“I have stood here before inside the pouring rain, with the world turning circles running round my brain.” -Words from King of Pain by the Police
It is said that part of Sting’s inspiration for the song King of Pain was James Bond, as he wrote the song while he was staying at Ian Fleming’s house in Jamaica. This song became my unofficial theme during my 12 years in the United States Secret Service. I have stood in stairwells, loading docks, hallways, fields, kitchens and other lonely places for hours because the President was going to walk nearby in a few hours. There were times I thought I was losing my mind counting the tiles on the floor.
I also have stood backstage with other members of the Counter Assault Team (CAT) while the President spoke to roaring crowds. CAT is a highly selective Secret Service tactical unit with rigorous physical, marksmanship and tactical standards, and I felt fortunate to be there. While on CAT, I was able to train and work with world’s most elite military special operations and law enforcement units. I have also participated in and been directly responsible for the planning of several National Special Security Events (NSSEs), including Inaugurations, major party conventions, and world leader summits.
So when crazy Inauguration Security stories began to go viral on the internet, I could only laugh and shake my head. The story about the Agent’s fake arms was especially amusing and I hit up Jack on that highly overrated social networking website called LinkedIn and asked if I could offer a few thoughts. He graciously accepted.
So if you have ever wondered about what goes on behind the scenes with Presidential security, here are three things about Presidential Security from a “Guy That’s Been There”:
1. For every agent you see on TV, there are 10 you don’t
Everyone always focuses on the Agents around the President. These Agents are members of the Presidential Protection Division, or PPD. In Europe it is called “Close Protection,” but in the Secret Service it’s called “The Shift.” I won’t reveal how many Agents are on “The Shift” on SOFREP, but “The Shift’s” job is to cover and evacuate the President. The basic tactic of the shift is “Maximum To The Protectee, Minimum to the Problem.”
If the mission of “The Shift” is to put “Maximum to the Protectee, Minimum to the Problem,” CAT does the opposite. CAT’s basic mission is to divert, suppress and neutralize any threats to allow the shift enough time to cover and evacuate.
All of the other Secret Service units around “The Shift” are there to support them so that in event of an emergency, they can cover and evacuate the President to a hard room or a waiting armored car.
Being on “The Shift” is glamorous, and sexy. You are always on camera and in the Press shots. On CAT we used to joke about “The Shift” saying it was mostly hair gel, high heels and cufflinks. But for every agent you see around the President, there are 10 agents standing in long hallways, hot smelly kitchens, busy loading docks, dark parking garages, and other very lonely and less glamorous posts. Usually these agents have been standing there for several hours, just waiting for the President to arrive at the event.
If you are unlucky enough to get one of these posts, your feet usually start hurting after about an hour, and you’ll be lucky to be get a break and eat. “The Shift” always arrives in air-conditioned or heated comfort with the President, and someone else carries their bags. They usually eat very well and are well-rested. I have flown on Air Force One a few times and the food is very good. I once flew back from a war zone trip on the Air Force One backup plane and the only people on the flight were Air Force flight attendants, me, and other members of CAT. We had the entire plane to ourselves. We watched movies that weren’t out yet in the theaters, ate like kings, drank Yuengling, and marveled at how “The Shift” lived day-to-day.
On a side note, I heard stories from CAT guys S.H. and S.L. about the time they flew around the United States with a former U.S. President on the Google private jet. Supposedly, according to them, that jet rivals Air Force One, minus the communications capabilities. And parts of their story are NSFW and not appropriate for here, but buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you. Let’s just say that apparently it is a requirement to work on the Google plane that you must be single, female and a super model.
2. Protection is mostly preparation
For a simple in and out visit to a government or other building, the advance agent will most likely spend a week at that location. Every aspect of the building is studied, including the structure, year the building was built, elevators, electrical systems, fire alarms, etc…nothing is left to chance.
The bigger the event, the more planning is required. An event like an inauguration takes months to plan, some events even require a year or more of planning. Even though the inauguration happens every 4 years, things change. Roads close, buildings are demolished, and that roof that was used last year for rooftop surveillance is now gone.
I was directly involved in numerous NSSEs, and for two I was the Lead Tactical Coordinator. I sat through more boring planning meetings than I could count. Usually the planning meetings involved senior members of every U.S. Government Agency you could think of taking turns talking about how prepared their individual agency is for the event.
When the usually useless meeting was over, I met with privately with members of whatever tactical unit was supporting us. I often would work with a member of a U.S. Military Special Mission Unit (SMU), Special Forces Unit or the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). Sometimes I would with work state and local tactical units.
Planning and working with the U.S. Military was very easy as nothing was lost in translation, and we often spoke with same language. Talking to a member of a local or state police tactical team about interoperable capabilities, deviation checklists, call signs, tactical 12 O’clock, rally points, alternate landing zones, communications, uniforms, markings, night ops capability etc, often took a lot of explaining. Having these type conversations with a member of the Army SMU, HRT or DEVGRU was very easy.
Having them with members of the Mississippi Highway Patrol was not.
For very large events, like the Inauguration, there are numerous tabletop exercises and tactical rehearsal exercises. During the rehearsal exercises, there would be an attack of some sort, sometimes there would be a lone gunman, sometimes there would be multiple attackers, and sometimes there would be a CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) attack. Prior to the tactical rehearsal, we usually purposely didn’t know what was going to happen.
During one tactical rehearsal scenario, a member of HRT and I painfully watched another tactical team walk in a perfect CQB style stack to the their deaths trying to assault through a position involving an armed subject firing a belt fed machine gun from an elevated position. Basic infantry tactics, like fire and maneuver, and “I’m Up, He Sees Me, I’m Down,” are sometimes not taught to SWAT teams.
In another tactical rehearsal scenario involving a lone gunmen, the local tactical team decided to set up a perimeter, and call Hostage Negotiators, rather than assault the gunmen’s position. There was a lot of back and forth on the radio about this decision, and they refused to move and assault the location of the lone shooter. A “Harvard Debate Society” meeting began on the radio and there was a stalemate.
Meanwhile, “Mr I Hate America, ” was continuing to fire at the President. We had to end the training scenario because of the stalemate between the tactical units. During the hotwash, it was revealed that it was official policy of this agency is to do a “surround and call out” for situations involving an armed barricaded subject.
They were only following their policy, (i.e. rules of engagement). I am not being critical of this tactical unit here, they actually are arguably one of the best police tactical units in the world. I only bring this incident up to demonstrate that these types of difficulties and misunderstandings have to be discussed and ironed out PRIOR to the event. It is too late to have tactical discussions and Harvard Debate Society meetings once an emergency or assault on the President begins.
3. Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics
A detail leader on “The Shift,” and former member of CAT, once told me this statement while I was conducting a tactical advance at the Vatican in Rome, Italy. This particular tactical advance involved multiple airlifts, motorcades and tactical units. I hate tactical clichés, and I cringe when I hear someone use them, especially during briefings. One overused tactical cliché used often by Secret Service Agents is, “There are a lot of moving parts.” This visit to the Vatican had “a lot of moving parts.”
There are a of lot logistics for Presidential visits. For large events like the inauguration, the Secret Service will spin up an entire logistical section. There are tents to reserve for screening areas, military EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and K-9 teams and agents from the Secret Service field offices to request, buses to reserve for event attendees, roads to close, traffic checkpoints, and the list goes on and on. And don’t forget someone has to reserve and pay for hotel rooms for the hundreds of Secret Service Field Agents, agents from other Federal Agencies, and military EOD teams.
Someone also has to coordinate with the myriad of federal agencies responsible for various aspects of the event. Agencies I have never heard of participate in these large events, and the Secret Service is responsible for the coordination between the agencies.
A great security plan is only as good the logistics. The worse a– chewing I ever received in the Secret Service happened because of simple logistical error. It happened when I was doing a temporary assignment on the CAT Operations Desk. I was responsible for logistics for the various CAT operators that were at any given time deployed around the world on protection assignments. One day, there was a last-minute time change to the arrival of the President to Andrews Air Force base. Air Force One had made up some time in the air and the President was going to arrive an hour earlier than expected.
I don’t exactly remember what I was doing at the time when I was notified of the change. I think I probably had two or three phones ringing at the same time, with one CAT guy on hold, all while trying to answer an email. I probably simply wrote the wrong updated arrival time down.
The CAT team assigned to the President that day arrived at Andrews and began loading up their rifles and putting their kits on as the plane landed. They thought they had plenty of time prior to the President’s arrival. One of them looked up and said, “Guys I think that’s Air Force One. We’re late.”
The President’s life was never in any danger, and CAT could have easily responded to any threats at the airport. The CAT team rushed to gear up and took up their positions around the plane according to the standard landing procedures of Air Force One. They all understand that these things happen and no one complained.
No one would have noticed, except a PPD Supervisor looked out the window and noticed that CAT was not on the runway in the exact spot they were supposed to be as the plane landed. This particular PPD Supervisor was not a big fan of CAT and he took the opportunity to send an email to Secret Service Headquarters expressing his extreme displeasure with the CAT program, and its failure to be at Andrews on time.
The email sent by the unhappy PPD Supervisor quickly made its way to the Special Agent in Charge (SAIC) of the Special Operations Division of the Secret Service. The SAIC was about several levels up the chain of command from me, and was the equivalent of a colonel or captain of a unit in the military.
When I saw his name on my caller ID, I knew something was wrong, as a SAIC would never call an agent at home after hours. I was at home later that evening when I took the call. The SAIC never raised his voice or cursed during the subsequent phone conversation, but he proceeded to make me feel extremely insignificant and explained in detail my logistical error. CAT was trying to improve its image and relationships with other divisions in the Secret Service, especially PPD. My minor logistical error didn’t help those efforts. The SAIC ended that phone conversation with, “You have a nice night son,” and hung up.
I have never forgot that important lesson in logistics.
William Gage is a law enforcement professional in the Washington, DC metro area where he serves as a SWAT and Field Training Officer. From 2002-2013, he was a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service He has participated in hundreds of protective missions, and has done numerous foreign and domestic protective advances for the President, Vice-President, and others. William also served as the Lead Tactical Advance Agent for National Special Security Events (NSSEs), and served as a Team Leader on the elite Counter Assault Team (CAT). William also works as an active shooter and security consultant with several companies, and has given numerous public presentations about active shooter awareness, training, preparation, and business continuity planning. He has appeared on various media outlets including CNN and CSPAN. He has written for several law enforcement and security journals, to include Law Officer, Police One, and Tactical Solutions Magazine. He holds a B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, and an M.A. from Boston University.