Russia's Top Cops Stay Silent on the Airport Attack

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

People place flowers near the site of the Jan. 24 blast at Moscow Domodedovo Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011

It was a hell of a time for Russia's security chiefs to play truant. On Monday night, Jan. 24, when President Dmitri Medvedev called an emergency meeting to deal with that evening's terrorist attack at Moscow's largest airport, the two officials responsible for preventing such crimes stayed away; they have since seemingly ducked out of sight entirely. Having laid most of the blame on lax security at the airport, Medvedev now seems to be shielding Russia's top cops from the nation's most urgent question: Why didn't anyone stop this?

That is not the way things have gone after previous attacks, including the one last March, when two suicide bombers killed 40 people in an attack on the Moscow subway. On the day of those bombings, Medvedev had also called a meeting of senior officials. Eight showed up, and the first one Medvedev called on for an explanation was Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia's security service, the FSB, which handles all antiterrorism operations. In minute detail, Bortnikov described the bombing, pointed to possible motives and vowed that his agency would do everything in its power to prevent it from happening again.

But after the attack on Monday, as rescue workers were clearing the bodies of the blast's 35 victims and treating scores of wounded outside an airport terminal spattered with blood and severed limbs, only three officials arrived to take instructions from the commander in chief: the Transport Minister, the general prosecutor and the country's top sleuth.

The main tip Medvedev gave them was to look into the security protocols that had been neglected — a prelude to his stunning announcement Tuesday that officials at Moscow Domodedovo Airport were most at fault for the explosion. "To carry or drive that much explosive material [into the airport] takes some effort," Medvedev told the Vedomosti daily. "The ones who have to answer for this are the decisionmakers at the company and the management of the airport itself."

To anyone who has been to Domodedovo airport, this statement seems baffling. The arrivals hall, where the blast occurred, is open to the public, as with many airports around the world. On Tuesday, the airport pointed this out in a statement to the press, adding that Interior Ministry police are the ones responsible for securing that part of the terminal. But later in the day, Medvedev reiterated that the airport must be investigated, "without simply pushing all the responsibility on the police."

Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen. As of Tuesday evening, the only mention of the blast on his ministry's website was a notice that patrolmen from the city of Kaluga had donated blood to the victims. The FSB website is even more tone-deaf. Its headline items include the announcement of a literature contest about Russian spies and a statement that in the traditional home of Russia's terrorist insurgencies, the North Caucasus region, "the conditions were created for stabilization" in 2010.

Asked why Bortnikov had not commented on the blast or attended Medvedev's meeting on Monday, an FSB spokesman tells TIME, "Really, I have no idea. You'd have to ask him, and he's not available." Repeated calls to the Interior Ministry went unanswered. But the ministry's press service did take the time to dismiss the airport's claims of innocence. "It's not for them to decide. We have investigative bodies. They are already looking into it, and they will figure it out," spokesman Oleg Yelnikov told reporters.

As this petty passing of the buck continued on Tuesday, Russian lawmakers began clamoring for answers, with two opposition parties in parliament expressing their desire to hear from Nurgaliyev right away. Oleg Morozov, a senior parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia Party, suggested it might be arranged during the chamber's next "government hour" — which is scheduled for April.

Russia's security chiefs have stuck their heads so firmly into the sand that even veterans of the Soviet secret police are calling for more transparency. "I don't know how they're going to share the responsibility between the FSB and the Interior Ministry, but they're going to have to," Mikhail Lyubimov, a 20-year veteran of the KGB, tells TIME. "We don't know what intelligence opportunities were missed. All we know so far is the tip of the iceberg, so we just have to hope that they will explain the rest of the story. Otherwise, what are they good for?"

Judging by reports of their string of intelligence fumbles over the past week, it seems the security services weren't good for much in the lead-up to Monday's attack. Russian media, including the state-run news agency RIA Novosti, have quoted various police sources as saying they were warned a week in advance that a terrorist attack could hit Domodedovo airport. A police sweep of the Moscow suburb of Zelenograd failed to net any suspects, though. On Monday night, an airport-security source even told Life News that police had been warned of the bombing's exact location — the arrivals hall, near the customs checkpoint — but a lack of manpower meant they didn't take any special precautions.

In the face of this drumbeat of unheeded tips and alarms, the failure of the police to explain themselves shows not just a lack of accountability but an outright disdain for the Russian public, says Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian security services. "A key duty of any public servant is to reassure the people," he says. "But our system is built in such a way that the security chiefs are above reproach and do not need to answer to anyone."

As an example, Soldatov points to the fact that when Medvedev finally met with the FSB on Tuesday, in an unprecedented move, he went to them to give his assessment of the attack. The FSB did not go to him. As of Tuesday evening, its director had yet to comment on his agency's apparent slipups.

For many of the Russians losing faith in the people meant to protect them, this silence is no kind of comfort.