By Michael A. Gips
Lessons from the field: What an editor learned from a week at an intensive executive protection program.
I’m on my first mission, and it’s already going horribly wrong, thanks to a misplaced jacket, a broken elevator, sloppy handwriting, and a thick Caribbean accent.
Let me explain. Along with 36 current and aspiring security professionals, I’m nearing the end of an intensive course in executive protection (EP) training put on by R.L. Oatman & Associates in Towson, Maryland.
The sojourn spans seven days and 80 hours, most of it at our base at a Holiday Inn. From the instant the course begins, it’s clear that the corporate EP specialist’s duties are more personal service than Secret Service, more clock management than Glock management.
It’s the fifth day, and the class has been placed on its first protective detail, one in which we must protect our designated bosses—known in EP-speak as principals—for the next several hours. The task calls for conjuring up the barrage of information and techniques we’ve accumulated and spinning them into a graceful choreography that requires the combined skills of an executive assistant, a valet, an EMT, a chauffeur, a guardian angel, and, if need be, a superhero.
Students are grouped in teams of four. Mine consists of Dave, an equable ex-cop who now runs a protective detail for a Fortune 500 company in St. Louis; Doc, a terse Kentuckian who drives for Dave’s corporate detail; Andrew, a soft-spoken Trinidadian who works for the island’s Ministry of National Security; and me, a security journalist with zero operational experience. Course leader Bob Oatman plays the executive we must protect.
I’m in the driveway of the Holiday Inn, biding time in my car with Andrew as Dave retrieves our charge. I’ll be driving just ahead of the boss’s black armored Cadillac DeVille on a 45-minute trip from Towson, a suburb north of Baltimore, to Annapolis.
Suddenly, I realize that I left my sports jacket in my hotel room. We’ve been told that EP specialists should mirror their bosses in appearance, and Oatman always dresses nattily. He is expected to arrive at any moment, but I risk running upstairs anyway to retrieve the jacket. Big mistake.
Dashing into the hotel I remember that one of the elevators is broken, and a slew of people are waiting for the dawdling second elevator. I opt for the stairs, but they can only be accessed by going outside and around the building.
Taking two, three, four stairs at a time, I reach my room on the sixth floor, out of breath. I grab my jacket, fly back down the stairs, jump outside, turn the corner and…the Cadillac’s gone. Andrew’s waiting at my car. “They left,” he says. I had already lost my principal.
They can’t be far, I say, still hopeful that the mission can be salvaged.
Andrew has the MapQuest directions that I had obtained from a work colleague and scribbled down earlier when we were told where we would be driving our principal. Andrew begins to read the directions aloud, but through his soft, thickly accented voice drowned out by the engine, I can barely make out his words: “Go 29 miles on 955.”
955? There is no Route 955. Luckily, I recall the actual directions: “2.9 miles on 95S(outh).” This is when I realize that we’re on the edge of disaster. We’ve lost our principal, Andrew can’t read my handwriting, I can’t penetrate his accent, and he can’t drive in the United States. And the assignment has only just begun.
As became cruelly clear, working a detail is all about the details; the EP specialist thrives or fails based on the tiniest of particulars. And every inconvenience is magnified a thousandfold. In this scenario, the lessons boil down to: Fully understand your assignment, have everything you’ll need with you, and, if you’re going to write down directions, make sure that your colleague can read them.
The importance of scouting ahead is already clear from the broken elevator, and it’s reinforced when we get on the road and realize that not all the prescribed turns from the MapQuest directions can be made.
Fortunately, this was only a role-playing exercise—no one’s life was on the line—and I had not quit my day job. For most of the people who take this type of training, however, this type of work is—or soon will be—their day job, and the lessons they learn in this suburban outpost may someday help them prevent a real-life attack on executives in their charge.
The three essential components of any EP program are threat assessments, advance procedures, and protective operations. Following are key points concerning each of these facets based on the course I attended. Especially noteworthy is how the instructors, students, and exercises drove home principles that classroom teaching alone couldn’t convey.
Our class does not have a chance to conduct a formal threat assessment, which would, among other things, have evaluated the threats to the principal at the destination location. But we do get a taste of what happens when you aren’t properly attentive.
When class convenes the Monday morning after our first night in the hotel, before most of us are “switched on” (Oatman’s term for the proper EP mind-set) and before we’ve received any training in threat assessment, Oatman challenges us to see if we had the foresight to case the hotel facility we’re in for executive protection purposes. Oatman plucks a victim in the front.
“Is there a fire extinguisher on your principal’s floor?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“You think so? How many doors away is it?”
I’m not sure.”
“Is the front desk open 24 hours?”
“I assume so.”
“Do you know for sure?”
“No, sir. I don’t.”
On to the next person.
“How many doors from your room to the fire exit?” In heavy smoke, the EP specialist would have to feel the doors and count them.
“Four or five, I believe.”
“Which is it? Four or five?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Where do the stairs come out?”
“Into the lobby.” (He was wrong, they lead outside the building.)
“Have you been on them?”
The lesson was clear: Never make assumptions; check everything. Ideally, we would have spoken to the hotel security manager about the fire-safety and security programs as well.
In addition to learning the importance of being observant and diligent in getting the details about a facility where the principal will stay, we learn that EP specialists should retain an ongoing file of threats in areas to which the principal travels. And no matter how observant they train themselves to be, they should not rely on memory alone. They should take digital photographs of specific sites and of the executive’s car to have a reference point to see if anything has changed.
Lt. Col. Brian Feser, the course instructor who discussed the role of intelligence collection in advance work, calls the advance the most important part of EP work. Advances involve visiting everywhere the principal will go and coordinating all necessary security arrangements for a principal before, during, and after his or her arrival at a location. It’s making sure there are no surprises.
During an advance, the EP professional checks out hotels, restaurants, transportation systems, routes, hospitals, and any other site the principal will or may visit. The EP must also be able to do on-the-fly risk assessments if plans change after the principal arrives. Along the way, Feser says, the EP professional must be thinking “what if?” in every environment he or she encounters.
When my team was charged with protecting Oatman, all four of us had assumed that we didn’t have time to perform an advance because we only had an hour’s notice. An erroneous assumption, it turns out.
With a four-man team and no specific threat on the boss, we squandered our resources, Oatman tells us later in a debriefing. We acted more as an escort than as a true advance. What’s more, we got in his way and annoyed him.
Also, as mentioned, I got the directions for our route from a colleague who mapped it on the Internet. When we actually drove it, a critical left turn was blocked by a concrete median strip, requiring a detour through a mall parking lot, with the boss’s car right behind. Then came an agonizing wait through three traffic-light cycles while an oil tanker negotiated a tight turn into a gas station.
I was wasting the principal’s valuable time. I should have checked the route in advance; if there was no time for that, I might have asked a UPS or FedEx driver at the hotel for directions before we left. Oatman says they are happy to help and will print out detailed directions for you.
My return foray goes better. The classmate sitting to my right the whole week, Wayne, is a policeman from the Maryland Transportation Administration. Before we break into our details, Wayne tells me about a seemingly roundabout route that I can use to get back to Towson from Annapolis during rush hour, and it works beautifully. Oatman says it kept us out of the area’s notorious traffic jams. It also shows the value of insider information. Lesson: Get traffic and other information from reliable locals whenever possible.
Operations are the sexy part of the business—where you’re actually out in the field with your principal. Most of Oatman’s operations classes and training cover countersurveillance, facilitation, defense, rescue, and the use of cars.
Countersurveillance. Countersurveillance involves watching out for anyone who might be watching your principal. Detecting surveillance is key to preventing an attack or incident, which is far better than having to respond to its aftermath. Feser explains that the spy usually isn’t a man behind a bush, but rather the telephone company worker or the female tourist whose camera just happens to be pointing at you.
Basic countersurveillance, Feser says, should cover the places and routes the principal will encounter on a routine basis, including his or her work site and home neighborhood. The EP operative should keep an eye out for activity, such as vehicles, noting arrival and departure times and locations. People movement should be noted as well, including the actions of service personnel, utility workers, and street vendors.
What if you suspect that your protectee is being watched? Feser offers a few tips: If you’re on foot, glance into windows or mirrors to see if the person is following or surveilling you. Changing your group’s walking pace could also make it obvious that someone is on your tail. If the principal enters a store, shop from the rear of the store to the front. It will put the pursuer in an awkward position, and it should make clear whether he or she is a spy.
Similar techniques can be used to detect whether a car is tailing the principal, such as slowing down and speeding up, making a U-turn, and circling the block. One sly technique is to stop on the shoulder once you’ve gone around a curve or cleared a hilltop. If the person is following you, he or she will usually hit the brakes, then speed up, Feser says.
Because it would be too dangerous to practice detecting and shaking tail cars in a major city, the class doesn’t drill on it. Instead, we do exercises that test our powers of observation and recall. Feser shows us a series of slides, a few seconds for each one, then asks us to describe the scene in detail after the pictures are gone.
With a class full of current or ex-law enforcement and military, I expect my fellow students to ace the exercise. The thought is quickly dispelled. One of the two women in the class, Shay, correctly describes two people in a photo but swears that a car prominently featured in the foreground was blue. When we see the picture again, it is clearly banana-colored.
After showing one picture that depicts a beach scene, Feser asks how many Volkswagens are in the background. The class is all over the place: I recall none, others identify one or two, some students spot several. When Feser shows the picture again, the answer is obvious: four.
The lesson from this exercise: To be any good at countersurveillance, you must practice remembering details. Fortunately, Feser assures us, it’s a skill that can be developed.
Part of learning to remember details is knowing what to look for. With that in mind, another fascinating class covers how to identify an armed gunman. The key is to watch the hands. After all, shooters must have a gun in their hands before they can fire it.
Of course, assailants won’t enter the area with the gun in their hands, so EP operatives must also know how to spot the signs that a gun is being concealed. There are several strong indicators of a concealed firearm.Unlike legitimate gun carriers, bad guys don’t use holsters, but slip their weapons in a pocket, waistband, or “dip,” the crotch area behind the belt buckle. We’re instructed to look for signs such as a droop or flapping in the pocket, and “printing,” an outline of a weapon under clothing.
The instructors speak from experience. Doug Reppar is a former presidential guard with the U.S. Marine Corps, who is now a deputy and instructor for the Harford County, Maryland’s Sheriff’s Office, and Dale Stonesifer is a lieutenant in the same department.
On Tuesday, we have an exercise in which we must thwart an attack on a politician during a public speech. In one scenario, a student portrays a politician who will walk through a crowd shaking hands. Another student plays the role of the EP professional who enters a couple of minutes before the politician and casually walks behind and through the crowd, looking for printing or other signs.
The EP operative thinks he sees something near a waistband, but can he be sure? Maybe it’s a BlackBerry or a case for eyeglasses. Unsure, the EP agent chooses to wait; he just keeps an eye on the suspect.
Meanwhile the politician and three protectors enter, and all the students who make up the crowd—except the suspect—give a round of applause. The suspect keeps his hand in his front pocket and taps his side with his elbow. As the politician nears, the advance EP specialist sees the suspect bend his arm as if he’s reaching into his waistband. The specialist bellows “Gun!” and he and another agent are on the man as the other two agents push the politician’s head down, grab him from behind by the shirt collar and belt, and rush him away.
It is a perfect operation. Applying the techniques learned in class, the team noticed signs indicative of an attack: The man didn’t applaud, walked with a short stride on his right side (where the gun was), and clamped his elbow over the lump in his right waist area, obviously conscious of the object hidden there.
Facilitation. For all of the tough-guy image of the EP specialist, Oatman emphasizes that EP professionals are not bodyguards. In fact, most of the specialist’s responsibility involves personal service—freeing the boss from routine tasks so he can focus on making money for the company.
Getting the boss in and out of a restaurant quickly is far more common than slaloming through a city in a car trying to escape an armed attack.
Chris Simovich, an EP specialist and senior vice president at U.S. Security Care, Inc., who has taken several of Oatman’s two-day training courses, agrees that facilitation is a big part of the job, and that it often also serves a protective function. Picking up a pizza from a restaurant for a principal, for example, protects the principal from exposure. “As long as it doesn’t break the protection paradigm, it’s golden,” Simovich says.
To be a facilitator, an EP specialist must be highly organized on a personal level as well. When Andrew and I reached into the back of my car for a map, for example, we found it had been entombed under CCTV catalogs, story notes, and my five-year-old’s drawings. We created a ticker-tape parade in the back seat before we found the map. I was clearly not as organized as I needed to be.
Distance. EP specialists are often right-hand men to their charges, and that means being at hand, ready to serve. But the EP’s presence must be unobtrusive. So how far from the principal’s right hand should an agent generally be?
The answer depends on the number of agents in the detail, the location, the crowd density, and the threat level, of course, but there is a rule of thumb. For close-in protection, the agent should be close enough to assist at a moment’s notice without invading the executive’s personal space, says instructor Tom Levering, CPP, vice president of corporate security for Deutsche Bank. Henry Kissinger is said to have advised his guardians to stay “close enough to protect me, but not so close that I have to introduce you.”
This simple proposition is trickier than it sounds. During my team’s two simulated operations, gauging the principal’s comfort level and weighing it against the risk proves challenging.
In one scenario, our detail is protecting an executive whose company, we are told, has been the recipient of a threat from a disgruntled male ex-employee. We have a description—5’8” or 5’9 ”, 200 to 220 pounds, with grayish-black hair.
Our first stop is The Gallery mall in downtown Baltimore. Dave and I are staying with the principal, while Andrew and Doc are doing countersurveillance anywhere from 30 to 100 feet away. It’s a moderately busy weekday afternoon, but staying with our protectee of the day—Lt. Col. Feser—as he wends his way through crowded corridors, narrow bookstore aisles, and assorted nooks in the shopping center proves difficult.
At times I’m forced too close to Feser as we squeeze through a crowd. Other times I’m separated as he veers around a column or down an escalator. I even lose him once completely in a bookstore when I pause to answer my cell phone. But the low point in the mall comes when, in my zeal to protect Feser from a quickly approaching man who roughly matches the physical description of our threat (it’s not the guy), Feser upbraids me for almost making him spill his coffee.
Guns. A constant mantra throughout the week is, “It’s not about the gun.” Yes, we do use guns with simulated ammunition during attack-on-principal drills, but only on one day. It’s Oatman’s philosophy that guns are rarely needed unless a specific threat or location requires their use, and they can cause more problems than they’re worth.
Other EP providers are more gun-intensive, but corporate-oriented EP firms typically deemphasize guns, unless the principal will be in a high-threat environment, such as Colombia. Dick Hildreth, a senior vice president responsible for kidnap, ransom, and extortion matters at EP firm Corporate Risk International, agrees that except for high-risk locations and situations, guns shouldn’t come into play.
“If it comes down to guns, you probably haven’t done your job in the first place,” Hildreth says.
Rescues. If an attack occurs and the principal is injured, rescue skills are necessary, including basic first aid and CPR. More likely, the principal will need assistance due to a medical issue. The class drills on various scenarios related to this concern.
In one simulation, our principal is Alice, a khaki-colored dummy who weighs 90 pounds, though it seems like much more in the nonsimulated pouring rain that adds to the challenge. The exercise involves carrying Alice to a nearby car after a faux attack.
We’re to put Alice in head-first into the footrest area in the backseat, then jump in on top, protecting her while exposing only our haunches to any further gunshots. We have to pull the principal’s legs in—and ours—because when the car takes off, momentum will cause the door to close. If the door clips a signpost, the force could crush bones.
The students are far from weaklings. The class includes many military and ex-military personnel, people who have hauled far heavier loads in much worse conditions. Jacob, a tall, fit guy with a G-Man look, is shocked at how heavy Alice becomes as he tries to shove her the last few feet into the car. No one manages to get both themselves and Alice fully inside the car. And Alice weighs only about half as much as a typical principal.
Cars. As it happens, many of the exercises involve cars. They are an inescapable part of the EP universe, serving the principal as a command center, office, bedroom, and social setting, while serving the EP specialist as a safe room, escape mechanism, and a weapon. They also represent a zone that needs protecting.
In fact, about half of our role-play detail time is spent in cars. For the principal’s comfort, and to get him to take his mind off of us, our detail provides him with a newspaper, water, and other sundries. We set the temperature to his liking and keep the radio off. Two in our detail smoke, but they won’t even light up outside the car lest the smoke stick to their clothes. The car is fully gassed in advance. If we had had time, we would have loaded the trunk with emergency supplies.
Driving in the congested Baltimore-area amid its knot of highways, omnipresent construction work, mysteriously ending lanes, and exits that require frantic four-lane shifts is difficult even under normal circumstances. Trying to stay close to another car—which we were doing in the detail with Oatman serving as our principal—is a huge headache.
As a part of our course instruction, we had been given some helpful tricks for dealing with this type of traffic. When the front car must change lanes, the driver signals, but lets the back car change lanes first, blocking traffic behind so the lead car can move ahead. Aggressive highway drivers, however, often complicate the maneuver. And that’s without intentionally trying to thwart our protection efforts.
During my week of EP-in-training, many of the lessons defy expectations. For example, backing up a car speedily from an ambush through a narrow line of cones, while looking ahead at the threat the whole time, is not so hard. Staging a simple pickup in an unfamiliar area, however, can be alarmingly difficult.
I also know why they call a team of protection specialists a “detail.” But most of all, I know how much I still don’t know and how much training is necessary if one wants to master the art of executive protection. For now, I’ll stick with writing.
The three essential components of any executive protection (EP) are threat assessments, advance procedures, and protective operations. These came alive for me recently when I spent a week in an intensive weeklong EP training course. It quickly became clear how detail-oriented the EP specialist must be.
Generally speaking, a threat (or risk) assessment examines events that could harm a principal, the likelihood of them occurring in given environments, and the damage that would ensue were they to happen. We did not have a chance to conduct a formal threat assessment. But elements of threat assessments played into many of the hands-on exercises.
Advances involve visiting everywhere the principal will go and coordinating all necessary security arrangements for a principal before, during, and after his or her arrival at a location. It’s essentially making sure there are no surprises.
Operations is the sexy part of the business—where you’re actually out in the field with your principal. Most of the classes and training on this part of the business cover countersurveillance, facilitation, defense, rescue, and the use of cars.
Putting these principles into effect can be tricky. With respect to distance, for example, I struggle during our mock details to retain the appropriate distance from my principal. As a result, sometimes I get separated from him, while other times I nearly knock him over.
Michael A. Gips, formerly a senior editor at Security Management magazine, is director of strategic operations for ASIS.