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How good is at its own security agenda?

By John Lettice
Published Wednesday 24th November 2004 10:30 GMT

Comment Yesterday Peter Hain, the Leader of the
Commons, was happily telling journalists that the
Government's security-heavy legislative programme was
intended to frustrate the opposition by "crowding out
any place for them on the security agenda". Which one
might think a remarkably cynical thing to say on its
own, but he went a step further later; speaking to
Radio 4, he groomed Labour as the only party that
could protect us adequately from terror.

And this isn't scaremongering? But leave that one
aside, lets just take a little look at how good Peter
Hain's and the Government's own security records are.
As Leader of the Commons Hain has some considerable
responsibility for the security of the premises, and
as we've seen in the past couple of years, performance
in this area hasn't been exactly stellar. Parliament,
other Government premises and the Royal Palaces have
all been the scene of embarrassing incidents, and
these have provoked much huffing, puffing and outrage
from our legislators. But after the huffing, does
anything worthwhile happen? Pop your security
analysts' hats on for a moment, and we'll go through a
couple of them.

Weirdos in Palaces and Parliament trigger the huffing,
and calls that Something Must Be Done. Usually
Something Is Done, but subsequent outrages tend to
illustrate that it's not usually the right something.

Anyone with a grasp of network security (which is
largely, as is more general security, the bleeding
obvious) should be able to see what's going on here.
The responses tend to address the wrong problem, or a
small, possibly not very relevant aspect of the
problem. Which suggests that nobody has sat down and
figured out what the problem actually was. Result:
problem unsolved, next outrage built into system.

The something being done about royal security was
discussed recently in the House of Lords, and relates
to atrocities involving comedians dressed as Osama bin
Laden penetrating royal birthday parties, and men
dressed as Batman leaping around on Buckingham Palace
ledges. Shocking stuff, and indeed Something Must Be
Done, as the noble lords opined at some length.
Unhappily the something, as the government minister
present indicated, is likely to be stiffer penalties
for people trespassing on royal property.

Brilliant. That's really going to make terrorists
think twice before they dress up as Batman and try to
blow themselves up on Her Maj's balcony, isn't it?
Really, what the noble lords were doing here was not
(as many of them seemed to imagine) addressing a
security issue but increasing the penalties for
embarrassing the security forces.

In the case of the comedy Osama, the real security
problem was a combination of a perimeter weakness
which allowed the initial breach, and failures in
access validation which meant he could bluff his way
into the event. The answer might be to strengthen the
perimeter defence, but the venue, Windsor um, Castle
allows a high degree of public access, so
strengthening the perimeter to the point of
impregnability isn't likely to be either
cost-effective or feasible. Introducing more effective
validation procedures within the perimeter is likely
to be a more fruitful route, as is questioning the
sense of using the venue for a major royal bash in the
first place. As for Batman at Buckingham Palace, he
whipped out a stepladder, scaled a wall, hopped onto a
convenient flat roof then shimmied along ledges to one
very close to the balcony the Queen waves from. If
that is she's in the Palace at the time, and scheduled
to wave. Which she wasn't.

The network pros will instantly identify that
convenient flat roof as a handy quick perimeter fix,
and it may well be, fixing it surely can't hurt. But
people in various states of attire have been hopping
over the Buckingham Palace walls for years, and it's a
long time since one of them made it into a Queen's
bedroom with an actual Queen in it. So maybe,
considering that they don't seem to do a great deal of
harm before they get scooped up, it makes more sense
to put the resources into making sure you spot them
and scooping them up quickly once they're in. You
might consider the possibility that the security (even
with that roof) is good enough already. Things to
factor in while you're considering is whether he'd
have got so far if the Queen had been on the balcony
(because you should be relating your security posture
to the value of the assets protected), and whether
he'd have got so far if he'd been a terrorist. Note
here that it's at least arguable that a publicity
seeker is likely to take bigger risks than your
average thinking terrorist, because getting caught is
usually one of the objectives, and getting shot while
dressed as Batman and waving banners isn't a likely

Closer to home for Hain we have the Greenpeace
anti-war protesters who climbed up Big Ben with a
banner. This was another 'might have been terrorists',
and there's a pretty impressive one of these here. "If
two seemingly innocent people can get up there to hang
a banner, then terrorists could plant a mobile phone
and set this to blow up Big Ben." Oh yeah, right...
Analyse this one and the prospect of terrorists
climbing up the outside of Big Ben rather than doing
something threatening anybody's lives but their own
sounds quite positive. Even the stupidest terrorist
will have noted that there's not a lot you can do up
there, and you're going to be spotted by what one
assumes is one of London's largest collections of
trained marksmen right after you start climbing.

Get inside Big Ben and do something, that's maybe a
different matter - but have we looked at this, or have
we just got riled about demonstrators climbing up the
outside? Big Ben has more recently figured in fevered
truck bomb scenarios that result in it crashing down.
Which is a possibility, certainly, but if you're going
to try to get a lorryload of fertiliser into Whitehall
and set it off, you're surely going to do it somewhere
in Whitehall where it'll wreak more havoc than just
(maybe) knocking over a clock tower. Since the IRA
mortared John Major from there, the security services
have been pretty careful about suspicious trucks in
Whitehall, so there ought to be a perimeter defence
for this already.

Even factoring in suicide bombers, the thinking
terrorist is going to be more worried about the
percentages than the demonstrator is. The supply of
people smart enough to, say, bluff their way into the
House of Commons and blow themselves up is likely to
be pretty limited, and such people would be assets
that smart terror organisations would be reluctant to
expend without a pretty high chance of success.
Comfortably-off pro-hunt demonstrators, on the other
hand, are well-equipped for the bluffing bit, not
worried by a low probability of success (the ones who
made it into the Commons chamber said they were
surprised they got so far) and don't need to carry any
hardware through the metal detectors. So rather than
asking loudly, as usually happens, "What if they'd
been terrorists?" it would be more useful to ask how
might a malicious attacker have exploited the
weaknesses exposed by an intrusion, what damage could
have been done and what is the likelihood of a
malicious attacker using this or similar routes?

Parliament itself is a showcase to wrong-headed
thinking about security. A security screen fencing off
most of the public gallery went in over Easter and in
May a group of protesters who had sneakily obtained
seats in the unscreened part (for MPs' invited guests)
threw a condom filled with purple powder at Tony
Blair. Then shortly after that stable door was shut
(nobody now gets to sit in the unscreened seats) a
bunch of hunt protesters came in through the chamber
door instead. The BBC's list of memorable outrages may
be helpful here, but we oughtn't to place too much
significance on the screen going in just after Tony
Blair was shouted at; they'd been planning it for a
lot longer. The list might indicate that Tony Blair is
the sort of Prime Minister people particularly want to
abuse or throw stuff at (makes sense), but noting that
Parliament has managed fairly well for over 30 years
since somebody lobbed a CS cannister at it (could have
been a grenade, and in 1970 it really could have been)
gives us a bit of perspective.

Yes, the purple powder could have been anthrax, but
remember your threat assessment techniques and
consider the probabilities. If a terror organisation
is going to lose an asset in an attack, it's not going
to be wasting its time with a chancy weapon like a
condom full of anthrax. It's going to try to get a gun
or a bomb in, so the hell with people throwing ordure
from the public gallery - that's democracy.
Concentrate on making sure people don't get guns and
bombs into the public gallery, or indeed anywhere else
where they could do damage.

The pro-hunt outrage suggests strongly that nobody's
been doing joined up security thinking for Parliament.
The intruders passed at least two points which should
have been properly policed, with passes being checked
(Parliament's pass system is notoriously wrecked at
the moment, but still...), and they could have been
stopped just short of their objective if the default
on the commons chamber door had been locked, rather
than open, or if the door guards could have locked it
with a panic button. Yes yes, they could have been
terrorists, they could have been armed, but they
weren't, and that should just remind you that stopping
people getting bombs and guns in is very important.

The prosaic truth is probably that few people actually
want to kill a British politician right now, and the
people who would like to kill them either don't have
the means to do so, or don't think the cost/benefits
from their point of view stack up. That will change,
and it's been different in recent memory, but it's at
least arguable that the Provisional IRA posed a much
more serious threat in the UK than those we face in
the current 'war on terror.'

Unhappily, our security forces seem, if anything, more
unglued than our politicians. In response to the
killer condom attack, it says here, a review by MI5
chiefs recommended erecting a steel barrier around
Parliament, and has warned of the perils of the
current concrete blocks, which could be dangerous if
blown up. That's so weird and disconnected that the
Beeb must surely have made some of it up, but probably
not enough to make it OK.

The killer concrete panic might be an upside though.
The US Embassy in Grosvenor Square has always been
damned ugly, but it's been more so since the fencing
and the concrete went in, so persuading them that the
concrete's dangerous might improve matters. Persuading
them suicide 4x4s (it has steps, lots of steps) are
particularly unlikely doesn't stand much chance. Nor,
we suppose, does relocation to Salisbury Plain or
Fylingdales (secluded, close to global snooping
services), so killer concrete it has to be.