Home Homeland Security Podcast: Life as a US Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent
Podcast: Life as a US Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent

Podcast: Life as a US Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent


Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.

By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, In Homeland Security

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to American Military University (AMU) graduate and current U.S. Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent Scott McGrath.

The U.S. Diplomatic Security Service is a bureau within the U.S. State Department that provides protection to the U.S. Secretary of State, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and other dignitaries at overseas U.S. embassies and consulates – as well as any foreign dignitaries who visit the United States.

In the podcast below, Scott offers a detailed overview of his fulfilling career and how he was able to balance obtaining his degree with AMU with his official duties for the U.S. Government. There is a transcript of our conversation below.


Scott McGrath graduated from AMU in 2009 with a degree in Intelligence Studies. Click here for more information on the degree program Scott undertook.

For more information on the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, visit their website. Here is a transcript of the podcast:

In Homeland Security: Why don’t we start with you telling us a little bit about yourself, your career so far, and the degree you received from AMU?

Scott McGrath: The degree I received from AMU in 2009 was a Bachelor’s in Intelligence Studies. That was the precursor in that it allowed me to apply for my current position as a special agent. The Diplomatic Security Service is a federal law enforcement agency for the State Department – very much like the FBI, the DEA, and ATF – they all have around 1,811 or criminal investigators or special agents. We’ve got about 2,000 special agents – probably a little bit more than that at this time – that work in diplomatic security for the State Department. And, we also have a supporting force that’s fairly large – about 35,000 people – and that includes our technical specialists our diplomatic couriers civil servants and people that supplement us.

Basically, the way I think about it is the U.S. has responsibilities. If you look at it as a pie chart, about 25 percent domestically deal with criminal investigations. So, our primary statutory authority is passport and visa fraud; we dip into a lot of things on the cyber side and the human trafficking side and a lot of transnational investigations or internationally based investigations throughout our embassies. The other 25 percent that mostly happens domestic is protection. This is where I’ve spent a good portion of my career so far. Domestically, we have a responsibility to protect the Secretary of State and we have responsibility for all the foreign dignitaries coming to the U.S. – when they’re visiting here, we will do protection details for them. We share that with our sister agency – the Secret Service. They’ll take the heads of states, kings, presidents, prime ministers and then we’ll take what would be the State Department’s equivalent to Secretary of State, Foreign ministers, and some other internationally protected persons; I’ve protected the Dalai Lama.

So that that’s pretty much the 50 percent that is mostly domestically, and then the other 50 percent is international. We’ve got 275 diplomatic missions around the world; every single embassy and most consulates depending on size have D.S. agents assigned there to the embassy and basically they are the senior law enforcement representative in that country to the ambassador. The ambassador runs the show in an embassy. He or she is in charge of all the chief of mission staff and personnel overseas. And this could be a small post like a 25 person post, you know in a Pacific island nation that has very little population, or this can be Baghdad where you have 5,000 people working there under chief of mission authority.

The size of the pool the agents will shrink or grow depending on the size of the mission as appropriate. So you might have two guys and or one guy at one of the small posts. Whereas you know you’ve got maybe 40 or 50 agents at some of the larger, high-threat posts where there’s a lot more demand for security related tasks. Overseas D.S. agents are referred to as Regional Security Officers or RSO, and anybody who’s worked in the embassy knows what an RSO is. Some of the things that they do is a lot of threat mitigation through developing implementing physical cyber and personnel security programs, and they liaise with the host nation’s law enforcement entities and foreign ministry entities. They have operational control over the Marine security guards. They manage local guards in addition to all their collateral law enforcement duties and running the law enforcement working group.

In Homeland Security: What elements of the U.S. diplomatic security service attracted to you and prompted you to seek out the kind of career you now have with the U.S. government?

Scott McGrath: A lot of people don’t know anything about the diplomatic security service. I never really heard about it prior to going to Iraq and seeing what they were doing there. They know it’s a relatively small agency compared to some of the big dogs out there like the FBI and Customs and all that stuff. But, I was able to see RSO’s working firsthand when I was contracting in Baghdad from 2006 through 2009, and I worked for a lot of them as they were managing our security programs by protecting diplomats overseas. What I was able to see is a couple of things that really attracted me. A ton of international travel in that more than half of your career is based overseas – and it’s multiple posts – you’re spending a few years at each post and you’re moving around.

So, for a guy that can’t sit still for a long like me and enjoys things changing a lot and not getting stagnant, it was the perfect position. I knew I wanted to be in law enforcement. I was involved in law enforcement from a very young age and became a police cadet when I was in high school. Where I feel like I really excelled was to develop leadership skills and stuff like that, and I was able to apply them now in D.S. later on. So that really helped. And, I have a wife who is a foreign national she’s from Australia and she is awesome. She also loves traveling. So it’s a perfect match.

In Homeland Security: What inspired you to complete your degree and why did you choose AMU?

Scott McGrath: I completed my degree while I was in Baghdad. I was fortunate enough to be in a unit where we worked a couple of days on and then had a day off. So, there’s a pretty regular schedule of having a complete day off where I was able to knock out a lot of my coursework. So, of course, being a veteran I spent 10 years in the army in the Guard and about three and a half of those active – it’s very veteran friendly school. They give the veteran tuition grant which is obviously appeasing financially, but also they let me transfer a lot of my credit. And, there were flexible schedules.

If I had work stuff come up, the instructors would work with you and be flexible which is key for me. If you’re writing a paper or something like that and then you had incoming indirect fire or you had an emergency where you had to respond, you can tell the instructors ‘hey, this is what happened’ and they’re like ‘we understand it’s OK if you’re two days late, send your essay’ –  and that was that was very appealing to me. And that’s something I wouldn’t have gotten in a traditional setting where you come to school on this day and you take the quiz on this day and that’s just the way it is.

In Homeland Security: Did your education help you in your career as far as your day-to-day activities go? For instance, is there something that you learned in class and you’re at work and you think ‘hey I’m doing something right now thanks to AMU?

Scott McGrath: Yeah, absolutely. When I was deciding which degree program to take I thought about what’s the most interesting thing I can do. And I thought that intelligence studies would be very interesting. So, I got my degree in intelligence studies and it gave me a background in how the intelligence cycle in the community works – which is great because nowadays, when I am an RSO and I’m looking at threat reporting or stuff like that (for planning purposes or reporting to an ambassador or a deputy chief of mission) I can tell them the information we’ve got coming and I know how I receive that information. I know the filters that it’s gone through and basically how it applies to us in a little bit more of an experiential lens if that makes sense. So, it definitely helps me out in almost everything I do because whether it’s criminal investigations and we’re dealing with criminal Intel, or protective Intel, you know it’s all law enforcement sensitive stuff. I can take all the information and understand it a little bit more than the average person that does not have an Intel background.

In Homeland Security: If we could go back to the Department of State for a moment how does the Department of State assist people who are seeking a career in the Foreign Service?

Scott McGrath: I can’t speak to anything other than special agents hiring process because they vary greatly. I mean, generally in the State Department, you have what we consider generalists and specialists. Generalists are what you consider your standard foreign service officer people who are going out and having meetings and setting the diplomatic tones and doing all these things – they work in consulates and they work in public diplomacy and political and economical areas – those are the brains. And I don’t really know anything about their side but the other side of the State Department is what they call specialists. Specialists are all hired with a preexisting skill set.

So if you want to come over as a nurse practitioner you need that certification to show that you have the necessary experience – and then you’re hired. They have to have some kind of background, whether it’s higher education or law enforcement military experience that qualifies them to work on the specialist side. They open up vacancies just like they would on USA jobs or something like that where you can go on and apply

In Homeland Security: OK I’m going to ask you one last question, and it’s going to go back to AMU, and it’s a question of I ask a lot of AMU’s alumni: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about going back to school and why would you recommend online learning at AMU in particular?

Scott McGrath: In my specific situation, I had to have a bachelor’s degree to apply and you know it used to be – hey, you might be able to survive in the world but it’s going to be a lot easier with a bachelor’s degree. Now, with my child growing up, it’s not even an option – you have to have a bachelor’s degree and it’s going up to a higher level. Yes, you’ll probably succeed if you have a master’s degree, but you have to have a bachelor’s degree. That is the first building block. And I have friends from the Army and I have friends in law from past law enforcement stuff who are ask me when’s the next opening in D.S is. I tell them I don’t know what it is,  -maybe in this month or this month – but do you have your degree?

For two years, back-to-back, I did four classes a semester in Baghdad. You know, if that’s not the flexibility you need to complete a degree, I don’t know what kind of flexibility you’re looking for.