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Protecting Pope Francis

In a few hours from now, Pope Francis will land here in the Philippines to begin his 4-day visit to this predominantly Catholic nation. It will be the fourth time that the head of the Catholic Church will visit the Philippines. Pope Paul VI first visited in 1970 followed by Pope John Paul II who came twice in 1981 and 1995. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not only a visiting Head of the Vatican State. He is also the leader of the 2.1 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church. The lives of millions of people in this part of the world will not be the same by Monday after encountering the present Vicar of Christ. I vividly still recall my own encounter with his predecessor back in 1995 when he came over for World Youth Day. Assigned with the Presidential Security Group (PSG) then as head of the Special Reaction Unit (SRU), I became part of the group responsible for keeping Pope John Paul II safe during his visit. By the grace of God and through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the soon to become saint pope completed his mission here safe and sound despite a terror attempt on his life.

Fast forward to twenty years later and now we are once again faced with a similar deliverance of grace to our shores but along with it the heavy burden of making sure that no untoward incident will befall Pope Francis’ historic visit to the Pearl of the Orient Seas. Early on, the authorities in charge of the Pope’s protection in the Philippines have already assured the public that they are on top of the security situation and that there has been no specific threat received against the life of the Pope. This sounds reassuring and I have no reason to doubt the competence and capacity of the assigned security services to deliver on that reassurance. However, please allow me to just share with all you readers some security concerns that I have and these are the same concerns which I shared with people who have asked.

One, general threats against the Pope are expected even in the absence of a specific threat. Bear in mind that the existence of a threat is based on perspective. To anyone who does not know of a specific plot to take out a target, such threat simply does not or may not exist. But this does not necessarily mean that there is no threat. Of course to the one individual or group plotting an attack, there definitely is a threat but only they know there is one. To this score, I certainly hope and pray that our intelligence community knows more than it is willing to admit publicly. If intelligence did its work properly, it would have been ahead of the ballgame early on – much, much earlier than everyone else. Domestic intelligence would have compared notes with foreign intelligence way before any security plans were formalized. Complete, accurate, and timely intelligence would have been the basis in formulating the operational plans toward protecting the Pope. Order of battle intelligence would have identified who are the potential threats, along with their strength, disposition, strategy and tactics, alignments, benefactors, and other relevant data. It would be logical to say, therefore, that if the intelligence people did their homework well, then the operational folks would likewise be able to craft the security plans that would effectively and efficiently get the job done.

Two, the advantage of knowing the specific threat is that government’s limited resources can be consolidated to focus on that specific threat. On the other hand, knowing only the general threats will cause available resources to be spread out thinly in order to cover all possibilities. The challenge with this drawn-out strategy is the possibility of a weak point being created somewhere along the defensive perimeter due to the thinning of deployed resources. Such weak points could be exploited by a threat thus creating a penetrable gap. As we have become aware of, attacks can come from lone wolves to organized syndicates. Diversions are usually activated away from the points of penetration or attack or both. Lone wolves are usually simpler to resolve than organized groups but any attack is still an attack that produces adverse consequences.

Three, since the Pope uses a non-armored transport, the threat from a sniper’s bullet must never be discounted and should be taken very, very seriously. To me, this is a real scare and one I would focus on if I was in charge of the papal convoy. Though labor-intensive, each and every high-rise along the papal routes must be combed and physically controlled if need be. Effective ranges, angles, and escape routes from possible sniper’s nests must be analyzed and embedded in security plans. Government security plans must include close collaboration with private security in charge of buildings and companies along the papal routes. Private security should be able to alert the security services if suspicious elements are observed entering their buildings. Human barriers should contribute as well toward providing tips to law enforcement about possible threats and their movements.

Four, despite the robustness of the cordon sanitaire close-in attacks cannot be discounted. Pope Paul VI was attacked at close range by a foreigner when he visited the Philippines. ‘On November 27, 1970, just minutes after arriving in Manila, Pope Paul VI escaped an assassination plot when Bolivian artist Benjamin Mendoza slipped through airport security in a priest’s robe and slashed the leader of the Catholic church with a dagger, barely missing his throat.’ Access control granted to people getting near the Pope leaves no room for error if a repeat of this 1970 attack is to be avoided.

Five, I hope and pray that the Bureau of Immigration has done a proper job on screening possible threats based on domestic and foreign intelligence. My underclassman Fred Mison USMA ’87 heads the BI and he has thus far done a superb job reforming the bureau.

Finally, and probably the greatest challenge lies with protecting a VIP who likes to break protocol. This reality can be both good and bad. It can be a downside in the sense that the Pope may suddenly proceed to an area which has not been adequately swept by security or meet with people who have not been properly screened by the PSG. But there is also an upside to this habit by the Pope. And this upside is the element of surprise. If the security does not know of the VIP’s sudden move, so does the opposition. Unless the opposition has been observing all along; or has been one step ahead of the protective detail. But even this VIP habit can actually be remedied. For years, I protected Fidel Ramos in his various capacities. He also liked to break protocol especially when he was President. But we knew this nasty habit of his and it came to a point where we could actually predict him. I am pretty sure the people who have always been with Pope Francis also know his habits and could predict him. These people should advise the PSG ahead of time so the advance parties and outer rings can take preemptive actions.

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