KEEPING YOUR EDGE: A VIP Protection Essential

By James A. DeVino
One of the pitfalls of doing any type of work over an extended period of time is the tendency to become complacent. The consequences for complacency vary widely depending on the field, but if you work as an Executive Protection Specialist, losing your edge and simply going through the motions can be the difference between life and death.

What exactly do I mean when I say “losing your edge?” It is when an EPS starts to lose interest or passion for the profession. It means taking things for granted, taking shortcuts or even being lazy. It can range from “zoning out” on a tedious detail assignment to failing to conduct a thorough advance. It could be failing to develop a secondary evacuation plan; or lacking the foresight to ask questions and plan for the worst-case-scenario because it is the “same-old, same-old” routine. The results for complacency as an EPS can lead to the embarrassment, injury, or even death to the principal in your charge.

We have seen deadly results when US government personal protection agents have failed to prepare.  According to the Warren Report investigation focusing upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the White House Presidential Protection Detail went out on the town in Dallas on November 21 – 22, 1963, violating Secret Service policy regarding alcohol consumption prior to performing a protection detail.

In fact, video reveals that a few of the agents in the follow car appear “disinterested” at best, with the exception of Jackie Kennedy’s Special Agent in charge. Mrs. Kennedy’s agent, Clinton Hill, exited the follow car each time the Kennedy’s limousine fell below a certain speed (Secret Service policy). When tragedy struck, it was Hill alone who leaped on to the back of the limousine in an effort to shield President and Mrs. Kennedy from additional gunfire. He was the only agent in that entourage who didn’t become complacent in his duties. He kept his edge.

An even more blatant and perhaps criminal example of complacency occurred approximately 100 years before Kennedy’s assassination, when the Washington D.C. police detective assigned to secure President Abraham Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater demonstrated a terrible lapse in judgment when he thought there’d be no harm if he dropped into the tavern across from the play house.

The adage that “executive protection involves hours upon hours of boredom disrupted by a few moments of excitement” is based on truth.  Much of what we do is standing or sitting around, often simply waiting-for a principal in a hotel room, in a conference room, in a meeting, at a restaurant, in the recording booth and so on. As a former special agent for the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service I confess that while working a rope line my mind drifted briefly to whether or not I would be able to attend my son’s T-ball game. I know I am not alone in this.

We all pray that if we happen to fall into a laissez-faire state of mind that we will snap out of it should a James Earl Ray or Mark David Chapman-type enter the scene. We hope that our training and experience will instantaneously kick in and allow us to evacuate our principal from potential danger.  Prayers and hope are not enough.

The reality is that if we come to treat our chosen profession as “just a job,” we start down a road that will inevitably lead to complacency and losing our edge.  What does a security agent who is on his/her game look like?

A successful security agent keeps a close watch on his or her area of responsibility. They are alert, with no signs of fatigue. If they are to be standing, they are standing. If seated, they are upright. They are not bored. They take nothing for granted. Protective measures aren’t overlooked, even if it is the same detail today as yesterday and the day before. Equipment is at the ready, including phones, headsets, laptops, weapons. Reports on the smallest events are thorough and detailed because they provide information essential for the next shift or the next day.

How do you keep your edge? Back in the day, when Harlan “Hucky” Austin was protecting celebrities, he would stay sharp on those “waiting” details by imagining every possible scenario; and how he would manage them, avert danger and save the client. He would play over the scenarios in his mind, readying himself mentally, physically and determining when/if force or weapons would be necessary. He imagined conversations he’d need to have to avert problems-whether from fans, jealous spouses, criminals or paparazzi.

If you were one of the millions who watched the inauguration of President  Obama on January 20, 2009, you noticed the U.S. Secret Service special agents at his side all day. It was a long day full of events; from dawn until the wee hours of the next day. Obama and his family were protected by an elite group of personal protection specialists; each assigned agent was at his or her best, prepared to provide the highest degree of protective security.

However, as the afternoon moved to evening and the Presidential couple visited venues with less public access, fatigue probably set in and the agents may have become less alert. Undoubtedly, the Secret Service closely monitored the detail and replaced fatigued agents as needed.  I have performed “portal to portal” protection for visiting foreign dignitaries, and US officials. I know I was sharper at 11:00 a.m. than I was at 11:00 p.m.

Surprisingly, at the 1997 and 2001 inaugurations of President’s Clinton and Bush respectively, an individual with identification that authorized access to the outermost security perimeter was able to penetrate additional Secret Service checkpoints and actually got close enough to shake the hand of the newly sworn-in Presidents. It would seem that the agents in charge of securing access to their particular area of responsibility lost their edge.

Perhaps they were diverted by another situation and failed to multi-task; maybe they were preoccupied by someone or something more interesting than their security zone, or worse; perhaps they simply were on “auto-pilot” and didn’t fulfill their duties with attention to detail and focus.

More recently, former President George Bush was embarrassed because members of his protection detail failed to act during his final visit to Iraq to meet with Iraqi President Maliki.  When an irate Iraqi newsman threw his shoes at Bush (an exceptional insult measured by Islamic precepts), the Presidential Detail agents were clearly complacent and not on their “A” Game.

By all reports, the journalist was yelling at Bush, so their surely should have been some escalation in terms of protection, but (I’m guessing) that because Iraq is a war zone, agents may have suspected the rude journalist was a distraction to launch an attack on Bush. They did not think the journalist was a threat; merely a ruse for a more lethal threat.

The fact that the journalist threw not just one, but both shoes speaks to the fact that the agents simply weren’t quite on point.  In fact, it was Iraqi President Maliki who diligently knocked down the second thrown shoe thus sparing the former President from embarrassment and possible injury.
Another important topic to address is the issue of “burn-out” on the job.  In this business, the long hours and tedium cannot help but create an environment of complacency.

An agent who has been on a long-term detail will want to consider taking a break before the next detail, in order to recharge. The simple fact is that much of what we do is time spent doing nothing but waiting for a worse-case scenario…and then we are expected to be prepared to perform at maximum potential.
Complacency can happen to anyone.

It’s important to be aware of it and to develop strategies to remain sharp. I recall a detail very early on in my career that served as my “wake-up call” to the perils of not keeping my edge.  I was working as a USAF Security Policeman charged with protecting a missile gantry. It was my task to check photo I.D. badges against the bearer passing through my checkpoint.

My shift began at 10:30 that evening, and I am embarrassed to report that due to boredom and fatigue, I allowed both Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (at least according to their badges) to enter into a highly restricted area at 3:00 a.m. As it turned out, “Mickey” and “Donald” were two Air Force Officers assigned to test my competency.

They had presented the cartoon pictures on their badges, and I wasn’t paying attention more than likely due to fatigue. It goes without saying that I lost my edge that evening, and as a result, received a “counseling letter” warning me that a repeat performance could result in Non-Judicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Lastly, I don’t want to make excuses for my lapse in focus, but certainly, it would have been to that Air Force facility’s benefit to give the security personnel more frequent breaks. One of the downsides to the EPS and security/protection business is the expectation that in carrying out this vitally important work we are expected to be super-human.  But that’s a topic for another story.