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Special agent: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

When the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, and the Prince of Wales visited the United States, they each met the President and other VIP's. But they never met dozens of their closest American allies: The special agents responsible for their safety on our soil.

Special agents for the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security protect visiting dignitaries. Their other duties send them throughout the United States and the world, protecting State Department officials, conducting investigations, providing antiterrorism training, and advising U.S. ambassadors on security concerns overseas.

Sound exciting? Much of it is. Because security matters such as terrorism and espionage are State Department concerns, Diplomatic Security agents are trained to handle high-level assignments early in their careers. But the excitement is not without drawbacks. Says one special agent, "We're put in positions of responsibility at a very junior stage, but we're also under constant pressure. We never real ly clock out."

State Department agents have performed protective and investigative services for decades. But these responsibilities increased when Diplomatic Security was created as an independent bureau in 1985. The bureau now protects about 200 foreign dignitaries a year and investigates hundreds of criminal cases.

For their first couple of years, newly trained special agents are assigned to 1 of 21 Diplomatic Security offices located throughout the United States. At field offices, special agents have three primary responsibilities: Working protective details and conducting criminal and background investigations. The type of investigations handled by special agents varies, but all agents have protection assignments.

Special agents in a protective detail guard high-profile officials from assault. Under Federal law, a crime committed against foreign visitors with special guest status can be elevated to a higher level. In other words, a misdemeanor attack against your neighbor would be a felony if committed against Princess Chulabhorn of Thailand during her visit here.

Diplomatic Security protection is also provided around the clock to the U.S. Secretary of State anywhere in the world, from Albuquerque to Zurich. And protection is authorized for the Deputy Secretary of State and other U.S. Government representatives and their families worldwide. During the Gulf War, for example, protection was given to several key State Department officials who had dealings with countries involved in the war.

A personal protective detail for foreign visitors is more complicated than you might think. Preliminary work of agents, beginning weeks before a visit, leaves nothing to chance. Agents map out a detailed travel itinerary, complete with escape routes, medical facilities, and even bathroom facilities, among other specifics. Those special agents you see surrounding foreign guests are not standing idle, either. They stay in constant communication with agents at different sites because they must remain alert to all activity in the crowds, movements of the person protected, potential threats, and changes in schedule. During visitors' American stay, all special agents assigned to them are armed and have arrest authority.

When a protected person is scheduled to remain in one location for several hours, some agents may be allowed to take short breaks. But even the best-laid plans are subject to change, and special agents must be ready to adapt. Agents say that at one time or another, they've all been caught off-guard in this situation. "You hear |We're moving' over the radio, and it's like the alarm going off in a firehouse," says one agent. "No matter what you're doing, you stop and change course immediately. When you have to move, you move."

The amount of protection given to guests depends on the level of the potential threat, an individual's profile, and the number and kind of activities the guest will participate in. For example, Nelson Mandela and his wife visited the United States in 1990, shortly after his release from a South African prison. Because of the political controversy surrounding his release and the potential for assassination during his subsequent visit, more than 150 agents worked with local and State police and other Federal law enforcement agencies to ensure the Mandelas' safety during their 11-day trip.

Special agents assigned to field offices also conduct criminal investigations, particularly on visa and passport fraud. The information gathered for criminal investigations is used for Federal prosecutions. A visa investigation, for example, may uncover that people or companies for which work visas were originally granted don't exist. Passport fraud may be linked to other significant crimes involving major smuggling operations of drugs, firearms, illegal aliens, or terrorists. Black market sale of U.S. passports is big business abroad, where they can command upwards of $20,000 apiece.

Background investigations verify information for new or existing personnel files. These background investigations are conducted for all State Department candidates or employees seeking topsecret security clearance for highly sensitive positions. Special agents make dozens of file searches, phone calls, and personal visits during the course of an investigation. Their job is to verify all facts of an individual's personal history - including employment, education, residences, professional activities, drug or alcohol use, and any foreign travel - as far back as 10 years or the person's 18th birthday.

The background investigation also includes a personal interview with the person being investigated. A catch-all question, usually asked at the end of the interview, gives interviewees the chance to offer any personal information that may not have been covered. And that sometimes reveals startling information about someone's past, such as suspect contact with foreign nationals or previously undetected criminal activity. "Some people are carrying some pretty dark secrets, and that question just seems to invite them to tell us," says an agent.

Following their service at a field office, special agents can be assigned to the Diplomatic Security headquarters in Washington, DC, or to an overseas post. The role of headquarters is primarily one of support to field offices and overseas posts. A headquarters agent may assist a field agent in visa and passport investigations, for example, or develop emergency evacuation plans for U.S. embassies and consulates.

Special agents must be assigned to overseas posts within 5 years of being hired, according to State Department rules. Overseas, special agents work as Assistant Regional Security Officers or Regional Security Officers. Once they receive an overseas assignment, agents get 3 months of detailed security training for the embassy to which they are assigned. They also receive 2 weeks of country-specific geographic and cultural education, and, for some posts, 8 weeks to 1 year of training in the host country's language.

Responsible for protecting American personnel, property, and information abroad, Assistant and Regional Security Officers serve as principal security advisors to U.S. ambassadors. They manage programs at each post for dealing with threats posed by cfiminals, terrorists, and hostile intelligence services. The Regional Security Officer is also the American liaison with host country law enforcement agencies, sponsoring activities such as an antiterrorism training assistance program for foreign civilian security personnel.

The first overseas post assignment is generally for 2 years. Agents then may be assigned as Regional Security Officers to another overseas post. They may also return to the United States and work at a field office or headquarters again.

Like most occupations in the Federal Government, the special agent is not unique to the State Department. Other Federal agencies employ special agents to perform similar protective or investigative duties or both. Specific tasks vary among agencies, and many involve foreign affairs. Responsibilities of Secret Service special agents, for example, include protecting the visiting heads of foreign states, such as El Salvador's president. Investigating U.S. drug law violations at home or abroad is the realm of Drug Enforcement Administration special agents.

Nearly every protective and investigative role of Bureau of Diplomatic Security special agents has an international flavor. Because the State Department is the U.S. Government's foreign policy arm, even the Bureau's domestic security responsibilities have a foreign angle. Diplomatic Security agents investigate cases that directly or indirectly affect national security. And their protective duties overseas affect the security of Americans both at home and abroad.

Special agents and some other law enforcement officers receive part of their training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. After a 2-week orientation in Washington, Diplomatic Security special agents continue their 5-month training program in Glynco. The first phase, covering criminal investigation techniques, lasts 8 weeks. Classroom instruction includes enforcement operations, interviewing techniques, surveillance, crime analyzation, and fingerprinting. Practical exercises include simulated hostage situations and other mock criminal scenarios, such as patdowns and arrests. Trainees spend another 3 weeks practicing criminal and background investigations.

Agents-in-training also participate in physical training, firearms training, and defensive driving. All trainees must pass physical standards in strength, fitness, agility, and endurance. Firearms qualification requires that trainees handle a variety of weapons adeptly, including Uzi automatic submachine guns, shotguns, and 9-millimeter handguns. They also are exposed to tear gas and pepper gas, learning both the effects of the gases and the proper offensive and defensive methods for their use.

The trainees then return to Washington for 10 more weeks of State Department specifics on protective procedures and regulations, ordnance training, emergency medical training, and defensive driving. At the conclusion of training, they participate in mock protective details designed to test their newly acquired skills.

Special agents say they are attracted to Diplomatic Security careers because of their interests in law enforcement and security, foreign affairs, and world politics. They like travelling and are able to acclimate quickly to new environments. Intellectual quickness and physical agility are also key, as agents must be able to make split-second decisions and act independently of their fellow agents.

To qualify for special agent application, you must be between the ages of 21 and 35 at the time of appointment. All candidates must be U.S. citizens, have a bachelor's degree and driver's license, pass physical and mental health examinations, and submit to a background investigation. You must also be available for worldwide assignment and be willing to carry and use firearms. A written exam and oral interviews are part of the application process. However, agents do not take the foreign service exam.

State Department employees are paid according to the Foreign Service (FS) scale, which differs from the General Schedule (GS) covering most Federal employees. The FS scale has nine classes, with 14 step rates within each class. Advancement is measured by class advancements and step increases. Entry-level special agents come in at FS-6 at step levels commensurate with experience. The 1993 salary for FS-6 ranges from $25,670 to $37,697. Within-class step increases or class advancements are awarded automatically to the FS-4 level and are competitive to FS-1 and beyond. Special agents are subject to a 4-year probationary period and receive tenure upon successful completion of probation.

Currently, there are about 750 Diplomatic Security special agents worldwide, including about 60 women. To request more information about applying for Diplomatic Security service, send a post card to

U.S. Department of State

Security Officer

Bureau of Diplomatic Security


3rd Floor, SA-10

Washington, DC 20522-1003
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Author:Green, Kathleen
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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