Podcast: Covert Surveillance — Training and Techniques
What is it like to covertly follow a target through the crowded streets of a foreign country? In this episode, Glynn Cosker talks to AMU criminal justice professor Jennifer Bucholtz about her surveillance career in the military, government, and as a private investigator. Learn about some of the covert surveillance tactics she perfected in order to blend in to any situation and the importance of creating a believable cover story. Also learn about some of the technology she used as well as some her most challenging and difficult undercover assignments.
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Transcript of the Podcast:
Glynn Cosker: I’m Glynn Cosker, your host and joining me today is AMU faculty member Jen Bucholtz. How are you, Jen?
Jen Bucholtz: Hi, Glynn, how are you? I’m really glad to be back with you on the show and having another interesting conversation.
Glynn Cosker: Sounds like a plan. Yeah, I’m doing fine. Doing fine. So, Jen, you’ve worn many hats in your distinguished career, but today we are going to focus on your experience in the field of surveillance.
And it’s probably not what I imagined it to be because I always think of the person sat in the parked car for 48 hours with their binoculars and the big long lens sticking out of an inconspicuous part of the car or something like that. And I’m sure it’s nothing like that, which you are going to tell us about. So why don’t you start by giving the audience a feel for your experience in the field of surveillance?
Jen Bucholtz: Sure. And I will note that you’re correct. What’s often portrayed in movies is not really accurate to real life at all, but we could discuss that as we go on today.
So I was active-duty Army, and I got my first surveillance training course when I was stationed in South Korea. And let me just tell you, you can’t see me, but I’m 5’11”, and I have blondish-brownish hair, so you can imagine how well I fit in walking around the streets of Seoul, Korea, trying to surveil Koreans.
That was my first training experience there, where we got about, I believe, it was a month-long training course. And then later, after I separated from the Army, I was accepted into probably one of the most stringent surveillance courses that was offered by the Department of Defense. It was a very stringent process getting accepted into it. It was 16 weeks long. The hardest training I’ve ever done in my life by far.
Glynn Cosker: What made it hard?
Jen Bucholtz: The instructors were constantly throwing curveballs at you. So you never knew what to expect from one day to the next. You thought you had your team planned out for the next morning, say, to surround a target’s home, so to speak, and follow that target around town for the day. And then 15 minutes before you’re supposed to be on site, the instructors would call and change it. And so you have to quickly adjust and adapt and get your team in a different situation or reacting to a different situation properly.
It was also incredibly challenging because the majority of the training took place in Washington, D.C. So you’re talking about all different types and methods of transportation that our role players and targets would use from buses to the subway system, which is pretty extensive in D.C., taxi cabs. There wasn’t Uber back then, but hopping in the car with a friend, whatever it might be. I mean, there was always challenges to trying to conduct adequate surveillance in the Washington D.C. area.
Glynn Cosker: I can imagine. Yes. But you also have some years of experience internationally for the Department of Defense as well. Why don’t you talk about that?
Jen Bucholtz: That’s correct. So after that four-month program, that led into a job for the Department of Defense conducting surveillance all over the world. And although I can’t talk about every particular mission and the exact reason we were there, what I can say is that we were directly supporting force protection efforts and anti-terrorism efforts around the world.
So I traveled to many different countries and continents. But, we weren’t always international either. I mean, we often conducted training for other agencies in the U.S. And a few times we even had missions inside the U.S., but for the most part, we were overseas for the majority of our contracts.
Glynn Cosker: How many years did you spend doing surveillance?
Jen Bucholtz: Well, I was in the Army for five years. And then once I transitioned over to Department of Defense as a civilian, I did another five years for them doing that surveillance job in support of force protection and antiterrorism. And then that’s actually continued on a little bit for me as a private investigator. In the last few years, I’ve picked up some surveillance contracts just as a private investigator.
Glynn Cosker: Interesting. So you went from that government military career into the realm of private eye, as they say. So what was that like? The skills that you picked up over your career, I’m sure they came in handy when you became a private investigator.
Jen Bucholtz: What I found out is that doing surveillance as a private investigator, for the most part, is so much easier than it was doing it for the Department of Defense. Because working for Department of Defense overseas, you always had to keep in the back of your mind that the local law enforcement in that country might pick up on you, might see you doing something that they think is out of the norm or suspicious, and they may stop you.
As a private investigator, there’s not too much threat of that. For one, I’m just working within the United States, and you also have a private investigator’s license, so if you do get questioned by a police officer, you can pull your license out and explain, “I’m conducting surveillance for a client. This is why I’m here.” For the most part, law enforcement understands that and lets you go on your way. In a foreign country, that’s not always going to be the case.
Glynn Cosker: It must be a whole different experience when you’re trying to be inconspicuous in some other country.
Jen Bucholtz: Correct. And the targets that we were surveilling overseas were more challenging because many of them knew how to detect surveillance. So then you have to be even more clandestine and careful in your actions and how you choose to surveil that person.
For example, if you’re surveilling a wife whose husband thinks she’s cheating on him, the chance of that woman knowing how to detect covert surveillance is very slim. So you don’t have to be quite as careful or quite as covert and that, in turn, makes it easier to always keep track of your target.
Glynn Cosker: Interesting, interesting. So there’s many different types of surveillance that I’m sure you’ve conducted over the years, both on the military and the government side, as well as your private investigations. So tell me, what are the main types of surveillance that you can conduct?
Jen Bucholtz: Well, like you said, at the beginning, the impression that a lot of people have is that surveillance is just a stakeout where you just sit in a car for hours on end watching a house. I’ve done that. But in my past experience, that wasn’t the majority of the time. That’s not what we were doing.
So the main types of surveillance in general are foot, which is where you’re literally on foot. You’re walking, following a person. Mobile, which is you are in some sort of type of transportation. It can be a car, but like I mentioned earlier, it could also be a bus. It could be an airplane. It can be a subway. If you are not propelling yourself on your own power and another vehicle is, that’s considered mobile surveillance.
And then static is the type that you often see in the movie where you are in one spot for several hours at a time watching one particular location. And then there’s also technical surveillance, which I think a lot of people don’t think about, but sometimes you don’t have to use your own eyes to watch a target.
You can use a camera, a hidden video camera, or a GoPro. I’ve used GoPros on many missions, just because they are so small, they’re so easy to hide. They have great photo and video quality. So if you can replace a human being with a small camera, sometimes that’s the way to go.
Glynn Cosker: Interesting. Now, on that side of things, do you think that having technology such as a GoPro and other forms of recording equipment, do you think that they’re a benefit compared to that just old-fashioned, on your feet sort of surveillance?
Jen Bucholtz: I mean, every situation dictates what type of surveillance is going to be most appropriate. So it really just depends on the situation that you’re in. It also depends where your target goes. If they go into a location that’s difficult for you to follow them into, you sometimes have to adjust and figure out a different option.
For example, if you are in a Middle Eastern country, there is no way that I can follow a man, actually not even a woman, into a mosque. And so sometimes you have to, what we would say, recruit a secondary source to help you keep track of that person inside the mosque.
But the other thing you can do is if, let’s say, the person has a routine, a pattern of life, we call it, where they go to the mosque every single Friday at noon. We’ve established that, we know that routine. Then we don’t necessarily need to be inside there with them. We can set up a car in the parking lot with a hidden camera, and we don’t even have to be in it, just to capture their movements going in and out of the mosque.
Now, if it gets more in-depth where we think that there’s some sort of secret meeting going on in the mosque, or maybe information is being exchanged, then we have to go to the next level, which, like I said, could be recruiting secondary sources who can follow the person into the mosque for you.
So it just depends on each situation. And this was part of the beauty of that stringent training I went through, is it really taught you to adapt on your feet. I mean, I always had at least two cameras on me at all times. And a GoPro can go right in my pocket. I have other small cameras that could also go in a pocket.
As a female, I’m lucky because I can carry a purse or a messenger bag and I don’t look out of place doing that. So it’s easy for me to carry that type of equipment on me in case I need it. And the guys I worked with, sometimes that was more of a challenge because a guy carrying a purse is going to attract attention. It doesn’t look normal.
But, depending on what country you’re in, you start to look at the culture and what do people carry with them, and we would all just adapt to that. And the guys would find a way that they could carry this equipment with them in case they needed to use it.
Glynn Cosker: So you’re out in the field and you’re surveilling “target” or a group or whatever the subject of the surveillance is, now, do you have eyes on you at all times? I mean, do you have colleagues who are obviously watching your back?
Jen Bucholtz: In working for Department of Defense, we always had a team, so you would never be doing surveillance by yourself. Now, you might be in a vehicle by yourself, but there’s always other team members around. If we felt, or somebody felt, that they had been discovered doing surveillance, we would run what we call a counter-surveillance route, where we would have that particular person walk and drive around the city to different locations, get in and out of their car, go in and get coffee, get gas, whatever, while the other team members are watching them.
And we would all make note of anybody that was following our team member, any vehicles that would follow them. And then at the end of that route, we can compare notes and say, “I saw a red Ford Festiva. What cars did you guys see?” And two other members might say, “Wait, I saw red Festiva too. And this was a license plate.”
Well, the general rule in surveillance is two times can be a coincidence, but if you see the same person or car three times in a day, it’s probably not coincidence.
So then we could determine whether a team member had been outed or was under surveillance themselves, and then we make adjustments then: What do we need to do? Do we need to evacuate them from the country? Can they just hang back at the hotel for a couple of days, and then get back in the mix with us? But, again, every situation is different, so there’s no set rule on exactly how it gets handled every time.
Glynn Cosker: Got it. And just to point out, it was not me in that red Ford Festiva, just so you know. I was clear across town at that time, so. I kid, but you know, what you’re talking about, of course, is the topic of many TV shows and movies.
And I think you know personally for me that one of my favorite TV shows is “Homeland” on Showtime. And, of course, it basically centers around a lot of what you’ve been describing. So I have to ask you, is it anything like what you see on TV? I mean, I can’t imagine that it is, but then in some ways, I suspect there might be a few things that are similar.
Jen Bucholtz: I think some shows and movies do get it pretty close to correct. My overall impression on TV shows and movies is that they just make surveillance look so easy and it’s not. It’s so difficult.
Matt Damon in the “Bourne Identity,” he’s able to follow, I forget the woman, that he was coaching, basically, over the phone, where to go, and they’re in this massive crowd of people and somehow he can keep his eye directly on her and identify every single threat that’s coming at her and direct her which way to turn and all this stuff. I can’t imagine anybody being able to really do that to that level.
Glynn Cosker: So you haven’t done what Tom Cruise did and hang off the wing of a plane when it was taking off, while you were trying to surveil some missiles that were going to the wrong people. You haven’t done that.
Jen Bucholtz: I have not done that. The only time I hung off the wing of a plane was to go skydiving.
Glynn Cosker: Okay. All right. Well, that’s fun though. It’s just always interesting to speak to somebody who is like the real-life Claire Danes on “Homeland,” if you get my drift.
So you mentioned about when you might be in a country where there are certain rules for women compared to men, do you have a situation from firsthand knowledge or firsthand experience where you’ve had to be quick thinking and to blend in to a situation?
Jen Bucholtz: Well, one that comes to mind, although, actually I was in the U.S., but we were following a target who went into an extremely high-end restaurant. You’re spending $200, $300 a person type place. This was in New York City.
And I’m not by myself, but I had the eye, as we call it. I was the one who watched the target go into this restaurant. And I looked down at what I’m dressed in, and I’m like, “There’s no way I can walk in there.” I think I was in jeans or something, in a polo shirt maybe.
I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s no way I could walk in there by myself dressed like this.” And so we’re all connected on radio. So the whole team can hear what’s going on. So what we did was one of my teammates came and got me with a vehicle, and I had a change of clothes in the vehicle.
I actually had a dress because it’s New York, and you have to have clothing for every situation. I actually had a dress and some dress shoes. I got in the back seat, threw it on. We parked.
And this teammate was a male, which is what’s going to look most natural. He actually already had a blazer and suit on. So he was already ready, dressed to go. And so I got dressed real quick. We both walk into the restaurant looking like a couple. You don’t have to kiss your partner or even hold hands to convey to people around you that you’re a couple.
When I do training on this for new trainees, they get alarmed that I would pretend to be in a romantic relationship with someone who’s not my husband. This is particularly true when I’ve been training in southeast Asia.
And I say, “You don’t have to touch the person to convey that you’re a couple. All you have to do is share your menu. You can show them pictures on your phone. It’s just the body language.”
And so that’s what we did. And it worked perfectly because we got a table near the target. We were able to keep eyes on the whole time. We could still convey what was going on to the rest of our team, who’s outside the restaurant ready to pick up the target when they leave.
And it worked out fine, but it was just one of those situations where we didn’t know ahead of time that the target was going to go to this high-end fancy restaurant. But thankfully, we had the tools with us that we could adjust.
Glynn Cosker: The tools being a dress.
Jen Bucholtz: Yeah. I mean the proper clothing makes all the difference in some of these situations.
Glynn Cosker: It’s interesting. But, yeah, just a simple thing like that.
Jen Bucholtz: You learn to change clothes very quickly. I literally can be walking down the street doing foot surveillance following someone, and I can change my entire look and still stay on them and still communicate with my team.
I actually do a presentation on this for the surveillance course I teach in southeast Asia, where I’m teaching the class on covert surveillance. And aside from changing my pants, I changed my entire look within about two, three minutes, but it takes a pretty tremendous amount of time to perfect that and learn that over the years. It doesn’t come naturally.
Glynn Cosker: No, I don’t imagine. It sounds like there’s extensive training that goes into this field. Now, we’ve mentioned some of the interesting, exciting aspects of it, but surely there has to be a little bit of boredom associated with it as well. It’s not like in the movies where they’ll pan to the person doing the surveillance, and then five minutes later that person finds their target, succeeds, and everything’s great. It’s more like in real life, you probably sat there for hours on end with nothing to do, right?
Jen Bucholtz: That has happened many times. Many times the movie version is reality, where you are stuck in a car just watching a house or watching a hotel or whatever it may be, just waiting for your target to come out. And sometimes they never come out.
And that brings up even more challenges though. If you are stuck sitting somewhere for a while, you have to start thinking about, “Are the neighbors going to notice me? Is a law enforcement officer going to drive down the street and wonder what I’m doing? How long can I sit on this bus bench?” That’s a thing. Sitting on a bus bench works, but if you don’t get on a bus at some point, someone’s going to notice.
So you have to think about your environment and how long you can realistically stay in a spot without being noticed or without looking suspicious or somebody questioning you.
Glynn Cosker: So what do you do if that happens? Yeah, it’s like, “You’ve been sat at this bus stop for five hours. Can I get you an Uber, or?”
Jen Bucholtz: Exactly.
Glynn Cosker: So what do you do if that happens?
Jen Bucholtz: Well, there’s two things. Number one, in theory, you know where you’re going to sit ahead of time. So you need to figure out what’s my cover story. If a neighbor comes out to my car and asks why I’m sitting in front of their house, what’s my story?
If a police officer knocks on my window on the street of New York or whatever, “Why are you parked here? You’re parked illegally.” That’s another problem. “You can’t be here.” What’s my story? Why am I here? You have to have this planned ahead of time.
Like you said, sitting on a bus stop, you can sit there for 30, maybe 60 minutes, depends on the buses and how many there are and how often they come, but you can’t sit there for five hours. Nobody does that.
So in the case of the bus stop, you have to rotate team members. So one person can sit there legitimately for 30 to 60 minutes. But at some point, that cover, as we call it, gets worn out. They actually need to get on a bus, ride the bus down a couple of stops. But another team member needs to then come sit on that bus stop in order to maintain the coverage.
Glynn Cosker: It’s interesting. I’m never going to be able to look at a bus stop again the same way now.
Jen Bucholtz: You won’t. And you will start noticing how many people sit in their cars. Every time I see someone sitting in their car, especially if they’re not on their phone, I look, and I’m like, “What are you doing?”
Glynn Cosker: Well, it’s an interesting thing. I took my son fishing the other night, him and his buddy. And we were the only car pulling in, and I noticed one car in the corner. And it was just an individual sat in the car, the only other car in the parking lot. And there were some things to be looking at across the street, which to be honest with you, that popped through my mind.
I’m not sure that person was a part of the intel community, but it’s often something that you do sort of see every day and there are people hiding in plain sight, as they say, right?
Jen Bucholtz: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, that very well could have been someone doing surveillance, who knows? You can tell also sometimes the direction the car is parked. If I go in a parking lot and a car is parked, what we call, tactically, where they’ve backed in, but everybody else has their nose into the parking spots, that always stands out to me because I’m like, “Why?” And especially if they’re sitting in their car, why are they facing that way?
There’s a particular reason that they’re sitting in their car facing that way. So that can be a giveaway that someone’s doing surveillance. And that’s something you always have to think about. If you pull into a parking lot and everybody’s nose in, you need to go nose in, and then you need to use your rear-view mirror and other mirrors to watch behind you rather than make it convenient for yourself and back in because if you do that, you stick out like a sore thumb.
Glynn Cosker: And we’re back. So, Jen, we were talking about some of the challenges that you face when you’re conducting surveillance, including not having the right or, in your case, having the right clothing to wear for the situation and knowing all of the different nuances that go into it like sitting at the bus stop and being conscious of your surroundings and making sure that you’re not staying in one place too long, etc.
But, where can you use these type of skills? For instance, if any of our listening audience wanted to get into this field, what would be your advice? And what kind of surveillance jobs are out there for people and in those situations?
Jen Bucholtz: Sure. I mean, obviously the intelligence community has quite a bit of surveillance that they do. I mean, that’s basically what I was doing in those five years for Department of Defense was supporting the intelligence community.
Those types of jobs are, I don’t want to call them higher level, but they require some more specialized training. If someone wants to become a private investigator, they can go through civilian surveillance courses. I believe they all cost something, but it’s obviously excellent training because even if you’re doing low level surveillance, as I would call it, like the cheating spouse, you still don’t want to alert that person that they’re being followed. That could blow your whole operation. So it is good to get some training. And there’s civilian companies that do provide training courses for people that want to become private investigators.
And then, obviously, law enforcement. Inevitably, any police officer is probably going to end up conducting some sort of surveillance at some point in their career. Now, every training academy for every different police agency is going to have different qualifications, different training skills that they train on. Some probably train on surveillance, some probably don’t. Maybe it’s a specialized course that police officers have to go through later on in order to become a detective or whatever it may be.
But there’s a lot of different avenues. If somebody wants to conduct surveillance, I know that there’s contract jobs out there for it. So there’s definitely many different options for it.
Glynn Cosker: What are some of the memorable moments in your surveillance career, anything stick out in your mind? I’ve got to imagine doing this kind of work, you have to be ready for anything. And so what are some of your most memorable surveillance jobs?
Jen Bucholtz: Probably my most memorable, and one of my most challenging, was going undercover at an animal rights conference and march.
Glynn Cosker: Hold on. You weren’t disguised as a dog were you, or a cat, or anything like that? Or a bear, or a seal, or?
Jen Bucholtz: No.
Glynn Cosker: I was just going to say because that would be dedication.
Jen Bucholtz: Although during the march, I will say some people had on actual animal costumes. There was a cow and a pig and stuff. It was definitely the most eye-opening experience, but I was asked to go undercover to this conference and march.
And it wasn’t to collect on PETA or anything like that. I believe the objective, which was never clearly defined, but I believe the objective was just to make sure that this group wasn’t posing any physical threats to the local community or groups in the local community or anything like that. And they weren’t. They were very peaceful. They were not promoting violence, nothing like that.
They really were just educating people on being a vegan. I learned all about veganism, and then just trying to protect animals from, for example, cosmetic companies testing on animals. That’s obviously something that they’re very against. So that’s one of the big, big messages that they were trying to convey.
But, here’s the thing; you don’t just go undercover at a conference, especially about animal rights, because I don’t know hardly anything about it. This required an immense amount of research ahead of time. I also had to learn about being vegan ahead of time so I could talk intelligently about it because at this conference, number one, I’m there by myself. Unfortunately, I did not have somebody I could take with me as a buddy. So I’m there by myself. So I know people in this conference are going to be curious like, “Oh, how’d you get into this? What are you doing here?”
I made sure I had my university ID on me. And my cover was going to be that for their sociology department, I was doing research on forming a course around animal rights and veganism.
And I actually had to use that cover story a few times. People loved it. They were so excited that this other university was looking at adding this to their program. I feel really guilty because it’s never going to be added to their program. But for my job that day, it worked. But I went through this whole conference on being a vegan and animal rights.
And I met some interesting people, but I had to go participate in the march that they had the second day. And, for one, it was very cold. It was up in northern Colorado, and it was cold. It was almost snowing. So I was freezing, but you know, you do what you got to do. But, yes, there were people at the march dressed as cows, dressed as pigs, lots of dogs, which is fine. And we marched around for a couple hours with these big signs, and I just had to play along.
And there was some other tasks that had been given to me that I’m not really going to divulge. And there was some other things that I was collecting on there, but I had to play the part, but it took so much research ahead of time to be able to effectively play that part and be able to speak to my cover story because you can’t just walk in there. If someone says, “Well, why are you here?” You can’t just say, “Well, I don’t know; I was just walking by.” That’s not going to work, so.
Glynn Cosker: So tell me about some other interesting memorable surveillance jobs you’ve had.
Jen Bucholtz: Well, one of the other most challenging situations, which was not planned, was following a target onto an airplane and flying to another state. So I get a call about five o’clock in the morning from my boss, and I was asleep. I had been doing surveillance until 2:00, so I hadn’t been asleep very long.
And my boss calls me and says, “Hey, we just found out the target bought a plane ticket,” or maybe they hadn’t bought the plane ticket that morning, but they just found out the target was planning to get on an airplane at about 8:30 that morning. Oh my gosh. Okay.
So I only have one team member with me at the hotel, so it’s just the two of us. He had been on surveillance until 2:00 AM too. So I can’t rouse him with the phone. He’s dead asleep. So I had to have the front desk call his room.
Well, then you have to think about why am I having the front desk call his room because I can’t just tell him, “Hey, I need my partner out here so I can follow somebody onto an airplane.” So you have to have a cover story just for that. So they call the hotel room phone, and he wakes up to that. And so I said, “Call me on my cell phone.” So he did. I’m like, “We got to go.”
And so we just left our rooms. We grabbed our suitcases. We left our rental cars at the hotel and grabbed an Uber to the airport. In the Uber, I’m buying our airplane tickets. So we get to the airport, then we have to pick up the target, meaning we have to find the target because we weren’t following them in the Uber.
So it was only two of us, but we know what terminal this person’s going to come to because we know what flight they’re going to be on. So we know what security line they’re going to have to do. So the two of us just take opposite ends. And we did get the target. We found them, followed them through security.
Then we had to figure out, “Okay, how are we going to do this on the plane because getting on the plane is one thing, but we have to make sure we keep control of this target when we get off at the other end.” And there’s only two of us.
So fortunately, we were on Southwest. One of us boarded first, so we could pick our seat. And we picked a seat at the front. The other one followed the target when they got on the plane, saw where the target sat, and then proceeded past them and sat a few rows back.
And then when the target deplaned in the next city, the person up front, which I think was me, followed them off, and then the second person at the back of the plane had to catch up later.
But it got really complicated because then the target was getting picked up by a friend. We didn’t know if the target was going to get on a bus, if they were going to rent a car or what. They got picked up by a friend.
And so one of us gets left behind to get our luggage and the other hops a taxi. And you can’t just tell the taxi driver, follow that car. It’s not like the movies. You have to give them a reason.
So, anyways. I won’t get into what reason we used, but you have to have that cover story lined up. And so anyways, follow the target. We kept control of the target, meaning we kept eyes on the whole time, but that was incredibly difficult with only two people.
I’m used to having a team of like eight or 10. So it was just two of us. And then it became one while the other person was still at the airport getting luggage and getting a rental car. But we did it.
Glynn Cosker: You said you normally have a bigger team. So what would happen if there was eight of you and the same target did what he did or she did, got on the airplane?
Jen Bucholtz: What I would have done is had each team member, we would have planned it out. “Okay, if they get on a bus, you’re getting on the bus with them. If they go to the rental car counter, you guys get rental cars. If they get in a car with a friend, we’ll have to get an Uber.”
It’s easier to plan with a larger group because you can adjust better. So everybody has their direction. “If the target does this, you go with them. If they go this direction, you go with them.” And it’s just much easier for planning purposes. Plus, you have less risk of losing the person. That was my biggest fear is that they’re going to hop in a taxi or whatever, and then they’re gone. And that’s happened.
I followed a target from Washington, D.C. up to Baltimore on a train. Only two of us made the train. The rest of the team was stuck in D.C. Part of that was because they had to man their rental cars. As I’m sure you know, in Washington, D.C. you cannot just pull your car over to the side of the road and leave it.
So part of our team was in their rental cars outside the train station, waiting to see what the target did. We didn’t know if the target was going in initially just to have a meeting, to get food. Obviously, we did have somebody who witnessed the person buying a train ticket.
We’re like, “Okay. So they are getting on the train, and we know that they’re going to Baltimore.” So that was the other thing, we sent a couple team members ahead to try to get to the train station in Baltimore before the train got in. They didn’t make it. Traffic is terrible there. So needless to say —
Glynn Cosker: Yeah, I was going to say they would need a helicopter or a jet plane in order to —
Jen Bucholtz: Exactly. Yeah. That would have been really handy. So only two of us make the train, and a train is not an easy environment to keep track of a target because there’s so many train cars, and you can’t be walking down the aisle with your head swiveling back and forth looking for the person if you lose sight of them.
We managed it, but they got off the train in Baltimore, and they were gone. We think the person got in a taxi, but we don’t even know for sure. Now, we’re like, “Okay, we …” and it’s not like you just pack up and go home. That doesn’t work for Department of Defense. We had to go find them.
So it took two days. Two days with the whole team scouring Baltimore. We knew the person came in essentially on foot, right? They didn’t drive themselves to the city. I mean, my thinking was they’ll probably stay in the tourist pedestrian areas.
Two days and sure enough, I was down at the Baltimore Inner Harbor around lunchtime, and I’m going one direction and here comes the target the other way. I mean, it was pure luck, but you also just have to keep yourself alert when you’re trying to re-acquire a target.
Glynn Cosker: Yeah. I was going to say, I mean, that’s luck. And I guess that must be a huge part of this career is almost being in the right place at the right time by chance.
Jen Bucholtz: Sometimes, yeah. It’s persistence too because we weren’t going to give up.
Glynn Cosker: Well, definitely when you lose someone like this, like what you’re explaining. I mean, obviously the goal is not to lose them in the first place, obviously, but you can’t be a 100% perfect. So this person, this target, was just where you happened to be then.
Jen Bucholtz: Yes.
Glynn Cosker: So let me ask you this. So we’ve talked about targets throughout this podcast. Going back to what it’s like in the movies and on TV, are you the person that captures the target, or is there another team that swoops in and takes care of business?
Jen Bucholtz: I was only ever hired to monitor their activities and report. We didn’t have arrest powers or anything like that. Also, our top mission was to keep ourselves extremely clandestine. We didn’t ever want anybody to know that a team was in their country doing surveillance.
Now, the embassy would always know we were there, but no, you would never want to alert the local authorities or even just any of the local population to you being there doing any surveillance. So, no, we were never the ones who made any arrests or anything like that.
Glynn Cosker: But then you’d be part of the team or the debrief at the end of the mission, so to speak. And then that’s when you would find out, or you would analyze exactly what went down from start to finish for this particular mission.
Jen Bucholtz: Some. I mean, yes, we were often involved in debriefs and presentations on our findings, but there’s several targets out there that I still don’t know what they did with them. And I don’t mean did they kill them or anything, I just mean I don’t know if Department of Defense or somebody went after them and arrested them. I don’t know what the result of our work were in some of these situations.
Glynn Cosker: See, that’s interesting to me. My background is not in surveillance, which most of our listening audience has probably become well aware of by now listening to this, but it’s interesting that you don’t sometimes find out the outcomes because you put all of this effort into a project or a mission. I mean, me personally, I would want to find out what happened, but I guess that’s part of the job that you don’t necessarily always find out the outcome.
Jen Bucholtz: I mean, they told us that from day one of training. You will not always know what your efforts led to, whether your efforts were successful or not. You’re not always going to know that, and you need to be okay with that. Sometimes they chose to tell us the outcome, but more times than not, no. I don’t know what the end results of our work were.
Glynn Cosker: If you were to sum up the pros and cons of a life in intel or surveillance, what would those be?
Jen Bucholtz: It’s exciting. A lot of days are exciting. Every day is different for the most part. You might be in the same city for eight weeks, 10 weeks, 12 weeks, whatever, in a row. But every day is different.
It’s a huge mental challenge. And I really like that. A lot of times it’s a puzzle. “Okay, what can I do to blend in in this neighborhood?”
For example, I remember one neighborhood in a European city. It was a really tough area to access, but I discovered that there was a fitness center on the second floor above a restaurant nearby the target location.
And so I ended up buying a gym membership, and my cover was I’d go there every day and work out, but I could also look out the windows on the second story and see the target location. So it’s kind of fun and challenging at the same time to figure that out. “Okay, here’s the problem? How can I get access to this location and still look normal?”
Glynn Cosker: So what are some of the things which are a bit negative about that sort of life?
Jen Bucholtz: It can be very stressful.
Glynn Cosker: I mean, I imagine there’s some boredom, too, right? There has to be some boredom.
Jen Bucholtz: Boredom, which sometimes you almost welcome it.
Glynn Cosker: Really? Because there’s no smartphone, right? You’re not staring at your smartphone in the dark in some corner of some neighborhood.
Jen Bucholtz: No, you don’t dare because a smartphone illuminates your face in the car, so no way. So, yeah, especially at night, it can get boring.
Plus, you need to keep your attention on the target. And that is very hard to do hour after hour, but you learn to do it or if you have a large team, you switch out positions and keep your brain active. But, the boredom, and there’s a stress aspect to it, for sure.
The risk of a police officer pulling you over. “What are you doing here?” “I think you’re lying,” or whatever. That’s a stressor in the back of your mind.
Glynn Cosker: Does it take a lot of convincing to a police officer of why you’re there and what you’re doing?
Jen Bucholtz: I think in a foreign country, it absolutely would. Fortunately, I never ever got in that situation one time, but we did have team members who did. And some of them, it got pretty hairy. We had to send them home from the country, but that’s all part of planning your cover story, how you look, what you’re wearing, how do you blend in? How do you look the most natural?
And if you just look natural like you belong there, for the most part people leave you alone. But, again, there’s always that chance. And the stress of losing your target, that’s very stressful. The bosses don’t like it.
Glynn Cosker: That’s right. And it sounds like you’ve experienced all of those highs and lows of surveillance.
Well, Jen, thanks for being with us today, and I know that you’ll be a guest on future podcasts. So until next time, thanks for being here, Jen.
Jen Bucholtz: Absolutely. Thanks, Glynn. This was a very fun conversation.
Glynn Cosker: Well, this is Glynn Cosker. Join us next time for another episode. Goodbye for now.
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