Embassy security

How does the British government fulfil its responsibilities to protect diplomatic missions in Britain? Diplomats recently attended a Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG) seminar to find out.

From riots, terror attacks or embassy sieges, to extreme weather and local industrial action, diplomatic missions are vulnerable to a number of threats.

Diplomats watching recent television coverage of the Tibetan protests outside the Chinese Embassy in London will have noticed a number of police officers maintaining public order while angry demonstrators fired a salvo of eggs at the building.

These were officers of the Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG), a specialist unit within the Metropolitan Police providing static protection for all diplomatic missions in the capital as required under the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic (1961) and Consular (1963) Relations.

This month, around 200 diplomats attended a security seminar at police headquarters in Scotland Yard to learn more about the DPG and how it works in partnership with the diplomatic corps.

Established in 1974, the DPG, led Chief Superintendent Christine Jones is the largest firearms branch on mainland Britain and is recognised as a leader in the field of diplomatic protection. Since its inception, the DPG’s staffing has swelled from a small unit to an outfit with over 700 armed officers, who patrol London’s diplomatic quarters, guard government buildings and provide residential protection to visiting heads of state.

“Diplomatic missions are encouraged to assist the DPG with intelligence gathering by informing them of events back home or government policy that may have repercussions globally or may affect their expat population in the UK”

The unit is equipped with vehicles driven by highly trained motorcycles and distinctive red officers, to ensure a fast response to an emergency (under six minutes for central London).

Intelligence gathering
But even with increased staffing, the demands on the DPG have increased dramatically since 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings. Therefore, the level of protection given to a mission has to be based on careful risk assessment.

At the seminar, Sergeant Graham Winch gave diplomats an overview of British policing and the National Intelligence Model. Key to this type of intelligence-led policing is information, which police analyse to assess threats and devise appropriate responses.

Diplomatic missions are encouraged to assist the DPG with intelligence gathering by informing them of events back home or government policy that may have repercussions globally or may affect their expat population in the UK.

In recent years, the DPG has become much more proactive in their intelligence gathering. A range of tactics have been developed to enhance the security of the diplomatic estate, staff and visitors in London.

Public order
While the majority of embassies are unlikely to be the target of a terror attack, missions are unlikely to escape the occasional demo on their doorstep – whether it’s over Tibet, cartoons, whaling or Guantanamo Bay.

At the seminar, Constable Mark Harrigan explained to diplomats the legal context of public order policing in Britain and diplomats were shown a DVD of what the DPG can and can’t do during a demonstration.

Under British and European human rights law, people have a right to free speech and association and the police are required to facilitate them, while at the same time protecting the property of the mission.

Protest groups are obliged to inform the police of any demonstration. For protests in the areas surrounding the Houses of Parliament, police permission is also legally required.

Business continuity planning
It’s not only political demonstrations or terrorist attacks that affect an embassy. Extreme weather, industrial action or computer hackers can also paralyse the operations of missions.

Constable Michael Pearce provided guidance on plans that diplomatic missions should put in place in case
of emergency.

While every plan will be different, each needs to ensure that the critical functions of the mission can continue in the case of a disruptive event. These need to be simple, accessible to staff and well rehearsed.

He also reminded diplomats that even low-risk missions could not afford to be complacent – they may be located in the same vicinity of a mission which is a target.

For advice on formulating a business continuity plan, visit London Resilience (www.londonprepared.gov.uk).

Mass casualty events
In the event of an emergency situation where mass casualties are involved, the DPG, in partnership with the FCO, has developed Project Hermes, a system which transmits accurate information direct to missions during a crisis.

Under the initiative, the diplomatic community is notified of an incident within minutes, followed by regular updates as the event unfolds.

Specific information on foreign fatalities is relayed via Family Liaison Officers when it has been verified and its release authorised by the Senior Identification Manager, working with the coroner and, in the case of criminal enquiries, the Senior Investigating Officer.

Information is communicated to the recognised point of contact in each Diplomatic Mission in London via a range of media.

Physical Security
Part of the DPG’s role is to provide security advice to diplomatic missions on physical measures they can install to protect the building and staff, such as blast-proof glass, double security doors, metal detectors and CCTV systems.

Constable Trevor Hanson explained to diplomats what is entailed in a DPG security survey for the missions. Advice given is proportionate to the threat that an embassy faces based on the DPG’s own risk assessment, but it is up to the embassies to put the security measures in place.

A liaison officer will visit the premises to check the functioning of the DPG alarm system – which sends an alert directly to the DPG’s control room in the event of an emergency.

Building plans
Constable Hanson went on to explain the importance of providing building plans and photographs to the DPG. All documents are stored in a secure location with restricted access.

While it is understood that this information is highly sensitive, providing it can save lives in the event of an embassy hostage situation.

For instance, the Embassy of Iran was one of the first missions to provide blueprints, which were invaluable in planning the rescue operation during the embassy siege in 1980, when 26 members of the public, and one DPG officer, were taken hostage for six days.

Mailroom security
In 1972 a member of staff at the Israeli Embassy was killed by a letter bomb, which underlines the need for extra vigilance when processing diplomatic mail. At the seminar, diplomats were shown shocking footage of the damage that a small amount of explosives can do.

Constable Brian Pitkin outlined to diplomats at the seminar how to identify suspicious post and simple procedures to reduce the risk from postal devices: never open post in an open-plan office; use a secure room or isolated office to open mail; invest in an x-ray machine to scan post; or, if the threat levels are high, outsource your mail scanning to a company that will check it off-site.

Outside the embassy gates
Diplomats remain vulnerable when they leave the embassy gates. In 1982, an assassination attempt was made
on Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov as he was leaving the Dorchester Hotel following a diplomatic reception. The Ambassador survived the attack but was paralysed.

At the seminar, diplomats were given a brief overview of tactical driving – simple procedures for embassy drivers to follow, such as positioning the vehicle to facilitate a quick exit; using a different route to work; being alert and avoiding potential ambushes; and safe manoeuvres to get out of difficult situations.

“In 1972 a member of staff atthe Israeli Embassy was killed by a letter bomb, underlining the need for extra vigilance when processing mail. Envoys were shown how much damage a small amount of explosives can do”

The DPG also offers presentations to staff and families on personal safety and security in London. “For instance, you are much more likely to have your credit card cloned than you are to be attacked by a terrorist in London,” Inspector Nick Smith points out.

The DPG does not provide close protection for high-risk individuals or visiting heads of state and government. Missions need to apply for this through the Home Office, via the FCO.

Should a diplomat or visiting dignitary feel they need additional protection, the mission should arrange for close protection officers that are licensed by the Security Industry Authority (www.the-sia.org.uk).

Sharing best practice
With over 30 years’ experience, the DPG is also happy to share its ideas with other diplomatic protection forces from other countries. Recently, two officers from Panama visited London for training.

“We’d also like to hear about diplomatic policing in other countries,” adds Inspector Smith. “After all, we are not the sole arbiter of good ideas!”

Functions of the DPG

  • Protection of embassies and missions
  • Residential protection for visiting heads of state, heads of government and foreign ministers
  • Counter reconnaissance (surveillance) at events identified as high risk, diplomatic functions or key sites
  • Providing specialist search officers for counter terrorism at sensitive addresses, major events and crime scenes
  • Searching and access control of visitors and vehicles to New Scotland Yard and Downing Street
  • Providing professional security advice to the diplomatic and government communities

    Quick contacts
    Business Continuity/Project Hermes – Michael Pearce

    Physical Security – Jerry Boyles

    Building Plans – Trevor Hanson

    Mail security – Brian Pitkin

    Public Order – Mark Harrigan

    Officers from the DPG control protesters outside
    the Chinese Embassy at a recent Pro-Tibet demonstration

    Attacks against diplomats in London

    December 1971
    Attempted assassination of Zeid Rifai, Jordanian Ambassador, who was shot and wounded by a Black September hit squad

    Member of staff at the Israeli Embassy killed by letter bomb

    April 1980
    Six-day siege of the Iranian Embassy. One DPG officer and 26 civilians were taken hostage

    June 1982
    Assassination attempt by Abu Nidal group on Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov as he was leaving the Dorchester Hotel after attending the De La Rue Dinner. The Ambassador was paralysed

    July 1994
    14 people injured in a car bomb explosion outside the Israeli Embassy in Palace Gate

    February 1999
    Kurdish protesters invade the Greek Embassy in London after Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan is handed over to the Turkish authorities