Just How Bad Was Security At Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service?
In the days since the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium, we’ve learned a lot about the apparently fake sign language interpreter who shared the stage with dignitaries ranging from the President of South Africa, to Mandela’s own grandchildren, to the President of the United States, and most especially the most recent reports that this man had a rather extensive record of criminal charges and that the company through which he was hired apparently no longer exists. This has led many to wonder just how good security was for what was the largest gathering of world leaders outside of the United Nations General Assembly since the funeral for Pope John Paul II in 2005. If a report passed along today by Washington Examiner’s Byron York is to be believed, it wasn’t very good at all:
It’s becoming increasingly clear that when President Obama arrived at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in Johannesburg, South Africa Tuesday, he stepped into an atmosphere so chaotic, disorganized, and unsafe that under any other circumstances the White House and Secret Service might well have insisted the president not appear.
FNB Stadium, where the memorial was held, seats 95,000 people. Even with a steady rain and thousands of empty seats in uncovered areas, there were tens of thousands of people in the area with the president. It appears most of them got in without going through any security.
“There were no security checks upon entry to the stadium,” a local South African activist wrote Friday in a letter to the Johannesburg Star newspaper. “I walked freely to my seat without passing through metal detectors, being searched or any other check.”
The stadium’s main entrance was “completely unattended,” a reporter for a Washington, D.C., television station told Politico. “There were no workers performing bag checks or pat-downs — there were no magnetometers to walk through, no metal detector wands being used — anywhere.”
Britain’s The Independent newspaper reported that “thousands of guests entering the FNB stadium in Soweto on Tuesday, especially those who had arrived very early, were not searched.” In addition, members of the media “were permitted to enter the press area directly beneath where politicians and dignitaries were seated without being asked to show passes.” And the Daily Mail reported that “the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.”
When South African security officials did perform security checks, they were often trying to restrain the bodyguards and entourage members of visiting dignitaries and celebrities. But conflicts seem to have been resolved by letting everybody in. For example, a delegation from Canada encountered problems until “all of the Canadians were able to get in during the confusion that reigned at security checkpoints as thousands of people poured in,” according to a report in the National Post.
The South African government promised tight security for the event. “Working off plans developed for years in secret, the South African government is using an elite military task force, sniper teams and canine teams to help secure the stadium,” CNN reported before the event. “In addition, helicopters and military jets frequently fly overhead.”
The fact that Mandela had died on Thursday and the event occurred roughly 96-100 hours later isn’t really an excuse for lax security, one would think. Reports in the immediate aftermath of Mandela’s death, and especially after it was announced that President Obama and three living ex-Presidents would be attending the event the following Tuesday said that the South Africans had been developing security for this very event for quite some time. After all, Mandela’s health had been in general decline for at least the past year and had been in grave condition, both in a hospital and later at home, as far back as June. Given those facts and his advanced age, it was clear that Nelson Mandela was in his final days and that his death was only a matter of a “when” that would likely come sooner rather than later. Indeed, there were some reports, unconfirmed because the Secret Service routinely never comments on security arrangements for the President, that South African officials and the Secret Service had been working together for months planning for the security for the events surrounding Mandela’s death for several months since it was a foregone conclusion that President Obama would be invited and that he would wish to attend.
Notwithstanding all of this, it seems at least to outside observers that the largest event of the entire mourning period, the one at which the potential for a serious incident would seem to have been the one posing the highest potential risk of being the target for something nefarious. Added into that equation is the fact that South Africa has, along with other parts of Africa, seen Somalians associated with the al Shabaab organization, a terror group loosely affiliated with al Qaeda, showing up in the country in recent years. Given the fact that as many as 95,000 people were anticipated for the Mandela event at FNB Stadium, the potential for something disastrous was certainly in the air. Taking all this together, the after-the-fact reports of loose security are certainly concerning notwithstanding the fact that nothing ended up happening.
And then there’s the issue of that fake interpreter:
Allowing a man with Jantjie’s record to stand within arm’s length of the president of the United States is a huge security concern in itself. In addition, the lack of security checks at entrances raises the question of whether Jantjie had been searched for weapons. It’s bad enough to have a violent, crazy man who has been through a body search stand next to the president. It’s absolutely unconscionable to allow that man next to the president with no search.
If Jantjie was searched, it was likely not by Americans. Before the event, CNN reported that a “Secret Service spokesman noted that while the agency’s preference is to bring their own metal detectors to such events, they do not have authority over local law enforcement in foreign countries and would be working with South African officials on security matters.”
Considering how close Jantjie was to President Obama and other leaders, the concerns about potential actions on his part are fairly obvious in hindsight. However, Mark Ambinder reminds us that, even when they have to defer to foreign governments, it isn’t as if the Secret Service isn’t still on the job:
In places where the Secret Service does not control the entire venue, agents will insist on securing, with its people — our people — the President’s immediate surroundings and keeping clear an emergency evacuation route. Take, for example, the main platform. The Service would have calculated, based on technical and classified studies of ammunition, explosives and weapons, how much “stand off” is adequate, and it will draw its own perimeter.
A combination of counter-sniper teams and covert counter-surveillance teams, active technical surveillance, physical barriers and post standers would work together to secure the lines of sight to the President. This “box within a box” concept provides a visible deterrent and allows site agents to adjust the plan dynamically. With a limited number of agents, assets and a limited faith in the home country, this is pretty much the best the Service can do.
I haven’t mentioned the agents who surround the President physically yet. They’re the inner ring. They don’t stand there and wait for the President to finish a speech. They aren’t adornments. The reason these agents look so morose is because they are watching other people intently, assuming that threats WILLarise from within the inner perimeter — from the crowd, from staff, from the security details for foreign leaders — and rehearsing how they will remove the president from danger when those threats pop up. Not if, but when.
Without going into too much detail, you can safely assume that the Presidential Protective Detailfrequently practices responding to potential assassins who’ve made it through other perimeters and wind up right next to the President. If someone close to Obama had drawn a knife, agents around the President would have reacted, based on training and planning, but other Secret Service assets and personnel, using protective methods that aren’t disclosed, would kick into gear just as quickly.
The logistics involved in advancing a trip like this are Herculean, and the agents in charge of the trip certainly had to improvise.
And, jokes about hookers in Colombia notwithstanding, it goes without saying that the United States Secret Service remains among the most well trained force on the planet. To the extent that they could cover all possible contingencies related to the security of President Obama and others within their area of responsibility, I am certain that they were more than prepared to protect the President as he spoke on Tuesday and, had their known more about the sign language interpreter who has now become infamous around the world, they likely would have insisted that he be removed from the stage while the President was speaking. You can blame the South Africans for that one, apparently. Indeed, as Ambinder points out later on in the article linked above, they’ve had to deal with far more difficult situations during impromtu international trips in the past, such as when President Clinton was so eager to comfort mourners at the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin that he found himself, with his inner circle detail, in the middle of a crowd of people who had not gone through security screening at all. There will no doubt be a security review of what happened in South Africa, both on their end and on ours, but I have no doubt that, while President Obama spoke, there was more than one man nearby willing to risk his own life if something happened that threatened the life of the President.
As I said, we are fortunate that nothing happened on Tuesday. Nonetheless, it is a potent reminder that even in the hypersecure bubble that American Presidents now live in, there are still risks that have to be taken into account and contingencies, like a fake sign language interpreter who claims he was seeing angels during the memorial service, that cannot be planned for. All we can hope for is that the men charged with protecting the President will do their job the best that they possibly can.