A lack of discretion

23Apr13

There’s been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking over last week’s shutdown of Boston during the pursuit of terror suspects. I have my own opinions about what went on, but don’t feel this is the time or place to get into that.

The point of this post is to examine whether if many (or even any) of the people involved really had that much discretion. If there was a common sense path to be taken, then was it even permissible to take that path? I’ll illustrate with a personal anecdote of a terrorist attack that never was.

My last appointment in the Royal Navy was as a section officer at HMS Collingwood, which at the time was the RN school of Communications and Weapon Engineering (it is now much more besides). My day job was to manage all of the training relating to Type 22 Frigates, but one of the delights of military service is additional ‘duties’. The main duty I was expected to perform at Collingwood was Officer of the Day (OOD) – the officer responsible for the safety and discipline of everybody at the base (in the absence of the usual chain of command when everybody else packed up for the day at 4pm and headed home).

A typical day for an OOD was mostly ceremonial – Rounds (making sure that the new trainees were keeping good order), Sunset (saluting whilst somebody pulled a flag down), and Colours (saluting some more whilst somebody pulled the flag back up). The safety and security stuff was mostly taken care of my a sizeable contingent of (armed) Ministry of Defence (MoD) guards and MoD policemen who would patrol the perimeter and interior of the base and inspect the identities and vehicles of those passing in and out.

Late one night I got a call. A routine perimeter patrol had turned up something the policemen weren’t happy with. In a field next to the base (not too far from the perimeter fence) was a large flat bed truck with a huge electrical transformer on it. My presence was demanded to evaluate what was going on.

The truck was clearly out of place, off a proper road. It also had foreign plates. Attempts were made to contact the trucker who might be sleeping inside, no answer[1]. Attempts were made to call the trucking company, no answer (though it was no surprise that nobody was answering the phone somewhere in Spain during the early hours of their morning). The civilian police were contacted to see if they could scare up any information about the truck, but that was going to take hours. It soon became clear that the truck wasn’t going anywhere quick, and we weren’t learning any more about it any time soon.

The policemen were concerned that the transformer could be a disguised mortar launcher. I was certain it wasn’t. My analysis was thus:

  • As a frontline engineering officer my team was responsible for all manner of electrical conversion equipment. I knew what the real thing looked like.
  • The tubes at the centre of the transformer (that the policemen were most bothered about) were pointed straight up. Mortars have to be pointed at something.

The transformer was much larger than this, but this cutaway gives a good illustration of how a big transformer might have large pipes running through the middle

I had a decision to make. I could either:

  • Play it ‘safe’, treat this situation as a terrorist attack in progress, and evacuate the base[2].
    or
  • Use judgement based on over half a decade of training (and latterly teaching) in areas of weapon system design (manufactured and improvised), explosives and (battle) damage control to determine that I wasn’t looking at a weapon system for some terrorist plot, tell everybody to stand down, and go back to bed.

I chose to stand down. The MoD policemen kept a close eye on the truck through the night.

Nothing happened.

I think the trucker might have had a talking to when he finally emerged at first light from the back of his cab and tried to figure out where he was supposed to be going[3].

I got more than a talking to when the Base Security Officer (BSO) grabbed me after the morning Colours (pulling up the flag) ceremony. The message was clear – how dare I use my discretion and professional judgement when there was an element of risk involved. I should have evacuated the base and kicked off a major police and military operation. The cost and inconvenience were as irrelevant as my opinions. I should have erred on the side of caution.

The BSO then let me into a little secret. He was privy to some intelligence reports from a few years back (which had never been used to brief front line officers like myself) relating to an IRA plot to bomb electricity substations around London in an attempt to disrupt the capital. Aha. It was all clear then – if a terror group once tried to blow up some transformers, then we should be extra scarred of transformers blowing up. How could I argue with logic like that? I thanked him for his trust and insight and returned (bewildered and late) to my desk and business as usual. A few thousand other people were already getting on with their day as usual because I’d made the wrong call.

Conclusion

I used my common sense, my judgement, my discretion and I got in trouble for it[4] – even though that type of decision was exactly why we had an Officer of the Day in the first place. I’m sure many of my colleagues would have called it differently – particularly those lacking front line experience or easily bullied by the gun toting security types. I’m also sure I made the right call based on what I saw in front of me, and what I knew. The trouble is that every incident like this becomes a lesson not just for one person on duty, but whole groups of them – discretion will get you into trouble, don’t take any risks, play it safe; and progressively we eliminate discretion – even from the hands of those that do know better.

Notes

[1] If I was a lost trucker parked in the middle of nowhere I’d probably ignore any commotion outside and hope it went away.
[2] It should be noted that this was back in the early days of the Northern Ireland peace process. After almost a decade in service I was finally allowed to wear my uniform in public without fear of being bombed or shot at, but the old habits and attitudes died hard (on both sides), and dissident terror groups were still active. Mortar launched bombs had been a frequent tool of choice for attacks against military and police bases in Northern Ireland, but had never been used on the mainland.
[3] One of my other considerations was my own recollection of my first visit to Collingwood – driving around in the dark along unlit peninsular roads with farmland on either side (in the days before mobile phones and consumer GPS) – it was all too easy to go from motorway to completely lost.
[4] I’ll never know if this episode was a ‘career limiting move’. I was already serving out my (substantial) notice period with an eye on a future life in IT management. It was therefore hard to get too bothered about a chewing out from a retired officer who chose to still wear his old uniform to work each day (even if he did happen to send his concerns up the chain of command).



2 Responses to “A lack of discretion”

  1. 1 Martin

    Thanks Chris, your blog is one of the only ones I regularly follow and like to read about your insights many others lack, your projects, food, and other stuff..


  1. 1 Boston Bombing Investigation: Intel Failure? No. Bad Expectation-Setting? Oh, yeah. | Police-Led Intelligence

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