You’re about to walk through a door you never imagined would open. In your mind, this barrier has always been 10 feet high, solid steel, impenetrable, impossible to access and forever guarding the secrets within. Until now.
Today, that door has swung open, and you’re about to go inside the Secret Service—the federal agency responsible for safeguarding the president of the United States, other national leaders and visiting foreign dignitaries, as well as helping secure the nation’s financial infrastructure through financial and cybercrime investigations. Your journey will take you inside its multi-story headquarters and then to its 500-acre facility to get a look at the training so brutal that only one in 1,000 makes the cut. For 150 years, the Secret Service has been diligently going about its business. For most of us, our only exposure to this elite law enforcement agency is through television. We get a fleeting glimpse at one of its intense, focused agents—clad in a suit—while protecting a dignitary. Today, you will see much more.
We extend a special thanks to agents Kevin, Martin and Russ, all of whom graciously devoted two days out of their schedule so they could show us around their federal agency.
Now, enter their world.
FP: You allowed us to watch a special event … the graduation of a new set of agents. Talk about your emotions during the graduation ceremony.
Martin: It was great. As part of our profession, we are the people who really should not be seen. We are there to play a supporting role for those we protect—and the president, in particular—as they are doing the business of our nation. It’s wonderful to be part of these experiences. We are not the show. We are the supporting cast, and we are supposed to blend into the background. It’s humbling to see other people chose this profession. They will stand in the background and serve their country, so it’s good to see new agents, who have those morals and that work ethic, come on board.
“It’s a 24/7 job. The president has been with the Secret Service protection since 1901. It has not stopped once. It has been every minute of every day since that time.”
FP: Talk about this enormous training facility and why it’s so critical to the agency’s success.
Martin: Originally named the Beltsville Training Center, [it was renamed the James J. Rowley Training Center (JJRTC)] in 1983 in honor of a former Secret Service director whose career spanned from 1938 to 1973.
The unit comprises almost 500 acres of land, 6 miles of roadway and 31 buildings. The protective, investigative, specialized tactical and executive/managerial training conducted at JJRTC is unique among federal law enforcement instructional entities. The Secret Service provides a wide variety of courses utilized by its personnel throughout their careers. The core curriculum provided by JJRTC is designed for special agents, Uniformed Division officers, special officers and physical security specialists. In a single year, hundreds of training recruits undergo extensive training in firearms marksmanship, use-of-force/control tactics, emergency medical techniques, financial crimes detection, physical/site/event protection and water survival training.
FP: How does the training transfer to real-life scenarios?
Martin: Let’s use the riot training as one example. [After an agent goes through this], he at least has some experience of flashing lights and paying attention to the objective. When the agent gets to the real world and it’s real flashing lights and a real angry mob, the guy at least has been there before. It may not be at that intensity level, but at least he has been there. There’s a comfort there. He can build off that and perform off that. If he is going to make mistakes, he should make them here.
FP: And the dunk tank?
Sean: The pool is almost Olympic size, and the cage is meant to represent a helicopter. After as much as three hours of rigorous training, the agent then puts on all his gear and climbs into the cage. We then lower him into the water, where the cage turns upside down. While underwater, he has to find the latch, open the door and swim to safety. We spend a lot of time in helicopters, so this training prepares agents for a crash in the water.
FP: To succeed in that training, it takes tremendous physical ability and composure. What else do you look for in an agent?
Martin: They [military and law enforcement] are the esprit de corps in those professions. These are people who want to work as a team. You’ll find [that with] everything we do, most guys are moving in pairs of two. It’s all about a team mission, whether it’s criminal work or protective work. That’s what we want … people who work well in a team. If I’m going to be away from my family, I want people who see the job the same way I do. I want someone who has the same work ethic I have. If you have to skip lunch or a few meals or go days on end without being able to change your clothes because you’re traveling on a military flight from one point to another, at least you’re with people who see the job the same way you do. They will support me, and I will support them.
FP: What characteristics should an agent have?
Martin: Honesty, integrity, commitment, a good work ethic. This job is not easy. Forty hours per week is the starting point. Someone has to keep the president safe on Christmas Day and during Thanksgiving dinner. Someone has to keep the president safe when it’s your kid’s first birthday, and a lot of times, it’s you.
We have people who will say, “Hey, Marty, I got it for you.” When that happens, I am going to take care of him [when he needs time off]. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for that work ethic and commitment to the mission, a commitment to the team. It’s a 24/7 job. The president has been with the Secret Service protection since 1901. It has not stopped once. It has been every minute of every day since that time.
FP: During one of our casual conversations, you said the personnel perform their jobs brilliantly. How do they reach that level?
Martin: It’s important for them to believe the mission is real. It’s as simple as that. On the leadership side of this agency, we have to constantly enforce to our people that the threat is real. They show up at work day in and day out, and nothing happens. It gets to be the same, old routine. Or maybe there are some bureaucratic things typical with any organization that might distract the agent. Therefore, we have to constantly enforce that the mission is real and that something can happen at any second. There’s no advance warning. It’s gunfire. It happens that fast.
If we’re not in that mindset and our people do not believe it’s real, obviously they are not going to perform brilliantly. It’s our leadership that does that. The troops will march to the beat of their leaders’ drums. If our leaders are not beating the drum, we have to fix that or replace them. I think the agency does a good job in that.
FP: You said that only one in 1,000 who try out for the agency actually makes it. Why is the success rate so low?
Martin: It’s a mission tied to national security. We protect the president, and we protect the executive branch of the United States government. Now, we are in a campaign year. Article II provides for the executive branch of government. These men and women cannot go out and campaign for the highest office in the land if they do not feel safe. It’s a national security mission. If the president were to get hurt, God forbid, or worse, what would happen to this country? Our stock markets? What questions would arise about how safe our readiness is to defend the country? What questions would the American people have?
“ … we have to constantly enforce that the mission is real and that something can happen at any second. There’s no advance warning. It’s gunfire. It happens that fast.”
I was not around when President Kennedy was assassinated, but people who were said those are the types of questions people asked. So, we are working to prevent that. We want the American people to feel secure in their own country, have confidence in the strength of our country. It’s a national security mission, so it’s going to take one in 1,000 to find the right people.
FP: What makes an agent great?
Martin: A great agent is [actually] the family and friends behind him. It’s the people who support us. I come to work every day, and I can do what I need to do and be focused. Whether I am traveling to a foreign county or domestically or I am working late hours, I can still have a healthy and enjoyable family life. I think that is what it is. It’s people who are supported by family and friends.
FP: Based on what we’ve seen in the course of two days, it is obvious that these agents are special people.
Martin: Our best recruiting tool is our own people. You asked Peter how many hours he put in, and he said it starts at 40 and goes up. That is the commitment we need. We all have family events we need to get to, and there are things you have to do in your personal life. However, if the mission needs to get done, you can’t say, “Well my train leaves at 5; I have to go.” You might not get home until 8 or 9 at night, but you’ve got to get the mission done. That is what we are looking for. When you’re out there interacting with people, you’ll see when this guy is a good fit for what we’re doing.
FP: We watched the handgun qualification test. You guys are competitive.
Martin: When I was in FLETC [Federal Law Enforcement Training Center], I was sitting in a car with my good buddy, Tom Lynch, with whom I started the job. Earlier in our careers, we went out to a driving pad and had to navigate an obstacle course behind the wheel of a car. The instructor said to us, “I always love Secret Service agents, because when I put them behind the wheel, they always ask, ‘What is the best time?’” That tells the story.
I want to be competitive. I’m not going to just drive. Hopefully, Kevin and I just gave you a little taste of that. Kevin outshot me, and that will bother me for a couple weeks until we shoot again. I am happy Kevin beat me, but I am looking forward to the next shoot, because competition-wise, I want to win. That’s what it is all about here. It’s not for the sake of tearing anyone down. It’s for the sake of getting the best. It’s like when you go to a weight room. If you have a buddy supporting you and encouraging you to do one more set … “I’ve got ya.” That is part of our culture here.
That is also what we look for in training. We’re looking for the guy who can do 1.5 miles in 9.5 minutes. Just burning. Instead of sucking wind with his hands on his knees, he will turn around and go back and get the slowest guy. Those are the people we are looking for, and the slowest guy says, “I have to pick my game up. My team is counting on me.” That works well. The military seems to find a lot of folks like that, as does law enforcement. It’s all that team environment.
“Just because a physical attack did not occur does not mean we were not probed. We may have defeated it [an attack] just by our presence there.”
FP: Regardless of the profession, everyone wants to do his job right. However, the Secret Service has a lot more at stake, because we’re potentially talking life or death for the protectee—which could be the president, as well as the agent. What kind of pressure does that create?
Martin: If you’re part of the advanced team, it is like studying for an exam. You have to be ready for anything that comes up. Being an agent is almost like being a chess master. We have to think five steps ahead. If someone is only thinking one or two steps ahead, I have a young son at home who can beat you in chess every day. So, we have to think five or six steps ahead and think, “What if this happens?” “What if that happens?”
Basically, you’re getting prepared for a huge “examination.” Everyone wants to do the best possible job, because it will reflect on you and the rest of your teammates. The pressure is, in a large part, self-induced to make sure you do the best you can; and that is very important. In the training, we try to put as much pressure as we can on the agents in a controlled environment. When we send them out the front gate, they are prepared. In the mentor program, they are assigned to a senior agent. In the Uniformed Division, it would be a sergeant who takes them under their wing to show them how it is done. Afterward, everyone may say you did a fantastic job, but you know there are things you may have done differently or better. You know you have made it when you’re your own best critic.
FP: How do the agents stay at such a high level of awareness for so long?
Martin: We are smart about it. Let’s take our officers at the White House. They will rotate through a variety of different posts. On one hand, you want to know how things work, what is the foot traffic, who are the players in a particular area on a particular post. By the same token, you want that variety. You want new people coming in looking at things from a different angle each time, working it a little differently. We are also giving our adversaries a different look.
Plus, I’m not there all eight hours. I’m there for a reasonable amount of time, and that is depending on the circumstances. When we are in a foreign country, we may not have as much manpower as we want, so maybe we’re on post a little longer, but we’re supplemented by foreign security on outer perimeters. We are big on making sure we refresh our people while they are at the job. There are a lot of good people who can share those responsibilities.
FP: Years down the road. You look back on your career in the Secret Service. What will come to mind?
Martin: For me, my greatest gifts are the people and the friendships I have. At the graduation today was a buddy of mine who retired four years ago. We [still] talk about twice a week. The relationships go beyond just work. We are all cut from the same cloth.
In 1865, Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch swore in Chief William P. Wood as the first Secret Service Chief (now known as “Director”).
On November 15, 1977, President Carter signed legislation changing the name from Executive Protective Service to the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. Today, the various components of the Uniformed Division work in concert with the Presidential Protective Division, the Vice Presidential Division, the Technical Security Division, Special Operations Division and the Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division to ensure a totally coordinated effort in protecting the White House Complex, as well as foreign embassies and missions. The Uniformed Division is responsible for security at the White House complex; the vice president’s residence, the Department of the Treasury (as part of the White House Complex) and foreign diplomatic missions in the Washington, D.C., area. Uniformed Division officers carry out their protective responsibilities through a network of fixed security posts, as well as foot, bicycle, vehicular and motorcycle patrols.
Included within the Uniformed Division are specialized units that carry out specific functions integral to the design and execution of security posts. They are as follows:
- The Counter Sniper Support Unit (CS). Created in 1971, the CS unit’s purpose is to provide specialized protective support to defend against long-range threats to Secret Service protectees.
- The Canine Explosives Detection Unit (K-9) Created in 1976, the mission of the K-9 unit is to provide skilled and specialized explosives-detection support to protective efforts involving Secret Service protectees.
- The Emergency Response Team (ERT). Formed in 1992, ERT’s primary mission is to provide tactical response to unlawful intrusions and other protective challenges related to the White House and its grounds. ERT personnel receive specialized, advanced training and must maintain a high level of physical and operational proficiency.
- Magnetometer Support Unit. The Secret Service began relying on magnetometer (metal detection) support by Uniformed Division officers to augment its protective efforts away from the White House following the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. The unit’s mission is to ensure that all persons entering secure areas occupied by Secret Service protectees are unarmed.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in a print issue of World of Firepower Magazine.