Exclusive: An In-Depth Chat With A Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Agent
By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, In Homeland Security
In Homeland Security recently had the honor of accompanying some of our fine Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) officials as they performed their duties in, and near, the United Nations in New York City for the annual UN General Assembly meetings. Most Americans might assume that the U.S. Secret Service, FBI, or other ‘more famous’ agencies would conduct such business for the government, but this important security task has fallen to the DSS for decades – and it is worthy of the same name-recognition as those other government entities. The DSS can trace its origins back to World War I, but the agency was formally established in 1985 – largely in response to the 1983 U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks bombings in Lebanon.
The DSS is the federal law enforcement and security sector of the U.S. Department of State. In addition to securing missions overseas (including the safety of U.S. personnel, property and other resources), the DSS also secures the Secretary of State and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at all times. The DSS is also responsible for protecting foreign dignitaries as they attend to official business here in the United States. Needless to say, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) – held each September – is what most DSS agents refer to as their Super Bowl. Hundreds of foreign ministers, presidents, ambassadors and other diplomatic officials descend upon New York each year, and the DSS is always ready. In fact, as soon as this year’s UNGA concludes, the DSS will begin its preparation work for next year’s event – with constant planning meetings from January until September.
For the first article in this new In Homeland Security series of featured articles and podcasts on the DSS, we get the insights of a Supervisory Special Agent who was part of the security protocol at the UNGA; we’ll call him Evan. Agent Evan is a former U.S. Marine who transitioned to the DSS in the early 2000s.
Agent Evan On His Transition From The Military To The DSS:
“For background, I was a pre- and post-9/11 Marine. I enlisted in 1997, and then became a communications officer, and then I was deployed to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. I had an interesting kind of transition. I first found out about DSS when I was in the military; I was in ‘sniper school’ and I was actually in danger of failing, so I had to come in on the weekends and do some remediation in land navigation. My instructor at the time had done a tour serving in two different U.S. embassies, and he was telling me about these [DSS] special agents that he worked with, and he said nothing but the best things about them. So, I applied to the DSS in 2002 and I was actually serving a tour in Iraq when I got word that I was selected to join DSS. I began training for the DSS upon returning to the U.S. after the invasion of Iraq.”
“After their combat deployments, a lot of veterans were getting out and looking for jobs. And, the adjustment can be really, really difficult. Veterans sometimes struggle to find the sense of community that they had. They also struggle to find the structure and the pace of operations they were used to; even in peacetime, when you’re not deployed to a war zone – the operational tempo in the military is very high and fast. I was lucky enough, and fortunate enough, to not struggle with such issues because I transitioned into an organization that had the sense of community that was just as strong as what I saw in the military. At the DSS, we obviously have the structure – there is a very clear structure as far as official ranks and titles. Similar to the Marines, we do protective operations, like here at the UNGA, and also the pace is very similar. In the many years I’ve been with the DSS, it has never slowed down.”
Related article: Securing and Rebuilding Post-Conflict Nations (Podcast)
“After the military, I chose a job where I did not have to struggle with the transition and I was lucky enough – with my new career – to continue to work with the Marines in the capacity of the Marine Security Guard (MSG) program, working overseas. I should point out that being a veteran is not necessarily a requirement for a DSS job; I know, though, in the trajectory of my career, I would not have made it as far as I did, and as fast as I did – and I would not have been as successful – had I not had the military experience.”
Agent Evan On Why He Chose DSS For His Post-Military Career:
“What really attracted me to DSS was its mission and the ability to create a secure environment overseas for diplomacy. Having witnessed war firsthand with the invasion of Iraq, I really hope that – moving forward – we look to diplomacy first. I don’t know if I necessarily would have made the best diplomat, but I definitely think that – as a security officer supporting diplomacy – I am doing something that I can feel good about. The similarities to what I did in the Marines were also a factor. The intangible leadership – I mean, if I had to boil it down to one thing – such as how good or bad I was at shooting a gun or working a piece of communication equipment – I still come back to the skills of leadership that I’ve learned. And, sometimes it’s hard to quantify – it’s not like I get to say ‘hey, I shot 3,000 rounds today and now I shoot every day with the DSS’ – it’s really not like that, it really is the leadership and the interpersonal skills.”
Agent Evan On Securing The U.N. General Assembly:
“A big piece of the UNGA planning takes place in Washington DC; the other huge piece is what happens here in New York City. At our field office here, we refer to it as ‘Nyfo’ [New York Field Office], we have approximately 100 agents. However, planning for UNGA starts around nine months before it kicks off in New York, we have numerous NSSE [National Special Security Event] meetings which are chaired by the U.S. Secret Service, but we also meet with NYPD, state and local officials, the U.S. Coast Guard – and these are just some of the meetings that we have to attend to make sure that the plan [for UNGA] is set. I was responsible for staffing those meetings, and I was responsible for putting people in certain positions during the event. For example, we have a plan in place if we need to evacuate if there is some kind of emergency, and it was my responsibility to identify the group that would head up our evacuation plans for DSS.”
“Another huge issue is traffic control and crowd control. NYPD takes the lead, but we have a subcommittee that knows, backwards and forwards, where the dignitaries will be arriving to and departing from, where the barriers should be, and whether or not there will be a change to traffic patterns. The UNGA is a huge event, and to just bring it back to the military angle, had I not had the experience and the military planning skills – and had I not known really what it takes to plan and pull off a large-scale operation – it would be a different story. A lot of the people who go to the NSSE meetings are former military as well. As an example, the person in charge of evacuation is a former Marine; the person in charge of our ‘chutes’ and traffic is also a former marine – but for the record, I don’t just choose former Marines! It just happened that way.”
Agent Evan On His Various DSS Missions:
“I started off here in New York, and then I served in Iraq for one year. We were responsible for providing security for the reconstruction efforts of five provinces in Iraq. After that, I went on to Bogota, Colombia – I was there for two years, and at that time, the mission of the U.S. Embassy there was to pass the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Colombia. After that, I went back to Iraq, to Baghdad for a year, where I was tasked with making sure that our American diplomats got to their meetings, and then I did another year in Southern Iraq at a military base to again help support the reconstruction efforts. I then went to headquarters [in Washington DC] for two years, and my most recent overseas assignment was Kabul, Afghanistan where I was responsible for managing our emergency planning unit, and really making sure that all of the plans that we had in place such as a plan to deal with a medical emergency or a direct attack – and that was very similar to what I’m doing here [in New York] as far as drawing all of these separate entities together and making sure that we’re all on the same sheet of music.”
Stay tuned to In Homeland Security for an exclusive podcast with two DSS high-ranking officials, and future articles in this new series highlighting the DSS.