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Trouble in Sochi

Aired February 6, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Pentagon says the dog belongs to another NATO allied force, not the United States military. Let's also remember that Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has been held by the insurgents in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region since June of 2009. He's the only American service member being held, and his family is desperate to get him back.

Happening now: a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Trouble in Sochi."

We have breaking news on the Olympic terror alert. As American athletes and spectators fly to Russia, they're facing a new emergency ban aimed at preventing a possible attack in flight.

Plus, a toothpaste bomb, how dangerous would it be? We have an exclusive look at how terrorists might put explosives in a tube and detonate it in a car or a crowded plane.

And hotel horrors. We will get firsthand accounts from journalists in Sochi who say the accommodations deplorable if, if the rooms they booked are ready at all.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just hours before the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Sochi, some U.S. officials I have talked to are sounding more worried than ever about a possible terror attack. We're told the United States is working with Russia and other countries to try to disrupt several possible threats.

That's in addition to the new warnings about explosives hidden in toothpaste tubes. And now we're also learning that airline security officials in this country are responding by ordering new flight rules for flights to Russia.

Our correspondents are covering all the troubles in Sochi.

But let's begin our coverage this hour with our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh. She's great the breaking news for us -- Rene.


This is the first visible security move that we have seen since we first learned about the toothpaste bomb threats. Effective immediately, we can tell you the TSA will not allow any toothpaste, liquids, gels, aerosols or powders in the cabin of any plane flying between the United States and Russia. Not even a three-ounce tube is OK. These items will only be allowed in your checked luggage.

Now, today Delta Air Lines posted an alert on its Web site. Passengers on its one daily flight from JFK to Moscow will not be allowed to carry liquids. They should expect TSA officers checking carry-on bags at the gate. TSA will not do these checks at the checkpoints. That's because this is a very targeted approach, focusing only on flights between the United States and Russia.

We got a statement from the Department of Homeland Security. It says in part that they have been taking seen and unseen measures. They say that these measures include intelligence gathering, as well as analysis, deployment of cutting edge technology, random canine team searches at airports, federal air marshals.

They also go on to say that they will be temporarily restricting certain items, again those items being toothpaste, for example, then liquids. Medications will be allowed, Wolf.

BLITZER: Understandably, they're taking major new precautions to deal with this potential threat out there. Rene, thanks very much.

Let's get an exclusive look at how toothpaste tubes potentially could be turned into deadly bombs.

Brian Todd is here. He's got the details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it takes just a small amount of explosives which can fit into both of these small toothpaste containers to blast a hole in a passenger plane. Here's a look at the exclusive test we commissioned today.


TODD (voice-over): Explosives hiding inside a toothpaste tube can be powerful and potentially deadly. This bomb in a toothpaste container blew off a car door, sent parts of it across the quarry in Southwestern England, where CNN commissioned this test with the help of Sidney Alford, an expert who helps people understand explosives.

What kind of damage could this bomb do?

SIDNEY ALFORD, EXPLOSIVES EXPERT: I wouldn't like to be in an airplane in which that exploded, not even a big one.

TODD: For this test, Alford used an explosive called RDX, a white crystalline powder. He mixed it with another ingredient to create a paste. In this container, he filled about three-quarters with his explosive concoction, the rest with toothpaste.

ALFORD: It smells and tastes like toothpaste. I have presented this in such a way that somebody giving it a casual inspection would probably pass it.

TODD: The size of container Alford used is the kind you have to place in checked baggage, but Alford says two smaller containers this size, which you can carry on, can also be used. Those tubes have to be attached or placed near each other to create a similar explosion.

They can be detonated by a heat source. Bombs that were successfully smuggled aboard U.S.-bound airliners in recent years show just how real the threat can be. This is what prosecutors say the 2009 underwear bomb would have looked like if it had gone off.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had snuck it onto his flight, landing in 2009 in Detroit, by concealing it in his pants. And this is one of two printer bombs that were found before they exploded aboard cargo planes bound for the U.S. In a reconstruction for CNN, this is what Alford said one of those printer bombs could have done.

ALFORD: If that had been passed through an airplane's fuselage, then heaven help the airplane. It would have -- that would have been a terminal event, I'm afraid.

TODD: Alford's demonstrations, then and now, used two different types of explosives which had similar effects. A toothpaste bomb has brought down a plane before. In October 1976, anti-Castro Cuban operatives hid explosives in a tube and brought down a Cubana Airlines flight over the Caribbean. More than 70 people were killed.


TODD: As for the current threat, the concern about the use of toothpaste tubes has focused mostly on flights from Europe and neighboring Asian countries into Russia. One U.S. official says the U.S. intelligence community is still assessing the overall credibility and scope of this threat, Wolf.

BLITZER: And beyond the U.S. ban on the taking some of these products on board with you into the cabin, I understand Russian authorities are doing something along the same lines.

TODD: They have done it as well. They did it just before the U.S. did it As Rene reported earlier, the Russian authorities have banned liquids on all airline carry-on baggage ahead of the Olympics, according to a Russian news agency report. So, now even containers of this size, you can't carry on as far as a Russian airliner or planes going into Russia.

BLITZER: Better to be safe than sorry. All right, guys, thanks very much.

Olympic officials in Sochi are promising that the city will be the safest place on Earth during the Games, but with all these latest terror threats, Russia has to be prepared for the worst.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is in Sochi. He's joining us live right now.

The question, is Russia ready, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, obviously, everyone's hoping the weeks ahead will pass without incident at all, but in the unlikely but ghastly event of an attack, the question many are asking is what kind of Russian response can we expect. And that will range between the discipline, efficiency and often the heartlessness of the KGB veterans that runs the government and its kind of elite core, and then of course across Russia's huge expanse of the law enforcement which is often corrupt, often inefficient, people wondering exactly what Russia will in fact do in the event something does happen.


WALSH (voice-over): This is all a drill. Well, the helicopters are for Putin, but in Russia's south, you can be sure that if there is an attack, the Kremlin will respond as only it knows how, hard.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The job of the Olympics host is to ensure security of the participants in the Olympics and visitors. We will do whatever it takes.

WALSH: What will that mean? Watch for three things.

The no-prisoners response to the Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis in 2002 came after Vladimir Putin when talks failed ordered the use of a knockout gas against militants who had hundreds of Muscovites surrounded with explosives. The fast, brutal move killed the militants, but also about 130 hostages, many through the gas itself, but showed the Kremlin head as unafraid and decisive.

Two years later, militants took over a school. Moscow stood back and, when the siege began 50 hours later, sent in a small number of special forces. It was chaotic and bloody. Dozens of children died. Locals felt abandoned by the Kremlin and now that's only likely if there's an attack far away from the Games elsewhere in impoverished Southern Russia.

If it happens, expect not to see much of it. Russia regulates press coverage heavily, particularly of militant activity in the south, and will be infuriated by any attack on or near the Games. Then, of course, there may be U.S. criticism of Russian intel-sharing, like after the Boston bombings, when Russian cooperation was still panned by U.S. officials.

Given this uncertainty, U.S. officials will hope for calm, but worrying which Russian response they will get if the worst does happen.

ARIEL COHEN, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: There's so much mistrust and the tone of the relationship is rather negative, that it may affect the cooperation or, rather, the lack of cooperation.


WALSH: Now, really, the talk of the last few days has been about toothpaste bombs, but that sophisticated technique isn't really what's going to be bothering people on the ground here for the past few months. This is a region where explosives are pretty common when you're away from the ring of steel near here in Sochi.

And of course I think there are concerns too about how well you can implement a dragnet across this whole region given the state of the Russian police force often seen by Russians as being inept, being corrupt, and actually with brutal tactics that many accuse of having fueled the insurgency here in first place, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh on the ground for us in Sochi. Nick, thanks very, very much.

Still ahead, CNN's Rachel Nichols, she is also in Sochi right now. She's standing by to join us live. She will tell us how the U.S. Olympic team is responding to all these terror warnings out there and whether it's throwing them off their game.

And we will take you inside the hotels in Sochi, where so many of the rooms are simply unfinished at best and some of them are pretty disgusting.


BLITZER: We're going inside the Olympic ring of steel as we continue our special report on the trouble in Sochi.

The last American athletes have been arriving in Russia today, heading over to the Olympic Village only hours after learning of that possible toothpaste tube bomb threat.

CNN's Rachel Nichols is also joining us now from Sochi. She made it there.

So, Rachel, what are the Americans athletes saying to you? Is all the concern about terror throwing them off their game?

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's 230 American athletes. So, of course, you're going to have a pretty wide variance in reactions.

Some of these athletes risk life and limb on a regular basis really in a way that most of the rest of us wouldn't, so it's not going to be that surprising that an athlete who is dealing with a specific threat of launching themselves down a 400-foot-high, 40- story-high ski jump is not going to be as concerned with the more general threat, nonspecific threat of terrorism.

Other athletes, they are expressing more concern, but most of them are also saying that, hey, this is a dream that they worked decades for. They're going to just focus on that and not any of the terror concerns, just put their trust in the officials who are supposed to take care of them. And really the athletes are well- protected. The Russian military is involved in their protection.

There's U.S. diplomatic officials that are involved in their protection. Hey, nine of the U.S. team members are actually active members of the U.S. military. So they're trained. But it's their families that are actually causing greater concern because they're not as well-protected as the athletes themselves.

Many of them have still made the journey over here, but one of the American bobsledders actually changed his family's plans and decided that his mom should stay home. He said he just didn't want to be worrying about here while she was over here.

BLITZER: Which is totally understandable when you think about it. And I was told there may be as many as 10,000 Americans in Sochi. Add up all the athletes, the trainers, the managers, the coaches, plus all of their family members, all the spectators, the tourists over there, maybe 10,000 Americans are with you in Sochi right now.

What was it like, I'm really curious, Rachel, flying over to Sochi from the United States with all these warnings out there, including these toothpaste bomb warnings?

NICHOLS: This is so interesting to listen to the official narrative, both from the American officials and the officials here in Sochi vs. my experience.

I flew at 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon from JFK in New York, and that was after CNN was already reporting about the toothpaste scare. It was after, of course, U.S. officials were aware of this potential threat. I got to tell you, I happened to have two small tubes of travel-sized toothpaste in my bag. Hey, that's how I roll, two whole tubes of toothpaste.

And neither one of them was questioned by U.S. officials. Nobody at TSA asked me to take them out of my bag. Nobody gave me any kind of extra check, took them right on to the plane. And then when I landed in Moscow to make the transfer to Sochi, the normal process is to have to recheck in, recheck your bags. We did that.

And then we went through Moscow airport security to get on the flight to Sochi, which is again the standard Moscow security. And I have to say that was even more lax than what I had to get on the plane from JFK to Moscow. Nobody made me take my shoes off. Nobody looked at the contents of my bag. I didn't have to take my laptop or electronic devices out of my bag.

None of my fellow passengers had to do either. And what was interesting was, as I was traveling in the air to Sochi, the head of the Sochi Airport was giving an interview to one of my colleagues here at CNN and telling him that no passenger coming into Sochi was allowed to have creams or liquids in their carry-on bags.

Meanwhile, neither me nor any of any fellow passengers had been checked for liquids or creams in our carry-on bags or stopped for those. We walked off of the plane into the Sochi Airport with no issue, no one checking anything.

I will say that there were military police in the airport milling around when we got there, but, as I said, definitely a different story for a traveler like me and some of my fellow passengers on my plane vs. what we're hearing from officials in both countries. BLITZER: Yes, the things have changed over the past few hours alone. You took off more than 24 hours ago, before this latest ban, the federal government saying all liquids, gels, aerosols, powders can no longer be taken carry-on luggage on any flights leaving the United States for Russia, so only within the past few hours.

You wouldn't have been able to take those two tubes of toothpaste if you left today, as opposed to yesterday.

All right, Rachel, we will stay in close touch with you over the next several days, because we obviously appreciate your firsthand accounts. Thanks so much.

Rachel Nichols is on the ground in Sochi for CNN.

We also have some more firsthand accounts of the conditions in Sochi. Some other CNN staffers, other folks, journalists and others, they're saying the accommodations remain appalling if, if they can get a room at awe. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My hotel room, as a matter of fact, the window fell out on my head, and I couldn't get it back in and had to sleep the first night in about 35- to 40-degree temperatures with the window sort of half open.

As the days went by and more journalists came in and the rest of our team came to come to the same hotel, the rooms weren't ready. And it got more and more chaotic.

AMANDA DAVIES, CNN ANCHOR: We have just landed from Moscow about an hour ago now. We arrived at our hotel.

And we have been told our rooms aren't ready. While we have been sitting here for the last hour or so, there have been representatives of other media who have been going up to the deck saying that their rooms haven't been cleaned for a week, that the radiators aren't working, there's no loo paper.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The bathroom is fine. There's definitely quirks. We didn't have lightbulbs in our lamp. But you use it and the bathtub is kind of -- isn't really there. It's like, it will probably fall apart.

In our building, it looks like everything's put together, but the other buildings in this hotel don't seem to be finished yet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The people that are involved are trying, but it just seems like the infrastructure wasn't ready to accommodate the mass volume that came for the Olympics.


BLITZER: Not the kind of publicity the Russians wanted when they got these Olympic Games seven years ago. And as if that weren't enough for the athletes in Sochi to worry about, we're going to tell you how they're also now being caught up in a new yogurt war. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Our breaking story tonight, the U.S. is banning toothpaste tubes, gels, other liquids in all carry-ons to Russia, as fears rise of a possible terror attack at the Sochi Olympics grow.

One substance that may not make it to Russia anyway, Chobani yogurt. That's because Russia is blocking a huge U.S. shipment of this yogurt.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is joining us to explain.

Joe, what's going on?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Cold War ended decades ago, but tensions between the U.S. and Russia never seem to end, from NSA killed Edward Snowden who is camped out in Moscow right now, to skirmishes over human rights, to the sometimes awkward relationship between President Putin and President Obama.

Now, of all things, the issue is yogurt.


JOHNS (voice-over): From the factory to the finish line, a load of Chobani Greek yogurt made in the U.S. is held up at customs at Newark Airport waiting to get to Sochi, held up in a long-running battle over trade rules for dairy exports between the U.S. and Russia.

Chobani is an official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team and Olympic athletes who have done TV commercials for the brand.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Chobani. How matters.

JOHNS: Senator Chuck Schumer from the state of New York, where Chobani is based, is apparently a fan of the product. He's calling on the Russian ambassador and the head of the Olympic Committee to remove the roadblock so the yogurt can be sent to the U.S. team.

Schumer's statement sounding a bit like a pitch man: "There is simply no time to waste in getting our Olympic athletes a nutritious and delicious food. Unfortunately, this protein-packed New York-made food has met a serious roadblock in the Russian government."

So far, the Russian Embassy hasn't budged. When we got their spokesman on the phone, he referred us to a slightly mind-numbing statement on the embassy's Web page about how the U.S. Department of Agriculture, despite a long history of talks, has not negotiated an agreement to export dairy products to the territory."

But when we contacted the Department of Agriculture, they sounded more optimistic, another written statement: "Since we have not yet reached a final agreement on the requirements for dairy products, we're working with our Russian counterparts to reach an acceptable solution."

So there may still be some hope that the yogurt will reach the Olympic Village before the Olympics are over.


JOHNS: The oddest result here is that the big winner so far is the yogurt. Olympic sponsors may a lot of money for the right to connect their brands to the Games, but this controversy is just creating the kind of buzz you don't get by purchasing 30-second ads -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let the yogurt flow to Russia. All right, thanks very much, Joe Johns reporting.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.