olympic practice session. In an environment as complex as this, rigorous threat simulations trump mere radio checks and chain-of-command flowchart refreshers. Each scenario Grinder spins up requires a different set of near-instant reactions from dozens of people, all working in concert.
Inside the command center, personnel sit in two rows, all facing large monitors on the wall displaying news feeds and data streams while their own desktops provide access to their respective agencies' individual networks or other shared systems. The information up front includes the whereabouts of the field liaison officers assigned to each venue, along with the “floating” agents outside the specific venues. On the walls hang maps of the venue clusters, both in the mountains and at the coast, the airport at Incheon, and other locations of interest.
With Grinder calling the action, the explosion exercise acquires an aura of urgency that belies its status as a simulation: What caused the explosion and how many are injured or dead? What information can we pass on to the State Department? How do you get US citizens out of the country and how long will it take? What airports are operational? What information and instructions do we communicate to Americans on the ground?
The atmosphere was focused but energetic, bordering on enthusiastic. People were anxious to do their jobs, to contribute—however deep in the background—to a smooth, safe Olympics. Furthermore, the angst that could be generated by the region’s conflict had been largely assuaged by Embassy and security-team leaders professing multiple times their high confidence in the South Korean government’s security plans for the Games. But even though the scenarios presented during the exercise were exceedingly unlikely, it was still crucial that the participating agencies knew what to do should something go terribly wrong. As a result, this group was determined to be ready for the worst go-wrongs imaginable.
An hour into the hockey rink explosion scenario—per the fictional timeline, but just a few minutes in the simulation—Grinder gives an update: It’s chaos at the arena. Triage sites have been set up. Emergency vehicles are still taking victims to the hospital. The cause of the explosion remains unknown. Embassy staff haven’t located colleagues who were at the entrance at the time of the blast. At this stage, additional available field agents would have convened for support.
DSS Office of Protective Intelligence Investigations representatives would be pulling info from social media posts by witnesses, and Embassy staff would be talking to the concerned citizens calling about people who might have been at the event and could thus be victims. The Embassy will reach out and formally offer assistance to the Blue House, South Korea’s White House equivalent.
More than anything, the exercise helps establish these links between the agencies and defines what contributions each would make to a developing crisis. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency taps into satellites and other sources to track potential threats. The State Department’s operational medical bureau (OPMED) would help moving injured patients to Japan or the United States. The State Department’s crisis management officer helps manage evacuations or other large-scale responses requiring reinforcements. The US Forces Korea representative coordinates intelligence agencies operating in the country. The FBI works on cybersecurity, counterterrorism, and weapons of mass destruction intelligence and response. The DSS plays quarterback, helping coordinate all the above and adding its own investigative skills, along with its agents in the field.
Midway through the exercise, it’s time to think about external communication, to give out verified and vetted intel. Joint Operations Center participants are asked to refrain from passing information even to their own agencies, since that can take them off-mission. They should instead direct queries through the proper channels at the embassy. Media queries go to the public affairs office, which is also in charge of communicating information to the public. (The Embassy’s Consular Section gave small cards with emergency contact information to US citizens in hotels and airports in South Korea.) There, the Embassy public affairs officer reminds participants of the government’s “no double standard policy”—private citizens must receive the same information given to official government entities, if the potential danger affects them.
The final update for the scenario comes in the next morning, timeline-time, with the revelation that a natural gas leak caused the explosion. It “killed” 16 people, including two Americans. That exercise drew to a close, but the next one would ratchet up the intensity still further.
For the second scenario of the day, Grinder again wasted no time: A series of cyberattacks have cut power across the country, shutting down airports, shutting down ATM access, and presenting health and safety perils for everyone stranded in the cold.
The first steps include verifying which field agents might still have communications capability, and connecting with the Korean National Police Agency to gauge the extent of the blackout. Others would determine the level of disruption to local and global flight operations.
But just as the group gets a handle on those factors, the stakes go up. The cyberattacks are followed by large-scale troop movements near the border. Washington approves an embassy request to evacuate US civilians from the peninsula. “We’re not under fire, but we’re dealing with a cyber situation and the inability to support life in cold weather,” says Craig Reistad, the DSS’s Olympic Security Coordinator. “So we’ll look at accountability first to ensure our people are unhurt, then consolidate our personnel, then consider whether we need to move people out of the area.”
The team goes over instructions for citizens to shelter in place and await instructions about assembly and departure locations. They discuss how they can communicate with people if the cyberattack disables social media. Closure is more nebulous than the mock explosion, but the leadership makes it clear that Embassy personnel and the JOC would stay on task until their jobs were complete. With that, the simulation concludes.
Of course, it was just an exercise—but Grinder’s closing remarks weren’t. He wraps up the day’s work with an important homework assignment. “Grab lunch or coffee,” he says. “Talk with your colleagues, including those on the other shifts. It’s very difficult to build trust and understanding when you’re under stress, so let’s diffuse some of that by building those relationships. We’re relying on you to work as a team.”
And so the Olympic focus on unity reaches beyond the athletics, to the secret side of Team USA, the team that won’t relax until the flame goes out on Sunday night.
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