A Bad Security Lapse


The President’s cavalcade almost came to grief recently when sophisticated explosive devices blew gaping holes in the bridge the convoy was crossing on its way from Islamabad International Airport to the Army House, the explosion shattering windows in a wide area in the vicinity. Musharraf’s legendary luck held and calm as a cucumber, the President soon after went off to attend a wedding reception in Islamabad, the perfect embodiment for the saying in the Ingall Hall in the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) Kakul, “it is not what happens to you that matters but how you behave while it is happening”.

Security is a very serious professional discipline which is not a matter of Public Relations (PR). A few years ago a “Shikar” was organized by a particularly convivial owner of a foreign private security company, famous for carrying a convenient hip flask filled with “rose-scented water”. The favourable ambience of a good “shoot” and a sustained “drinks” session was followed by excellent food, stage-managed for one of the guests to enquire (on cue) from a senior diplomat belonging to a country that needs constant security protection, “how come you have not given your security contract to our host?” The diplomat replied, “I don’t trust my security to my drinking buddies!” That one-liner defines the essence of security, “entertainment” and “lobbying” have no value when assessing the need for security, one cannot have anyone assigned to security issues on the basis of his/her PR. Unfortunately one doesn’t have to look far to see that some who fit this bill occupy crucially important posts. Unfortunately in countries like ours, we alternate between “professionalism” on the one hand to opting for the other extreme of choosing people for reasons other than merit and with the foggiest notion of their primary security responsibility. Moreover the news leak of the “signal jammer” was atrocious, the President’s security should not be made public property.

We desperately need to immediately raise a dedicated security unit for VIP protection like the US Secret Service. The US Secret Service was established in 1865 to root out currency frauds like counterfeiting, it was only in 1901 after the assassination of President McKinley that the US Congress mandated the protection of the US President as its primary mission. Almost every country in the world has similar security details meant to protect Heads of State and Government. Even South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh have special security units meant to give protection to their topmost VIPs. In Pakistan, the physical guarding part is assigned to Special Service Group (SSG) commandos. While there is no doubt about their effectiveness in giving physical security, bodyguard details require very specialized training, their whole hierarchy up the ladder being geared to one primary mission only, to protect the persona assigned as their mission. This includes collective and collation of information about possible attacks and their organization, a flow of information generated not only by the reports from various intelligence agencies but also from their own sources. In essence, the unit meant to protect the VIP is self-sufficient in intelligence gathering, analysis thereof, etc, it is responsible for its own recruitment and training. It is true that a determined enemy will always get through, it is the number of times that the attackers are frustrated that matters, both before and/or during the actual attempt itself. In Afghanistan, it is the US Diplomatic Service that is keeping President Hamid Karzai alive, God knows they have their work cut out for them, many will remember how quickly and violently the unit reacted when an attempt was made on Karzai in Kandahar a year or so ago.

The mission of the US Secret Service is to provide a safe environment for each public official it is entrusted to protect. To accomplish this mission, it has developed comprehensive protective programs including threat assessment and protective intelligence, to identify, assess, and manage persons who might pose a threat to those they protect, their aim being to prevent assassination attempts. The US Secret Service not only works closely with other law enforcement agencies, whose cooperation, information and assistance plays a major role in assisting the fulfilling of its responsibilities, it has gone into other related national security areas. The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) was created to provide leadership and guidance to the emerging field of threat assessment. Specifically, NTAC offers timely, realistic, useful, and effective advice to law enforcement and other professionals and organizations with responsibilities to investigate and/or prevent targeted violence. Building on a recent operational study of U.S. assassins, attackers, and near-lethal approachers of public officials, NTAC provides threat assessment training and conduct operational research relevant to public official, workplace, stalking/domestic, and school-based violence. The US Secret Service is also developing the Critical Systems Protection Initiative (CSPI) to develop a refined cyber security prevention and response capability in support of both investigative and protective missions. One important component of the CSPI is the “Insider Threat Study”, which analyzes the physical and online behavior of insiders prior to and during network compromises. This is very important for places like Pakistan where militant religious terrorist factions not particularly enamored with the President may have sympathizers inside the protective cordon. The insider who already has access to systems can potentially be the most dangerous. One must evaluate and manage a potential problem before it happens, an anonymous survey of critical infrastructure sector organizations must be done as is being done in the US, to collect information about the current prevalence of possible insiders across all critical infrastructure sectors.

The “near miss” in Rawalpindi was a serious security lapse that should not have taken place, that it did makes it necessary to focus on, viz (1) who were the elements who tried to assassinate the President? (2) how did they get precise information about the President’s movements? (3) how did they manage to plant the explosive devices on a public thoroughfare? (4) who was responsible for route protection? (5) what was the origin/manufacture of the explosive devices? (6) how fast and how effectively did the security detail assigned to the President react after the blast? (7) what was the role and conduct of the security agencies whose job is to feed the President’s security detail about possible attacks and attackers? how fast did the intelligence agencies react to the incident? And (9) what measures are being taken to ensure that the gaps in the President’s security cordon have been narrowed down and remedial measures taken? etc, etc. Many many questions but one doubts they can be answered given the state of our efficiency and the focus to extraneous issues, mostly personal, which diverts from the mission assigned to various security agencies responsible for the President’s security. If we go according to the norm, the present exercise will not be anything more than CYB, “cover your back-side” and blame it on everyone else!

It is in the country’s dire interest that we send the PR lobbyist-types home, for the most part these people spend their time in wining and dining instead of focusing on their primary mission, the integrity of the country, the salient feature being to protect the life of the President. This latest attempt on the life of the President must be used to learn lessons and take remedial actions thereof, prime among the initiatives being to remove people without professional capability from positions where their presence and incompetence compromises the security of the State. In the matter of security there can be no compromise, some heads must roll.