Amid Reports of Ineptitude, Concerns Over Security at London Olympics
John F. Burns
London. Even government officials involved are calling it a fiasco, and their assessments have been backed up by whistle-blowers’ accounts that have sketched out the extent of the chaos that has thrown Olympic security plans into disarray only two weeks before the games begin.
Newspaper accounts have told of recruits hired for essential security tasks at more than 100 venues — including the main, 80,000-seat Olympic stadium — falling asleep during training sessions, or preparing for high school and college exams only desks away from instructors teaching them how to search bags and spot concealed bombs and weapons.
Instructors for G4S, the private security company that has a $440 million contract to provide 10,400 guards for the games, have complained of facing rows of recruits who speak little or no English.
One tabloid published a photograph, which it said had been taken at a training session, that showed a young woman slumped at her desk, apparently sleeping, with a youth alongside her apparently listening to music through earphones.
The account, in The Daily Mail, told of recruits repeatedly failing to spot fake bombs and grenades during X-ray training, and clearing people through security during their training without spotting hidden weapons, in one case a 9 mm pistol stuffed into a “test spectator’s” sock. The paper quoted one whistle-blower, whom it described as having a military background, as saying, “Some of the people on that course you would not hire to empty a dustbin. You are talking about really poorly educated, slovenly slobs.”
Accounts that have not been rebutted by G4S have said that many of the recruits are in their late teens, with no previous work experience.
Others have spent months or years unemployed, and on government welfare benefits, according to officials with knowledge of Olympic planning who asked not to be identified. Newspaper reports have said that among those who have completed their training and been deployed to Olympic sites, dropout rates have been as high as 50 percent, and many others have missed shifts or shown up hours late.
On Thursday, when the government acknowledged the extent of the bungling and announced that it would be adding 3,500 additional troops to the 13,500 already committed to security duties at the Games, it offered assurances that the security for the 17 days of competition would not be compromised. Theresa May, the home secretary, who is one of the most powerful figures in Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, laid the blame on G4S and said that the extent of the company’s mismanagement had only “crystallized” 24 hours before she reported it to the House of Commons.
Lawmakers have said they will summon G4S executives and others involved in the security planning to testify about the imbroglio when Parliament reconvenes after its summer break, weeks after the Olympic Games have ended. In any case, the political fallout for the Cameron government is likely to be mitigated by the fact that much of the planning for the Games — or lack of it, as it appears now — took place in the five years after they were awarded to London in 2005, when the opposition Labour Party was in power.
But that has not prevented some dire conclusions from being reached. The Times of London, in an editorial in Friday’s editions, held out the hope that the worst prognostications “will melt away under the impending, all-consuming blowtorch of a city” — London — “having the time of its life.” But it said failures in security planning and other problems already pointed to a debacle. It cited emergency repair work on the main highway connecting Heathrow Airport to central London, as well as on the main Olympic site in the east of the city that has closed a six-mile stretch of roadway, with no certainty when the work will be completed. The problem is that major weaknesses have been found in the steel supports for a flyover along the roadway.
“Let’s no longer beat about the bush,” it said. “This summer’s Olympic Games are going to be a catalog of disasters. Not everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Only lots of it.”
G4S, which claims to be the world’s largest security company, with more than 650,000 employees, came forward Saturday to offer an apology. The company’s chief executive, Nick Buckles, said in an interview with the BBC that it had realized only “eight or nine days ago” — more than six months after it signed a contract calling for it to provide 13,400 guards — that it would not be able to meet its commitments.
“We deeply regret that,” he said. “We are deeply disappointed.”
The picture that has emerged has been one of haphazard planning going back several years. The original contract with G4S provided for only 2,000 guards, and a relatively small military contingent.
Those plans underwent a radical overhaul in December, in part, officials say, because of pressure from the United States in the form of warnings about vulnerability to terrorist attacks that came from a specialized team of FBI and CIA officials. A Cabinet committee chaired by Cameron, known as COBRA, approved a fivefold increase in the number of private guards to be recruited by G4S, and a similar increase in police and military deployments.
According to British newspaper accounts, people who claim to have inside knowledge of G4S operations say the company delayed recruiting, training and deploying guards for as long as possible so as to limit the losses involved in having guards — most of them earning $13 an hour — “sitting around” and waiting for the Olympic sites to become active, as many have in the past week.
On Saturday, Buckles, the G4S boss, said the company had deployed 4,000 trained guards, but could not say how long it might take to complete the training and security-vetting of another 9,000 that it had in the pipeline. He said the company has promised to pay the costs of the additional military deployments, and expected to incur an $80 million loss on the Olympic contract.
As for the competence in English of the guards already deployed, he said he was “pretty sure” they could speak English well, “but I cannot say categorically as I sit here today.”
On Saturday, a key part of the military planning to intercept potential terrorist attacks, involving ground-to-air missile batteries ringing the Olympic park and an strike force of supersonic Typhoon jet fighters and Puma helicopters carrying snipers, went operational at a Royal Air Force base at Northolt, about 15 miles from the Olympic park in northwest London. The Typhoon pilots were placed on a 24-hour “readiness” status that requires at least one crew to be seated in their cockpit at all times.
It has been left to Boris Johnson, London’s recently re-elected mayor and a man renowned for his Panglossian optimism about the Olympics, to find redeeming elements in a situation that has many Britons struggling with feelings of frustration and embarrassment. Meeting with reporters touring the Olympic park as the scale of the security mess became clear, he declared that things were “infinitely better” than they were in 1948, when London last hosted the Olympics. “We couldn’t even afford to build the venues,” he said. “Can you believe that?”
New York Times