Immediately following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, military installations and federal facilities went to extremely high states of physical security, probably the highest posture seen in decades. This state of readiness stayed in place for several months in some cases, and remained heightened for years above what had previously been normal.
Relaxation of that posture is appropriate, but physical security remains an important consideration; terrorist organizations pose an enduring risk to our nation. Unfortunately, over the dozen years since the attacks, many people have returned to a pre-9/11 sense of security, both personally and operationally. Recent examples illustrate this point.
Within a four-day period in March, I witnessed three incidents of poor security procedures on the same small annex of a larger naval installation. What may appear as isolated examples could actually represent a more widespread problem and an unacceptable level of risk.
In the first incident, a Navy master-at-arms, in this case a petty officer first class, was standing watch on a vehicle entry gate leading to an annex that includes several sensitive compartment information facilities (SCIF). On this particular day, the sailor was standing watch with the assistance of a crutch. Half sarcastically, I mentioned that was no way to stand duty, to which she replied that someone had brought her a stool. She obviously missed the point, and so did her leaders who had placed her on a post when she was not physically qualified to be there. Instead of this being a unique occurrence, two days later, on the very same gate, a civilian police officer stood duty while supported by a cane.
The potential for a serious incident requiring physical intervention by a sentry might be low, but such encounters do occur. In both these cases, the sentries were at an unacceptable disadvantage should they have needed to defend themselves or the facility. Short of using deadly force (assuming they could accurately fire a weapon while supported by walking aids), neither sentry was capable of pursuing or apprehending a suspected intruder or other criminal.
It might seem inconsequential to have lax security on a vehicle gate since each SCIF has its own security, but it’s not. During the same week these two incidents occurred, a Department of the Navy civilian security officer (different from a DoN civilian police officer) was standing watch at the entry point to one of those SCIFs. He was obviously recovering from a recent shoulder injury or surgery, resulting in his right arm being immobilized in a sling.
Again, the guard was at a physical disadvantage that put his life and a sensitive facility at risk. To make matters worse, the sling supported his gun hand. The guard was not even able to put on his gun belt, so his firearm was lying somewhere in his small guard shack. Even though he had quick access to his weapon (not nearly as quickly as if it had been on his hip), drawing a weapon from a holster attached to a loose gun belt is much slower and more difficult than drawing a properly worn sidearm.
Again, the odds are low that an incident would occur at either of these entry points, but had a would-be intruder been conducting surveillance, all three of these personnel presented weaknesses in the security condition of the facility. My criticism is directed less at them than at the leaders who allowed these incidents to occur, placing people on watch who were physically incapable of performing essential protective measures. While each sentry should have (and may have) made a case for his or her own temporary unsuitability, their leaders had ultimate responsibility and should not have placed the sentry or the facility at risk.
Overlooking basic and sound security principles is unacceptable, and it suggests some people have become comfortable with a pre-9/11 level of preparedness. Enforcing these practices takes no additional financial investment, nor a great deal of time or effort. It only takes constant awareness and enforcement by security force leadership.
Without that enforcement, we must wonder if we are serious about physical security.