Why Not Let Diplomatic Security Do It?

Sunday, April 22nd 2012

DS shield

Here’s a thought: why don't the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) agents protect the President when he travels to foreign countries?

If there is a constant theme in public diplomacy, it is that the people in the field, at the embassy, know best how to do what the USG needs done.

One reason the Secret Service agents in Cartagena got caught with their pants down (metaphorically speaking) is because they were out of their element.  They were in unfamiliar, foreign territory. 

Had any one of them taken the time to ask the embassy RSO (the most senior Diplomatic Security agent on the ground), they would have been briefed on local practices such as the requirement to register all visitors to hotel guests’ rooms.  The RSO would have mentioned that these registrations are sent to the local police department each day.

As the Wikileaks documents proved so well, the people who work in American embassies abroad are extremely well informed, know how things work, and understand the local laws and regulations, as well as distinctly local practices.  When it comes to personal security, the local law enforcement agencies, particular laws and regulations, and everything that affects Americans visiting in a foreign country, the embassy RSO is the person to ask.

By contrast, the Secret Service agents advancing Presidential trips are fish out of water.  They know no one in local authority, they do not understand the language, they don’t know the laws nor how they are enforced, and they have to look at a street map to find their way. 

A few years ago, as the embassy in Madrid was preparing for a visit by President Clinton, two Secret Service agents who had just arrived, were robbed of their briefcases while checking in at a major downtown hotel.  Subsequent review of lobby video recordings showed one of Madrid’s finest thieves – the ones who prey on tourists – calmly lifting and walking away with the agents’ briefcases.  The Secret Service folks were especially embarrassed because their weapons were in those cases.  

On another occasion, in London, I witnessed the Secret Service driver deposit the President of the United States on the wrong side of a driveway, and thus out of the planned photograph and greeting ceremony with the Prime Minister, all because he was unused to driving on the left.  Even the President’s limousine should obey British road rules in London.

One has to ask, why do we entrust the President’s security to people who have only been in a town a few days? 

Especially, why do we do this when we have experienced, U.S. government sworn law enforcement officers – the DS agents – at hand with the kind of local experience, language skills, and specific foreign area knowledge needed to do the job?

7 people have commented on this article so far

Board member 

Summary: A career public diplomacy officer, Brian Carlson advises the InterMedia research organization on military and foreign affairs issues and manages communication strategies for private clients. 


Ambassador Brian E. Carlson, a former Career Minister in the United States Foreign Service, currently assists international media and audience analysis firm InterMedia on defense and diplomatic sector activities. 

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Author: Brian Carlson

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In defense of the Secret Service

I won't defend the actions of those idiots who were involved in the Colombian scandal but overall the Secret Service does a first rate job of protecting the President on overseas trips.  They don't work alone on such missions although they do have the lead.  State Department DS (Diplomatic Security) and local law enforcement have an important role to play as well and in most cases the cooperation is excellent and the job comes off without a hitch.  The local knowledge comes from them as well as other Embassy personnel.

Having been involved in nearly a dozen presidential visits over the years I too have seen my share of potentially embarrassing incidents involving security.  Perhaps the worst example was the fist fight between the U.S. security and the Russian (then still Soviet) security in Kiev during a George H.W. Bush walkthrough of an Orthodox church with Gorbachev as each side demostrated overzealousness in "protecting" their boss.  Nevertheless, relieving the Secret Service of presidential security aborad and transfering it to the State Department seems like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  

The Secret Service has a 100 percent perfect record of protection of the president abroad.  I know of several cases where the State Department failed big time in protecing American lives and property abroad (Ambassador Spike Dubs in Afghanistan, Ambassador Arnie Raphel in Pakistan, the Embassy bombings in East Africa immediately come to mind) so why solve a problem that doesn't exist?   DS tries its best and is generally doing a great job but it along with OBO (foreign buildings) is the fastest growing part of the State Department and they already use far too many resources proprotionally from this chronically underfunded cabinet department.


Those examples you gave are quite dated....this is why DS was pulled out from under the Management Officer....because DS was being managed by non law enforcement officers. The old SY DS is no comparison since then. I think the USSS does a fine job, but they need help understanding the overseas aspects of the job. I've seen their country clearances revoked because they roll in a country demanding things that they can only get in the USA and the Embassy is left dealing with their destruction. I have not had one negative visit with USSS, but they need serious guidance and assistance when they go abroad. They couldn't do their job without the RSO and ARSO's assistance.

This proposal makes no sense

There were more USSS agents on that advance team than there are RSOs in all of Colombia.


Yes, one cannot compare DSS with the former SY. There were some good folks in SY, but DSS is so much more professional now. Amb. Dubs was killed in 1979, way before DSS was established. I may be mistaken, but Amb. Raphael was killed in a plane crash in 1988? How was that incident a DSS shortcoming?

Regarding the African embassy bombings, RSOs at both Dar and Nairobi (especially the latter) had repeatedly warned the Department of the vulnerabilities of their embassies. The RSO DSS agents did their jobs. So did the RSO managed local guards and MSGs. The access point guard at Nairobi was trying to sound a warning via the emergency radio net, but couldn't get a word in edgewise because the GSO was on the same net. Makes sense, huh? Let's order water and furniture over the emergency net.

So, the comparison between SY and DSS is apples and oranges. It's very unfair to blame DSS even partially for even the African bombings. There were too many factors out of the control of DSS for the agency to have been effective in those cases. And a plane crash? DSS is great.

Nonetheless, DSS is not prepared to protect the President and there is no need. The USSS does the job well, domestically and overseas. They just need to coordinate more with the RSOs. I see from recent reporting that the Service has implemented many strict standards for overseas trips, including the requirements for detailed briefings from RSOs.

Interesting But Not Practicle

First allow me to comment on the examples stated above which were cited as failures of State Department security. Protecting an office building with DSS three agents, 30 unarmed guards, and a tight budget is a very different proposition than guarding the President with 500 agents (at any given location) and as many as 5000 local police officers aborad - not an exageration - and a budget appropaching 1 billion dollars. My point is that the examples cited above do not constiture apples versus oranges, they constitute fish versus nuclear submarines. That said, I do not agree that DSS should assume overseas responsibility for Presidential security and what follows is a partial rationale.

I would agree that DSS has the edge with regards to experience in overseas operations. However there is much much more to it than that. A Presidential trip may include 500 or more USSS agents as previously indicated. That constitutes more than 25% of the entire DSS agent corps.

1. Assuming sufficient TDY manpower could be identified and dedicated, DSS would have to fly agents in just as USSS does. Although the average DSS agent might have more overseas experience, most of the agents sent for TDY support would be just as unfamiliar with the specific venue of the event as their USSS cousins. Little to no advantage there.

2. Hundreds of tons of equipment inlcuding entire motorcades are flown in for a Presidential visit. Assuming the USSS would pay the bill, the equipment is very specialized, ranging from classified communications to special-capabilities limousines. DSS agents would need to duplicate USSS capabilities and training programs, and would likely still require specialists from USSS to assist. no advantage.

3. A part of effective protection is establishing trust and rapport, and understanding the specific needs of a protectee. DSS Agents waiting at a foreign airport for the USSS to deliver the President will not have had that critical ongoing interaction. Tactics, methods and expectations would differ. No advantage.

4. There are many more coordination, vetting, training, staffing and budgetary problems that could be cited. For example, overseas Presidential trips are planned weeks or months in advance. DSS would have to permanently embed agents in White House and USSS planning cells.

However, lets cut to the chase. The premise of the argument for using DSS versus USSS has its foundation in the assumption that no DSS agent on TDY assignment abroad would ever indulge in "notoriously disgraceful conduct" (in State Deprtment vernacular). Hmmm, Really?

Fish out of Water

I have nothing but respect for the USSS. Inside the U.S., they are the best unit to protect U.S. officials. However, overseas, they are bulls in a china shop - pushing embassy people around, dictating to local officials, and acting as an invasion force. They are arrogant in an environment that requires diplomacy and understanding. I do not know if DS has the manpower to take over this responsibility. They certainly have the skill. DS agents operate in more hostile environments on a more consistent basis with less resources than USSS agents ever will in their careers. The compromise might be to make it mandatory that all USSS agents coming in country are briefed by the RSO and that their attendance is documented. Personally, I think the USSS over-reacted on punishing the agents in the Colombia incident. I have worked with USSS agents overseas and they would never do anything that would compromise the security of the President. The USSS has let the media and some soft-chaired congressmen intimidate them. What the agents did was wrong. Punish them. Don't hang them out to dry.

DS Complicity

I wonder why no one has asked who sent the USSS to this part of town; the sad answer might very well be that the DS agents probably had a far better grasp on the local climate than any out-of-towner. To suggest that the USSS should be monitored by the RSO shop is right up there with asking the predator to guard the prey. Seems like all bets are off when americans are overseas. DS should not be tasked with protecting the President - it can barely handle its own mandate with the limited resources it has.

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