While it is common knowledge that the president of the United States is protected by the Secret Service, the commander in chief is far from the only key government official who is safeguarded by a protective detail. Although the names and faces of those being protected may change, the severity of the challenging mission does not.
Imagine traveling halfway around the world to an unfamiliar city in a country where you don’t speak the language. Jet-lagged and struggling to adjust to the time difference, nothing sounds better than a quick power nap. Unfortunately, there’s no time for rest. Duty calls and in a matter of moments you’re behind the wheel of an armor-plated vehicle. Halfway to your destination, a small group of disgruntled locals begins to surround your vehicle, bang on its exterior and completely blocks your planned route.
While many people would turn around and flee with a purpose, that’s not an option because you’re transporting the director of national intelligence. Armed with your wealth of training and experience, you must make a split-second decision to safely remove “America’s top spy” from this potentially volatile situation.
Clearly, the life of a protective agent isn’t for the faint of heart. In the Intelligence Community, these dedicated individuals are the first line of defense for the country’s top agencies. Providing personal security for a senior leader requires the right mix of brains, brawn and finesse.
“More than being a professional wrestler with an earpiece, you need to be able to think on your feet and make decisions on the fly,” said Samuel T., who came to ODNI as a protective agent in November 2016. “You need to constantly evaluate a situation, decide on a course of action and execute.”
While Hollywood has conditioned viewers to expect a protective agent — played by Gerard Butler or Channing Tatum, of course — to jump out of the vehicle and thwart the locals with a series of well-choreographed punches and kicks, that’s not always a realistic answer to resolving a situation.
“In my opinion, this job is more of a thinking man’s kind of game because you have to be ready to react and do your job,” Samuel said. “For the most part, people don’t have bad intentions so you have to be able to recognize that and not escalate a situation that wasn’t going anywhere. You’re a representative of the U.S. government. If you just react to everything as if it were a threat, it could be a huge issue.”
The Protective Agents Course is designed to provide a foundation in tactics and communication. The first seven days are dedicated to the basics — what protection is, what positions agents occupy upon graduation, etc.
Once students have a baseline understanding of the fundamentals, they move on to multiple weeks of firearms training. Up next, students learn defensive tactics and combatives followed by surveillance detection and counter-surveillance training. Students then learn the basics of tactical combat casualty care, which Charles Cash, a course instructor, believes is the most important portion of the course.
“Not only are we teaching them how to take and defend lives, but we’re also teaching them how to protect and heal,” he said. “That section of the course has produced a lot of positive results downrange for us when we get into bad situations.”
From there, it’s on to driving, personnel recovery and a field training exercise that is a culmination of everything they’ve learned since day one. With so many different areas covered during the action-packed course, students must prove their versatility and show an ability to think on their feet.
“What I want to dispel right off the bat is that you need to be Special Forces or a former Navy SEAL to do this job,” said Kevin Wong, deputy chief of Directors’ Protective Staff. “Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of officers with those characteristics. However that, in my opinion, doesn’t automatically make for the ideal protective agent. We need men and women with great judgment and decision-making abilities.”
According to Wong, the most successful candidates are often in good overall physical, mental and emotional condition and, just as importantly, are team players willing to work long hours with ever-changing schedules.
“More than being a professional wrestler with an earpiece, you need to be able to think on your feet and make decisions on the fly. You need to constantly evaluate a situation, decide on a course of action and execute.”
- Samuel T., protective agent
“Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, but together we are stronger,” he said. “We may have somebody who is extremely strong tactically, but what about technically? I need that same superior strength in order to build the perfect team, which is why teamwork and flexibility are extremely important to me.”
In a perfect world, protective agents would never have to use force to resolve a situation. Instead, they would ideally use a combination of situational awareness, strong interpersonal skills and the ability to tactfully negotiate conflict to de-escalate a potential volatile interaction. Many of the intense training scenarios students face during the course don’t take place in a perfect world and are designed to take students out of their comfort zone.
That is no accident, according to Cash, who said the challenging situations students encounter ensure those who graduate are best prepared to handle whatever comes their way on the job.
“We’re looking for good judgment,” he said. “We’re looking for, with that judgment, decisiveness. Because the thing is, the unique aspect of this job is when it goes bad, people are going to look to us to be the leaders. So leadership is a huge aspect. We want natural leaders. We want officers to step up, take control of the situation and then put forth good solutions to the problems. They may not be perfect solutions, but they’re the solutions that are going to get them out of there.”
EMBRACING THE GRIND
Wong said they are always searching for motivated and talented individuals interested in career opportunities in protective operations. Successful candidates primarily support various protective operations at the direction of the director of ODNI or the Central Intelligence Agency, which means that protective agents can expect long hours and to travel extensively as they perform sensitive operations worldwide.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge, the shift work and having to work on weekends and holidays, but I think they do a pretty good job of trying to mitigate that to the best possible extent,” Samuel said. “Sometimes you’re going to be tired. Sometimes you’re going to work 10, 15, 20 consecutive days without a day off.”
Traveling around the globe with senior government officials and experiencing life in a way that few people are able to more than makes up for the demanding schedule, as far as Samuel is concerned.
“You get compensated pretty well for your work and you get to encounter some really neat stuff. I mean, it’s a lot of fun and you work with a great group of people,” he added.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
As Samuels’ Protective Agents Course class was preparing to graduate last fall, they received an unexpected treat — a visit from one of the individuals they are charged to protect.
With his time as the director of national intelligence winding down, James Clapper sat down with the students in November to share his invaluable perspective on what they do and how it affected him.
“What happened with me was, I got used to the agents. I got to know them and then, all of the sudden, they were leaving for their next assignment,” he said. “At first, that was kind of upsetting to me because — like it or not — your protective detail becomes a part of your extended family.
“You get to be friends and become attached to these people, and then they go off and leave,” Clapper continued. “I think it’s a good thing for career purposes because you don’t want to spend your entire life doing this, but I would think it’s a great experience.”
“What I want to dispel right off the bat is that you need to be Special Forces or a former Navy SEAL to do this job. Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of officers with those characteristics. However that, in my opinion, doesn’t automatically make for the ideal protective agent. We need men and women with great judgment and decision-making abilities.”
- Kevin Wong, deputy chief of Directors’ Protective Staff
Not surprisingly, the room was completely silent as Clapper shared his personal experiences regarding executive protection. That’s because, while protective agents are always nearby in proximity, there is also a certain distance between them and the person they must protect. The demands involved with being the director of national intelligence — or a member of his protective staff, for that matter — make in-depth conversations, or even small talk, virtually impossible.
That is why Clapper’s informal visit was so impactful to those in attendance. The students and instructors clearly understood how priceless the information was and all were more than happy to listen for as long as the DNI was able to stick around.
“I think it’s the most valuable thing those students could ever have,” said Wong. “First off, he’s an amazing intelligence officer with more than 50 years of experience, which is incredible. But then you have that principal, who has had several different types of protections outline his experiences, talking about what he liked, what he didn’t like, what he noticed, what he didn’t notice. That was really, really key.”
“It was even key for me,” Wong added. “Having had private conversations with him, there were times when we thought all hell was breaking loose behind the scenes, but we managed to make it seamless for him, which was great.”
Even after students graduate from the Protective Agents Course and move on to their assignments, they still have ample opportunities to learn. At ODNI, for example, protective agents go through additional on-the-job training upon arrival.
Once the probationary period concludes though, it doesn’t mean opportunities to learn and grow halt. With a demanding mission that often requires split-second decisions in real time, as well as ever-evolving threats, protective agents can never truly rest on their laurels. With that in mind, Samuels has a few words of advice to new protective agents.
“To be successful in this job, I think it has a lot to do with your attitude,” he said. “You have to have a good attitude, be willing to do what needs to be done and do the best job that you can.”