The task of protection-plus

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST

AS security analysts start their post-mortem of the events of December 13, they are being forced to grapple with a very difficult question: are India's VIPs willing to pay the price of real protection?

It is now clear that the Jaish-e-Mohammad's assault on Parliament House was enabled by a series of screening errors. Their white Ambassador was waved through Gate 2 of Parliament House's outer perimeter, by security personnel who assumed that the armed men inside were escorting some VIP or the other. If they had maintained their calm when waved down at a second check, instead of accelerating and ramming into one of Vice-President Krishan Kant's escort vehicles, they might well have succeeded in their enterprise.

How did these errors occur? Some people have suggested that intelligence warnings of such an attack were ignored. The Intelligence Bureau, sources told Frontline, had sent out regular warnings over the past year of such a possibility. These warnings were, however, general in character. It is very rare that the best intelligence can provide the details of a pending terrorist strike, last year's attempted storming of the Humhama airport at Srinagar being an exception. More important, the warnings themselves were not germane to levels of security at the complex: Parliament, like other highly sensitive installations, has no low-level protection mode at all.

The real problem lies in the VIP perception of a real high-security regime as an infringement of their authority. In an ideal environment, the entrance to Parliament House would have been guarded by metal spikes, which would only be lowered to allow vehicular movement after any armed personnel in cars entering the complex had been asked to get off, and the identity of the occupant established. The gates would also be guarded by massive zig-zag concrete blocks, known as dragon's teeth, which would compel any vehicle to slow down to a crawl, and also absorb any explosion.

Mere identification cards or stickers would not be enough to enter the building. MPs and visitors would have to swipe tamper-proof smart cards through an electronic lock, which can only be opened by using a password, or retinal and fingerprint scans, before blast-and bullet proof doors would open to let them through. Baggage would be passed through equipment that can detect chemical vapours let out by explosives.

A truly secure environment would also place severe restrictions on movement to non-authorised areas of the complex. Several kinds of electronic sensors which can track movement, attempts to jump fences, and even changes in the physical volume of a given area, would have to be installed, along with comprehensive closed-circuit television systems to verify an electronic alert. Small numbers of highly skilled personnel could then be despatched to deal with the identified threat.

All this sounds complicated and inconvenient, and it is. MPs and other VIPs have a reputation for fighting with security personnel they believe are being obstructive, a major reason why the terrorists' Ambassador was just waved through the front gate. Security staff at airports can recount dozens of horror stories about MPs' reactions to even ordinary frisking, so their reactions to electronic and concrete barriers can well be imagined. Even after the attack, the Indira Gandhi International Airport has seen at least one ugly argument between a senior Uttar Pradesh Police officer, and security staff who insisted that the stars on his epaulette were not enough to exempt him from searches.

As things stand, all that Parliament House has by way of a modern security system is a limited closed circuit television system which only observes entry gates, not the entire area. Once terrorists had penetrated the complex, guards had no idea of what their numbers were and where they might be. Officer-level confusion thus became inevitable. "Under the circumstances," notes former Punjab Director-General of Police K.P.S. Gill, "I think the personnel posted there did a fairly good job."

Security personnel working in areas like Jammu and Kashmir have adopted their own means to guard against suicide squads. Gates at major installations are now fitted with makeshift spike strips, which would prevent vehicles from driving through the gates at high speed. Since guards invariably react to explosions at the gate by taking cover, a second ring of personnel has been put in place at a distance to fire at the gate in case intruders come through entry points. These tactics have proved successful in deterring several major suicide squad attacks, notably one effort to storm the Indian Air Force base at Awantipora earlier this year, and a December 16 attack on a Border Security Force field outpost.

All the equipment needed to protect India's VIPs is commercially available. Some of it is indeed expensive, but not unaffordable, given the costs involved in manning areas like Parliament House with hundreds of guards who could be better used for operational tasks rather than static duties. Installations worldwide, including several Embassies and Consulates in India, are protected by similar, purchased-off-the-shelf, devices. But such a security regime will prove restrictive and slow, and sometimes positively irritating. Are the VIPs willing to bear with the inconvenience?

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