The Chinese were flustered recently when two British and two American protesters managed to unfurl a huge ‘Free Tibet’ banner on top a massive pole in Beijing.  The banner must have been a pretty substantial roll of fabric. How did the protesters manage to move it to somewhere prominent, then set and unfurl it on a high pole without being detected?  One cannot deny the efforts the Chinese have committed to preventing this occurring, which casts some doubt upon the ‘throw as much manpower at the problem as you can manage’ model.  This is a model in use in the Western world; you see it a lot among huge police departments like the Metropolitan Police in London and the NYPD in the USA who can afford to throw masses of manpower at a problem.

The protest in Beijing provides last minute lessons for security planners at the Democratic and Republican national conventions in Denver and Minneapolis.

First, there should be strong resistance to the idea that you can protect against all threats. You simply cannot harden every target. This is not a matter of willpower or conviction. The truth is that there are limited resources and they must be used strategically. Even throwing masses of manpower at a problem will not suffice because the resource that ends up being spread most thinly is money, not personnel. All the personnel in the world, without the proper equipment and training, are of little help.

Additionally, experience and risk doctrine tell us that disasters, including man-made ones, can occur from effective offensive planning – or a co-incidence of events that no one anticipated. Security plans must provide for unknown contingencies – for example, a situation in which the response to a supposed attack is, in actuality, the true target of attack. In Northern Ireland this was a common practice.

Finally, planners should treat security as a matter of a criminal matter rather than a terrorism matter. Indeed, I believe that terrorism should always be treated as a criminal matter. Protesting may hide a more nefarious purpose, but it may not.

Protesters must be able to protest freely and effectively; otherwise, we risk turning such protests in Denver or Minneapolis into Beijing, an analogy that you can be sure a raft of editorial and op-ed writers are itching to use during the Convention season.

Trained terrorist organizations seek to win popular support by provoking governments into over-reaction — shutting down freedoms and liberties, and otherwise taking actions that open them to charges of tyranny. By being fully prepared for all contingencies, while also maintaining proper respect for the law and civil liberties and the reasonable (meaning restrained) use of force, governments and security planners eliminate one of the most powerful tactics of terrorist organizations.

We can only hope that Denver and Minneapolis are truly prepared for every threat, and that every part of the law enforcement and intelligence community are aimed at all threats without segregating them into “criminal” and “national security” threats — for specialisation is the route to cracks and differences. Such cracks and differences present opportunities for both activist protestors and terrorist organizations to exploit. And we may not always be able to tell the difference.