Chasing George

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The ABC Chaser ‘s penetration of two security cordons in Sydney before the recent APEC conference certainly attracted nationwide attention. As one of the team observed, it was a stunt that went ‘horribly right’.

Predictably, it drew severe recriminations from the NSW Police Commissioner, and some great responses from the Chaser team. But it seems that behind the footage most of us have seen, there is an even more interesting story. And the question is: who scripted this one? It may be the Prime Minister himself who needs to front up with an answer.

What happened when the Chaser team were waved through that first checkpoint and why has lifted the lid off a Pandora’s box.

It was reported at the end of last week that the Chaser team was able to reach the red zone because security had been relaxed. This occurred, it is said, after the Prime Minister had a problem the day before with a locked gate. He had to wait for a duplicate key to be found.

Later, the head of the APEC task force was stopped and searched when his accreditation was queried. Alan Henderson, the bureaucrat involved, was appointed to the job from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. A furious Henderson was reported to have lodged a complaint and demanded that the police ease off ministerial cars.

On Friday, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph explained the implications of this as follows:

Officers were then ordered not to stop motorcades while they were in motion, which allowed the Chaser crew complete with an Osama bin Laden lookalike to pass unchecked, police sources confirmed last night.

This was despite the fact no official motorcades were scheduled to pass through the checkpoint that day, with most international delegates still to arrive in Sydney when the ABC crew pulled its stunt.

While no one would disagree that the Prime Minister and his task force chief had the right to complain about tough security measures, the point is that they’re not experts in that field. Neither of them is renowned for his military, police or intelligence background, so it is important to know how strongly the two were able to influence the decision to lower security standards.

When trained professionals set security levels, they know what they’re doing. They factor into their calculations known dangers and threats, as well as other necessary contingencies. It’s not an easy task, because you have an understandably suspicious community ready to claim that whatever measures you take are ‘over the top’.

As John Lyons reported in The Australian on September 4, the day that George Bush flew into Sydney, nine rocket launchers stolen from the Army still hadn’t been found.

The most worrying aspect of the weapons is that they are concealable when folded, they are about 67cm, which means they can fit into a backpack. They can be painted any colour to blend with carry bags. The M-72 launchers are designed to carry warheads that can cut through metal with a small hole, then explode. The warheads are designed for a ‘blast effect’. They are often used in warfare to attack bunkers, as they cause maximum damage.

Let’s face it, no one’s going to try to assassinate George Bush with a sponge cake. Whatever they try would no doubt entail extensive collateral damage. Security planning starts from the worst possible scenario not from the benign end of the spectrum. You either do it properly or you don’t bother.

The police and others involved in security therefore don’t enjoy being second-guessed by those with political power who have never been in uniform. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others have shown 300 million Americans how dangerous that can be.

Of course, security planners aren’t infallible, and questions remain like how the Chaser team managed to drive in convoy from the ABC across the city before forming up at the southern end of Macquarie Street. It was there that their motorcycle escort took the lead and the runners imitating a US Secret Service detail jumped out and took up position. The motorcade should have been picked up early by CCTV camera surveillance before reaching that point.

But if the team’s success thereafter was attributable to the fact that carefully planned security measures had been short-circuited, we need to know how and why. It’s no use blaming the Police, or the Chaser, for a breakdown in the system that attracted worldwide media coverage.

Too many of Australia’s key intelligence agencies are now run by bureaucrats with no experience in that field at all. If the success of the Chaser’s stunt is yet another manifestation of that, then the program has done us a great favour.

That is, as long as there’s enough nerve at the political level to learn the lessons involved.
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