Guarding the Guards

Commentary | February 23, 2012

Writing for Pakistan's The News International, EWI Board Member Ikram Sehgal assesses the security situation in Pakistan.

Click here to read this column in The News International.

One of the great tragedies to befall this country was the assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer by Mumtaz Qadri in Islamabad on Jan 4, 2011, bringing into sharp focus one of the important aspects of security that does not get the attention it should: fidelity.

A policeman in the security detail provided to Taseer by the Punjab Elite Police, Qadri readily confessed to killing the late governor because he disagreed with his opposition to the Blasphemy Law. Trust that must be inherent between a bodyguard and his ward was not sacrificed at the altar of material gain but for a more sinister reason, an extreme interpretation of ideology. Given that Qadri had already aroused suspicions among his superiors and colleagues, it is still unclear how he managed to get himself detailed in the squad protecting Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad.

What is far more mystifying (and a cause for real concern) is the role of the other Elite personnel in the security detail. Trained personnel are programmed to react instantaneously to danger. Their failure to take any action whatsoever to interdict Qadri while he was directing a burst of automatic gunfire at Taseer at point blank range put into contention their active (or at the least, passive) complicity.

One aspect has become terrifyingly clear in the aftermath of the Taseer assassination, how does one ascertain the fidelity of guards assigned to provide security to key personnel? This particular incident raises the serious question of infidelity on the basis of ideology. As a member of the provincial police force, and also part of the Elite Force, Taseer’s killer would normally have had his background checked many times, yet there seems to have been a dangerous chink in the vetting process that was not detected. It only requires one or two persons posted on duty at key places to cause mayhem. How good is our verification of antecedents and the physical vetting process?

The All-Pakistan Security Agencies Association (APSAA) insists upon its members not only doing a thorough vetting process but has institutionalised this process. However, given the Taseer assassination one shudders to think what the state of the private security services sector could be. With hundreds of private security services companies operating, a strict monitoring of the process of conducting background verification checks of their employees entrusted with guarding of the lives and property of their clients is necessary. It makes this the most critical aspect of guarding in Pakistan. APSAA members have been fighting a losing battle against the overwhelming perception among the populace that instead of preventing crimes they should (or could) have prevented, the guards themselves go about committing the crimes, or are involved in what at times are heinous crimes.

While this is not exactly true, there have been occasions when a private security guard who was hired to protect property steals it himself or with the help of his associates. This has been unfortunately played up by the media. The question about a guard’s fidelity or his honesty has become extremely important, especially today because we are dealing with cutting-edge terrorism.

All over the world security guards have to go through a mandatory verification process. In many countries background checks are conducted by the local police. Many times this is supplemented by scrutiny by other agencies mandated to do so. In the Netherlands, for example, security guards have to undergo a criminal background check by the local police department in the area where the private security company is located.

While there are similar laws in Pakistan, it costs money to have backgrounds verified electronically and physically. The issue of parliamentarians’ fake degree has clearly shown what a tedious, time-consuming task it is. Moreover, is it accurate? The common factor where security guards deputed to guard banks (or other large establishments) were themselves found involved in robberies, some were successful while some were not, was the false or doctored documents/information given by the security guards to their employers at the time of employment.

For example, the mobile telephone applications had false information and were not verified. Even fake computerised national identity cards (CNICs) were used to get employment. It is painfully obvious that lack of proper verification of antecedents and screening of background allowed the criminals to succeed. Despite the claims of Nadra, proper verification of antecedents or documents is not done. The result is that in many cases genuine Nadra card had fake information about the person! Given such glaring loopholes in the system, many people ask whether it is really difficult for terrorists or those with extremist agenda to infiltrate critical facilities by hiring on as security guards. That is not a frightening possibility, it is a reality.

What, then, should be done? Of course the laws are there, but implementation is very lax. This has to change. More often than not, everyone is content with looking the other way until after an incident occurs. It must be ensured without exception that all personnel who have unaccompanied (or accompanied) access to sensitive areas and who will perform guarding duties must go through extensive background checks. These checks must include criminal background checks, checks against terrorist watch lists as well as the usual verification of documents and antecedents provided by them.

The major problem is that clients are of two kinds: institutions or individuals. While individual clients have to depend upon the company’s statement of the guard’s fidelity, the institution employing their services have security managers to check this aspect out. Unfortunately, even MNCs sometimes do not give much the importance to background checks they deserve. Many security managers merely pay lip-service to completion of the documentation process and their corporate bosses gloss over this. Most fall back on the excuse that it adds to costs.

There is also the training aspect. Trained instructors can easily find out the inclination of various students by cleverly posing some pointed questions. To the credit of the APSAA they have training schools but even a cursory check will reveal that not all members avail of this facility.

Given the fact that organised crime has a nexus with terrorism and there is potential relationship between criminal history and terrorist activity, serious thought must be given to more extensive criminal background checks of employees in the private security services sector. All armed and unarmed guards must also undergo a stringent training programme. Because radical thinking has increasingly crept into mainstream society, criminals/extremists are able to infiltrate the ranks of law enforcement in Pakistan.

The federal ministry of interior does insist upon strict verification of individuals. The provincial home departments, whose job it is to actually monitor the private security companies, also do so. Unfortunately only lip-service is paid to monitoring. Only a far more extensive and exhaustive process carried out by third-party monitors will make this exercise effective. Funds must be specially allocated for this.

Given the possibility of infidelity, the ultimate question that a diligent security manager must answer is: is the vetting process credible? If not, who will monitor and guard the guards?