So what exactly goes into protecting a high profile person?

On September 15th, approximately 300 foreign ministers, dignitaries and United Nations (UN) staff gathered for a prayer service to mark the opening of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).  The venue was the historic Church of the Holy Name, also know as The United Nations Parish, which is located on a tree-lined street one block from the UN headquarters. 

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Inside the United Nations Parish church, the early evening light streamed through the stained glass windows.  The choir gave a stirring rendition of Bach’s Joy of Man’s desiring; while members of the public and UN staffers spoke in hushed tones as they waited for the service to begin.

Inside the United Nations Parish church, the early evening light streamed through the stained glass windows.  The choir gave a stirring rendition of Bach’s Joy of Man’s desiring; while members of the public and UN staffers spoke in hushed tones as they waited for the service to begin.

The church service was marked by the presence of high-ranking UN officials, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, incoming General Assembly President Sam Kutesa, and outgoing President, John Ashe. 

 With the exception of three protection officers wearing conspicuous earpieces, there were no other identifiable protection personnel.  This was surprising given the high profile attendees at this public event.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Ban Ki-Moon and his wife Yoo Soon-taek sat in the front pew of the church.  Their protection agent sat in the pew immediately behind them.

Ban Ki-Moon and his wife Yoo Soon-taek sat in the front pew of the church.  Their protection agent sat in the pew immediately behind them.

Matthew Parker, who is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Washington DC based Independent Security Advisors, says “This was likely part of their security strategy for this event”.  He says that sometimes a low-key approach is used when a gathering that involves high profile figures is made open to the public.    

 Parker’s company provides security personnel to government agencies, foreign leaders, diplomats and high profile individuals.  The company also often works with the UN.  He says that planning for such an event “would likely have started two to three months in advance.”  This planning would have included how and where the event was advertised.  He says “the UN likely used a ‘close-hold information’ approach, which meant the guest list was not disclosed”.  Parker has used this approach in the past where little information is disclosed about the attendees.  He says this in turn leads to little interest from the wider public, and yet gives the semblance of having made the event open - “You’re almost using reverse psychology.  It’s a fantastic security measure, but it’s very risky”

   
  
 
  
    
  
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     Although the church service was listed as a public event on the UN website, it is noticeably absent from the Secretary-Generals twitter feed which lists his daily events.     Source: Twitter account of the UN Secretary-General

Although the church service was listed as a public event on the UN website, it is noticeably absent from the Secretary-Generals twitter feed which lists his daily events.

 Source: Twitter account of the UN Secretary-General

Ray Mancini is CEO of Australia based SIG Group, which provides security services and training around the world.  He says “As a protection agent you always have to be prepared and ready for any circumstance.  This is even more important when the event is open to the public.”  Mancini says “the security plan would have involved visible and invisible security measures.” Visible measures include identifiable security officers, physical barriers or perimeter boundaries, controlled admission and protected transportation. 

 “Invisible security includes remote surveillance, and things like spectrum analyzers, which pick up signals and transmission coming from outside.”  Another key element is undercover agents.  According to Mancini – “The most effective protection teams are not next to the client – they’re outside.  You standing next to the client means you can’t see everything”.  He says when planning for an event, he starts with the end in mind - “You have to work backwards.  We start by planning an attack ourselves, and then working backwards to mitigate the risks”. 

Alon Stivi’s company, Direct Measures International, also provides security protection to high profile diplomats and public figures, including former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He says public events present a unique set of challenges - “You have to take a different approach.  You have to constantly be visually screening anyone coming close to your protectee.  You’re constantly monitoring people of interest in the crowd.”  Stivi says typically undercover agents, known as sleepers, will form an invisible human ring around the client.  “The more sensitive the protectee, the more rings we use”.  Stivi also positions undercover agents at vantage points outside the crowd – “They can identify individuals who pose a threat.  They communicate this threat through radio or cellphone to the sleepers or visible agents.”

 Mancini says there is always a response team close by, whose sole responsibility is to respond to threats or security breaches, and evacuate the protectee. 

 Parker says all of the security operations for the prayer service would have been controlled from a remote command center, likely at the UN headquarters.  Security agents in the command cell would be surveying any available camera feeds, as well as coordinating the resources on the ground.  Communication between the agents and the command cell is through radio and mobile phone.  Parker is not a fan of “the stereotypical talk in your sleeve approach.  I prefer to use dynamic microphones, which don’t require me to do that.  You have to keep your chin up, and always keep your head on a swivel.  If your eyes are on the floor, that’s when something can happen”.  He says that nowadays his company is using more Bluetooth earpieces, which are not as conspicuous and look more like a cellphone earpiece - “this draws less attention”. 

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    One of the security agents at the church was in constant communication via a microphone pinned to her lapel, as well as a mobile phone.

One of the security agents at the church was in constant communication via a microphone pinned to her lapel, as well as a mobile phone.

Stivi says that the job of protection agents has been made more difficult in recent times – “It’s so easy nowadays to track someone’s movements through social media or through their computer.”  He also says there’s a new threat on it’s way - “The use of drones is becoming more prevalent.  They’re getting very sophisticated and more accurate.  In the past our security measures just focused on the ground.  But now we’re going to have to expand them to also consider threats from the air.”  But one thing Stivi says won’t change is the human element required in providing protection services. 

 Parker says the job of a protection agent is complex – “I’m in part a protection agent, baby-sitter, dog walker, PR agent ….. the list goes on!”  He says sometimes he even has to give fashion advice to his clients to prevent wardrobe malfunctions. 

 In his 24 years in the security business, Parker says he has never had to draw his weapon while providing protection services outside of a war zone - “If I have to pull out my gun, then everything else has gone horribly wrong.  My job is to make sure that everything goes right so that my job is really boring!”

 And boring is what Parker hopes UNGA 69 will be - “Security for the UNGA is a massive undertaking.  There are private, federal, state and local agencies involved in providing security and transportation.”  He says that close coordination has to take place to ensure that UN delegates as well as protesters are kept safe.  It is also not just about the obvious logistics of getting the leaders to and from the UN offices – “You also have to factor in all the hotels, restaurants, shopping and car companies involved too.”  But as Parker says – “The UN’s been doing this for a long time, and so they are very good at it”. 

 

Sandra Chuma