Reporter’s Stint in Palace Exposes Security Lapses
It turns out that the best way for someone to penetrate the suffocating cordon of London’s Metropolitan Police, Royal Protection officers and Secret Service agents ringing Buckingham Palace during President Bush’s state visit to Britain is simply to apply for a job as a royal footman.
That’s how tabloid newspaper reporter Ryan Parry cracked the security, landing a job as an aide to Queen Elizabeth II that allowed him into the palace’s inner sanctum. Parry was hired as a footman after a Buckingham Palace security check failed to spot him as a tabloid journalist, just eight weeks before Bush’s arrival and what has been described in Britain as an unprecedented police operation to protect a visiting head of state.
Wearing a footman’s uniform that he described as “my passport to royal residences,” Parry wrote that he watched from a palace window Tuesday as the queen and Prince Philip greeted the president and first lady when the Americans stepped from a U.S. Marine helicopter in the garden of Buckingham Palace.
“Had I been a terrorist intent on assassinating the queen or President George Bush, I could have done so with absolute ease,” the reporter wrote Wednesday in his 15-page expose of royal security in the Daily Mirror.
Parry chose to leave the palace late Tuesday night -- saying only that he was fearful of sparking a real security scare. But had he stayed at his post, he wrote, his scheduled duties for the week included serving breakfast to national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. He was also expected to pour champagne at Wednesday evening’s state banquet.
It was a humiliating security breach for both the palace and the British government, which immediately announced an investigation into how a reporter could get close enough to the queen, as Parry said, to serve her breakfast (“I could have easily poisoned the monarch,” Parry wrote). The embarrassment was compounded by the fact that the White House and the Met, as the London police force is known, have been locked in a clash of policing cultures in the run-up to the Bush visit.
In its public statements, the Met made it clear that it favored a less intrusive security presence than was being sought by the White House. British police have a tradition of “softer” policing -- its regular officers do not carry guns, for one thing -- and Met Commissioner John Stevens made pointed public promises that anti-Bush demonstrators would not be kept unreasonable distances from routes being traveled by the president.
There were also stories -- allegedly leaked to the British media by police and the palace -- claiming that the queen had vetoed White House requests to bolster the walls of Buckingham Palace to withstand high-powered explosives, and for a Black Hawk helicopter to hover overhead whenever the Bushes were in residence. The media reports created the perception that the White House was attempting to dictate overly stringent security measures to the British.
When Tory lawmaker Michael Portillo warned Bush in an open letter to the Guardian newspaper that he was right to organize his own security because “I don’t think you could have relied on [British police] to protect you against the real thing,” he was publicly chastised by Deputy Commissioner Andy Trotter of the Met. “We can put security on that is second to none,” Trotter shot back on the eve of the Bush visit. “It is equal to anywhere else in the world.”
Portillo’s skepticism was based on a security breach at Prince William’s 21st birthday party in June, when Aaron Barschak, a comedian known as the “Comedy Terrorist,” scaled the walls at Windsor Castle. Dressed as Osama bin Laden, Barschak strolled past police officers at the door and was able to jump onto the stage and grab a microphone away from William as he was making a speech.
The debacle prompted both the government and the Met to commission a review of royal security. And it was to test whether improvements had been made that the Mirror decided in August to see how far inside the palace its reporter could get.
Just about all the way, it turns out. Reporter Parry applied for a $20,000-a-year footman’s job he spotted on the palace’s Web site, submitted a resume that omitted the fact that he was a tabloid journalist and included one real and one invented reference name.
He got the job.
By late September, he also had a security clearance.
Criminal checks on Parry had been carried out “robustly and correctly,” Home Secretary David Blunkett said Wednesday, though Parry says “the palace even accepted a character reference over the telephone from a regular at the pub where I used to work as a barman.”
“The employment checks,” Blunkett acknowledged, “proved insufficient.”
Within days, the 26-year-old reporter said, he had access to almost all areas of the palace. He was shown where the keys to the royal apartments were kept and how to position the marmalade on the table for the queen’s breakfast. He delivered notes to her when she was alone, he said. And he carried bags into the palace past security guards who never -- in his eight weeks on the job -- bothered to open one.
Parry also took a camera in and out of the palace, emerging with photos of the Belgian Suite where the Bushes are spending three nights, as well as pictures of Prince Andrew’s private rooms. “I was in the room long enough to plant a bomb or a listening device,” Parry said of his access to Andrew’s apartment.
The palace and British government did not address the details Parry offered of his time in the palace.
The White House refused to be drawn into discussing the tabloid sting. “We have every confidence in British security,” spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.
For its part, Buckingham Palace said it had not ruled out suing the Mirror, alleging a breach of the confidentiality clause that all royal employees must sign.