Diplomatic Security Service special agents escort Secretary Antony Blinken (center) as he attends diplomatic meetings in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 4, 2022. Photo by Ronny Przysucha
By Melissa Mangold and Edward Adams
Whether Secretary of State Antony Blinken is flying to the remote reaches of Kangerlussuaq, traveling overland from the Israeli border to Ramallah, riding the rails into Kyiv, or leaving his home for a packed day of high-level meetings, the dedicated special agents of Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS) Secretary of State’s Protective Division (SD) accompany him. Tasked with protecting the secretary of state from harm and embarrassment, these sworn federal law enforcement officers protect the secretary twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, both domestically and abroad. Supporting the work of these agents is an even larger network of security, intelligence, and logistical professionals preparing for all possible contingencies at every venue visited and path taken.
On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Secretary of State Cordell Hull established a security detail, marking the beginning of the secretary of state’s permanent protective detail. Thus began the longstanding responsibility of Department of State special agents to protect the incumbent of the fourth office in the U.S. presidential line of succession. Over the past eight decades, the composition and operations of the secretary’s protective detail have evolved in response to increased threats and world events impacting the safety and security of U.S. leaders.
Today, SD looks much different than it did in 1941. While the public likely notices the special agents in dark suits and earpieces accompanying the secretary, there is much more that goes into protecting the nation’s chief diplomat. SD currently boasts a permanent cadre of roughly 55 agents augmented by nine temporary duty agents every 45 days. The detail has a dedicated operations unit consisting of nine administrative employees. This unit is the proverbial backbone of SD. They book travel for all agents, apply for diplomatic passports, obtain necessary visas, pack hardened cases containing special protective equipment, arrange orientation for new agents, and ensure day-to-day operations run smoothly.
Additionally, an expansive network of DSS partners lend their expertise and manpower to safeguard the secretary. At all domestic Department facilities, DSS uniformed division officers control building access and provide K-9 units. DSS threat and intelligence analysts provide critical situational awareness through various intelligence sources. Radio technicians, security engineering officers, and mobile communications office staff work with SD to secure communications and to make sure the secure floor, in the secretary’s hotel, is monitored. In less permissive environments, the DSS Office of Mobile Security Deployments provides a special tactics element to bolster protection capabilities. Overseas, SD couldn’t get the job done without their embassy partners, such as the regional security officer who manages the Marine Security Guards that protect classified information on the secure floor of the secretary’s hotel.
While the secretary is in the Washington area, his schedule and the associated security planning keep SD agents on their toes; however, securing his frequent overseas travel undoubtedly dominates the operational tempo. Thankfully, with the bulk of travel logistics and support provided by SD operations staff, SD agents can focus on coordinating with their advance counterparts from the Line (in the Executive Secretariat) and posts as well as with host nation law enforcement representatives and security managers at the secretary’s hotel and planned venues. Staffing the secretary’s travels depends on the location and level of threat, but the timeline and format of agent deployment generally remains the same.
First, the advance team generally arrives a week or more before the secretary and coordinates and assesses all security aspects of the visit, from surveying the secretary’s hotel and site venues, to planning routes in consultation with the embassy. Additionally, this team is primarily responsible for working with host nation law enforcement to ensure that contingencies are planned for. The advance team works hard to prepare the jump and plane teams for a smooth arrival by providing logistical support and communicating any relevant information learned on the ground.
Next, the jump team arrives two to three days prior to the secretary and serves as the close protection element on the ground in accordance with the approved security plan. They make up the close protection diamond surrounding the secretary, staff motorcade positions, and maintain 24/7 coverage in the command post located a few rooms away from the secretary’s hotel room, while he is in the country. It is the jump team’s job to remain aware of everything in their environment, as well as ensure the secretary moves between locations as quickly as possible. These movements are most often by a motorcade, which consists of multiple armored vehicles, to include a lead vehicle, the limousine, multiple follow vehicles, as well as staff and press vehicles.
Finally, the plane team arrives with the secretary. They generally make up the close protection diamond for day stops, refuel stops, and any unscheduled stops that deviate from the planned itinerary. They also remain ready to augment the jump team as necessary.
Special agents assigned to SD leverage more than just their personal protection skills. The detail requires a high level of commitment, professionalism, problem-solving abilities, diplomacy, and strong interpersonal skills while partnering with other Foreign Service officer colleagues to get the job done. From members of the secretary’s personal staff to policy experts to colleagues at U.S. diplomatic missions, everyone works together to ensure the safety of the secretary during key diplomatic engagements. Honing and mastering these skills are critical to accomplishing the mission on each trip. SD agents perform them with ease and, like their Foreign Service officer counterparts, truly shine when unique adversities challenge their skillset.
A recent series of examples relate to the secretary’s four vastly different trips to Ukraine between January and September of 2022. The security parameters of each visit varied greatly, from communications blackouts at times and multiple types of secure transportation to collaborating with other U.S. senior officials’ security teams. However, each trip showcased SD’s ability to provide tailored and robust planning, advance work, and protection to safely accomplish the overall diplomatic mission.
In 2022, DSS special agents advanced and secured the secretary’s visits to thirty-six countries, traveling far more than 270,000 miles. Judging by world events, 2023 will likely be the same. Regardless of the location, threat level, timing, or length of travel, the secretary’s detail will ensure a safe environment for the secretary to conduct U.S. foreign policy.
Melissa Mangold is a special agent in the Secretary of State’s Protective Division. Edward Adams is a special agent in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Public Affairs Office.