A lesson from IB: Chinks in VIP security cover

Most assassination attempts fail but some didn’t. Were they avoidable?

A lesson from IB: Chinks in VIP security cover

Vappala Balachandran

The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8 in Nara City reminds me of my first lessons in VIP security, lessons on the difference between protocol and security. While protocol demands that the officers receiving VIPs should face them, security insists that they should look at the surroundings and not focus on the visiting dignitary.

I learnt that basic lesson in 1967 from the chief security official of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), then designated as the Deputy Director (Security) or DD(S). In those days DD (S) was the No.2 position in the Intelligence Bureau.

At that time, if my memory is correct, the DD(S) was the late G.C. Dutt. He was a fastidious officer who used to go around with a small notebook noting down all points after minutely checking the places of the Prime Minister’s engagements and our proposed arrangements. To our horror, he used to write to the Inspector General of Police, then the head of our state police, on any shortcomings after the visit was over.

As the police chief of Sangli district in Maharashtra, I was preparing for the hurricane visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for electioneering, which included a public meeting at the district headquarters, followed by a long road show of 50 kilometres passing several villages to the neighbouring Satara district.

The DD(S) asked me to post policemen throughout the Prime Minister’s route, facing the public. This was totally new to us as it was thought impolite for uniformed policemen to turn away from the VIP and not salute her or him while passing.

Another important lesson he taught me was that the VIP was most vulnerable at the alighting and departure points as all attention would be in receiving her or him and garlanding the VIP, while forgetting the crowd, the people who were around. Also, after the public meeting, a tendency to relax would set in, while escorting the VIP to the car

The fabled US Secret Service forgot these lessons on March 30, 1981. President Ronald Reagan had gone to the Hilton Hotel, Washington DC for a luncheon-address to the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations which is the largest federation of unions in the United States representing more than 12 million workers.

The Secret Service had considered the Washington Hilton very safe, as a secure passageway known as the “President’s Walk” was built after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Secret Service agents were confident as they had screened the invitees. Also, the President’s public exposure would be only for 30 feet while entering and exiting the hotel to reach the secure limousine.

However, neither the Secret Service nor the Washington DC police paid much attention while exiting, to the crowd gathered outside the hotel along with press and TV cameras. John Hinckley, a mentally deranged young man who was monitoring the President’s programme, took advantage of this and fired six shots at the President, injuring him and James Scott Brady, his Press Secretary.

Later it was known that Hinckley had a “delusional obsession” and wanted to “impress” child actress Jodie Foster by killing the President although he had no personal enmity. During the post-incident enquiry (March 31 to May 1, 1981) the Secret Service said that Hinckley’s prior crime record was not known to them, and they did not know why the DC police could not see Hinckley crouching and firing through the crowd.

The enquiry report which runs into 398 pages should have been read by all security agencies. That did not happen. On 4 November, 1995 a young Israeli ultra-nationalist Yigal Amir shot and killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel under similar circumstances.

Rabin, the hero of the 1967 Arab- Israel war, had signed the famous “Oslo Peace Accord II” with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on September 28, 1995. This was at the White House, witnessed by President Bill Clinton and representatives of Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Norway, and the European Union in Washington DC. This was not appreciated by the Israeli ultra-right as it was considered a sell out by a war hero.

Rabin had addressed, in the evening, a vast gathering of about 100,000 people at the Central Plaza in Tel Aviv, now renamed Rabin Square. As described by The Guardian (UK), the emotional climax came when veteran folk singer Miri Aloni performed her signature anthem, Shir LaShalom (A Song For Peace) in which Rabin also joined. His parting message to the crowd was “Let’s not just sing about peace – let’s make peace”. After that, as he stepped down and walked towards his car, he was shot by Yigal Amir who was lurking in the shadows.

On March 29, 1996, a three-member commission blamed Shin Bet’s chief Karmi Gillon for the agency’s failure in ignoring intelligence warnings on the possibility of Rabin’s assassination. It said that the agency failed in “adjusting its protection methods to the new risk to cope with the worsening threat and did not ensure that its VIP bodyguards properly understood the severity of the threat”.

Also, they made an incorrect assumption that no Jew would kill an Israeli PM. An amateur video later emerged showing Yigal Amir waiting in the parking lot unchecked by the security. He was filmed walking behind the Prime Minister, who was flanked by bodyguards, and shooting him in the back.

On July 8, BBC showed a clear photograph of assassin Tetsuya Yamagami standing behind Shinzo Abe. This was taken moments before the incident. Abe was seen bending forward, holding a hand mike and no one was looking at Yamagami. As in the case of Reagan and Rabin, Abe’s security detail paid no attention to the surroundings. That is why the teachings of my DD(S) from the Indian Intelligence Bureau 55 years ago still hold and are still important.

(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views are personal. Syndicate: The Billion Press)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines