BELFAST, Northern Ireland – It was Northern Ireland’s largest security operation in a decade, a demonstration of local police power intended to protect a visiting VIP: the president of the United States.
But sensitive details of the security operation unexpectedly spilled into public view on Wednesday when a man identified only as “Bill” discovered a police planning document lying on a Belfast street.
The document, discovered near the hotel where President Joe Biden was staying, included the names and phone numbers of police officers involved in the operation, as well as the streets where they were deployed and other information such as street closures and security measures to detect hostile vehicles.
“It sounds a bit crazy, but it’s true,” the man known as “Bill” said during an interview with The Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster.
The discovery of the Police Service of Northern Ireland document triggered a security breach that embarrassed law enforcement officials but did not disrupt other carefully choreographed events on the first day of Biden’s three-day visit to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
Further fueling concerns, the security lapse was uncovered as the terrorism threat in Northern Ireland had been raised to “severe” ahead of Biden’s visit.
Biden departed Belfast as scheduled on Wednesday and traveled without incident to Dublin, where he will finish the remainder of his trip.
How did a security document end up on a Belfast street?
The U.S. Secret Service downplayed the seriousness of the security breach and expressed its trust in local authorities.
“While we do not discuss the specifics of any protective operation, the president’s movements were not affected by these reports,” the agency said in a statement.
Jocelyn Keaveny, the Secret Service’s special agent-in-charge of the Paris Field Office who is overseeing the Biden visit, called the Police Service of Northern Ireland a “dedicated partner” in the security effort.
“The Secret Service relies on partnerships to provide the highest level of dignitary protection in the world,” Keaveny said. “We remain grateful for their ongoing support during the president’s visit.”
How the document ended up on a Belfast street remains a mystery. But a law enforcement official who briefed reporters speculated that it may have fallen out of a local police officer’s pocket.
What’s more, the security lapse illustrated how weeks of careful planning involving the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies can quickly be disrupted by something as simple as a misplaced piece of paper.
The Northern Ireland security operation, code-named “Op Rondoletto,” involved weeks of planning and nearly 3,000 local police officers. The planning document, which carried the all-caps heading “OFFICIAL SENSITIVE,” didn’t include any information about the operations of the Secret Service, which oversees the president’s security during foreign trips, or its security plan.
Most of Belfast’s city center was barricaded off to residents during Biden’s visit marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland.
Belfast is a city with a long history of violence. Just days before Biden’s arrival, police disrupted a potential bombing attack targeted for Londonderry, Northern Ireland, by members of the New IRA, a paramilitary group affiliated with the Irish Republican Army, according to The Belfast Telegraph.
The report said there was no evidence to suggest that Biden was the target of the bombing plot but that the group intended to carry out the attack during his visit.
Biden touched upon the city’s violent past during his speech Wednesday at Ulster University in Belfast. The president specifically mentioned the attempted murder of John Caldwell, a police detective who was shot in March. Northern Ireland law enforcement believe the attack was carried about by the New IRA.
“Northern Ireland will not go back, pray to God,” Biden said.
Police stand guard outside the hotel where President Joe Biden will stay in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday. Biden is visiting Northern Ireland and Ireland to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.© Christophe Ena, AP
Secret Service has faced security challenges
The Secret Service has faced its share of security challenges during the Biden administration, including successfully navigating the president’s surprise visit to Ukraine in February ahead of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
The Ukraine visit was kept secret because of security concerns, part of an operation that the White House said had been ”meticulously planned” for months.
Last September, when Biden traveled to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral, the Secret Service was forced to deal with an unusual demand when the British government advised dignitaries to avoid taking private transportation and said they would be escorted to the service in buses.
When Biden travels, domestically or abroad, he typically arrives aboard Air Force One. If transportation is needed when the president’s plane lands or circumstances do not allow him to take the aircraft, he travels in the heavily armored black presidential limousine known as The Beast or climbs aboard Marine One, the presidential helicopter.
In the U.K., it’s not unusual for senior members of the royal family to be bused into crowded areas for important events. But the idea of the leader of the free world hopping a bus to a major event raised concerns not only about his own security but also about the safety of other leaders who would potentially be riding with him.
In the end, the British government allowed Biden to take The Beast to the service at Westminster Abbey. Other world leaders shared a bus.
©Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police document detailing President Biden’s security information found on Belfast street