26 March 2009

Shambolic security

The Australian asks more questions about the deficiencies in airport security revealed by events at Sydney Airport:

Why were police notified of the deadly bikie brawl only after receiving a 000 call from a member of the public?

Given the density of closed-circuit television cameras scattered throughout the airport terminal - supposedly one of Australia's most secure - why did the first police officers arrive after the 15-minute brawl was over and most of the attackers had fled?

And, crucially, why were no police on hand at gate five to escort the bikies away as they arrived off a Melbourne flight? It's now known Qantas cabin crew had expressed concern about the potential for strife during the flight to Sydney.

Respected security analyst Alan Behm thinks he has some answers. There was a security failure on Sunday; a man was killed at the airport, he says. But deploying more police to the airport is simply a knee-jerk reaction to a more complex problem, Behm tells The Australian.

Airport security at Sydney and most other capital cities across Australia is geared to prevent an act of terrorism on board a plane, he says. It all depends where you want to put the focus of your security measures: on the air side of the passenger security screening barrier or the public concourse.

"I think the solution really is to maximise the protections you've already got with the (screening) barriers by having the police on the air side rather than the public side, if not apprehending, then intervening, before those thugs got on to the public concourse after getting off the plane," Behm says.

Security protocols for an aircraft captain to radio ahead and warn of an onboard incident exist, which raises concerns about why this was not put to good effect on Sunday.

"It's a question of whether the message was put into that system. Did the purser say to the aircraft captain, 'We have a potential issue here, could you warn security?' I suspect not," Behm says.

There are suggestions police should have apprehended the bikies in the passenger departure area, but this would have posed a serious danger to the public.

"Police can't just get their weapons out and start shooting. They can't go throwing tear gas and stuff around, and even if the police went up against 12 blokes wielding these big steel bars, there's every chance they would have got beaten s--less."

Behm and fellow terrorism expert Clive Williams, of Macquarie University, agree with Keelty that police response times, on being notified of the incident, were acceptable. But it is unrealistic to expect unarmed Qantas security staff to intervene in a bikie brawl, Williams says.

At least one Qantas security official did have the presence of mind to record the numberplates of taxis departing with fleeing gang members, he says.

"He did the right thing. The police arrived essentially after these people (bikies) had fled," Williams says.

"The problem with this bikie violence is that the kind of violence these police at the airport are trained for is terrorism related and not so much gang violence. Obviously there's going to be a need to look at bikie violence more generally, not only in an airport context but the kinds of activities they are engaging in nationally, where there are wars going on between their factions."


Concerns about security at Sydney airport are not new. In 2005 Allan Kessing, a former Customs airport security officer at Sydney airport, was convicted for leaking a highly damaging report about serious security breaches to this newspaper. The report dealt with a range of security concerns including the criminal records of baggage handlers, luggage theft and drug trafficking.

His actions spurred the Howard government to implement a far-reaching probe into airport security, the Wheeler report, which resulted in more rigorous security measures being implemented across the country.

But the bikie brawl has again raised concerns that more needs to be done.

AFP officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say one area requiring immediate attention is better agreement on airport policing functions involving the AFP and their NSW Police counterparts.

"State police don't want to listen to advice from the AFP; they want to run their own race," one AFP source tells The Australian.

While the AFP has prime responsibility for security at Sydney airport, that does not include the monitoring of the CCTV cameras, a state police role.

The issue of agreement on police roles is a problem, says former Sydney Airport Corporation chief executive Tony Stewart. The AFP believed its main role was counter-terrorism, while NSW Police focused on other areas of crime, he told ABC radio.

"The weak link is the demarcation between whether this was an anti-terrorism incident or a crime incident and somebody was probably looking at the rule book, saying it's the other guy's problem," he said.

In his first comments on the airport violence, Kevin Rudd yesterday pledged "zero tolerance" for bikie crime.

"This sort of behaviour by bikies and others engaged in organised criminal activity is unacceptable in Australia, absolutely unacceptable," the Prime Minister said soon after arriving in Washington, DC. State and commonwealth attorneys-general would discuss a co-ordinated response to the bikie menace at their next meeting, he promised.

Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus says the federal Government has ordered an investigation into the adequacy of the AFP's response on Sunday in addition to a national audit of police officers deployed at airports.

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