Diplomatic Security: The Road Ahead

The rapid growth in size and responsibilities at DS has brought challenges in terms of policy, personnel and training. Here is an inside look at some of the issues.


Diplomatic couriers (second, fourth and fifth from left) work with other Department of State staff to load diplomatic pouches on to an aircraft at Miami International Airport in 2015. The pouches contained material needed for the reopening of U.S. Embassy Havana.
Department of State

“We’re at a crossroads,” says Bill Miller, leaning forward as if to emphasize the urgency of the task at hand. “Diplomatic Security is changing culturally. Are we paramilitary? Are we law enforcement?”

As the principal deputy assistant secretary for the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security and director of the Diplomatic Security Service (who stepped in as acting assistant secretary for DS on Jan. 20), Miller leads an organization that is constantly adapting to keep pace with—and whenever possible, stay ahead of—events around the globe. A 30-year veteran of DS, Miller not only leads 2,100 special agents, but also engineers, investigators, technical specialists and civil servants. The largest bureau in the State Department, DS has become more influential and, in many cases, indispensable, as diplomats engage in an increasingly uncertain world.

“The complexities of our job are exponentially greater now than when I started,” Miller explains. So are the expectations. Over the past three decades, DS has grown in terms of size and budget, developing along the way into a premier global security force with a complex and evolving mission.

Risk is now everywhere. Instead of focusing their efforts on a few regions around the world, DS now takes a global perspective to battling terror.

Such rapid growth brings challenges in terms of policy, personnel and training. And while it’s difficult to find consensus within DS on how best to solve these issues, all agree on the basic mission: to continue to move confidently in conventional diplomatic circles while preparing agents to succeed in the smoke and haze that follows a terrorist attack, political coup or natural disaster anywhere in the world.

A Global Outlook

“I helped evacuate American citizens from our embassy in Beijing after protests were forcibly put down in Tiananmen Square in 1989,” says Kurt Rice, the deputy assistant secretary (DAS) for threat, investigations and analysis. Back then, if a place got too dangerous, “we simply closed the post and pulled everyone out,” he says. “But that way of working fundamentally changed after 9/11.” Today DS has to safeguard diplomatic efforts in such posts. This has caused tension between DS agents, with their perceived desire to shut operations down in dangerous places, and Foreign Service officers who need to go out into a dangerous world to get their work done.

“It’s easy to protect everyone if you always say no to everything,” says Rice, but he insists DS doesn’t say no as often as people think. DS is sometimes “painted as the folks who say no,” he acknowledges. But that isn’t accurate; that kind of thinking “doesn’t come from DS,” Rice says. He adds: “There have been many times when we said ‘Yes, we can continue to operate here’—but we’ve been stopped.” Rice’s statement is echoed by other senior DS personnel who advocate the need to assume reasonable, informed risk, but only with the understanding that the risk must be acknowledged, shared and taken in the best interests of the U.S. government.

And risk is now everywhere. Instead of focusing their efforts on a few regions around the world, DS now takes a global perspective to battling terror. “Gone are the days of going to Europe to serve in a sleepy post,” says Jim Eisenhut, currently the assistant special agent in charge at the Miami Field Office. “Anything can happen, and it can happen anywhere, and it can happen quickly.”

Pete Dinoia, the regional security officer in Ankara, agrees. “We’re not regionally focused anymore. In the past it was thought that certain areas caused challenges, but we have global challenges now,” he says. “And the department has a presence in places where years ago they didn’t.” DS is unique, Dinoia explains: “There are other law enforcement agencies that do the same type of thing we do, but not in the same places or under the same conditions.” As one agent has noted, no other law enforcement agency would want DS’s mission, which essentially amounts to protecting U.S. interests in an environment where foreign governments and hostile actors dictate the operating conditions.

Twice the Hardship: Tandem Couples

As DS adapts to the need for more temporary duty assignments (TDYs) to tough places, morale among family members has taken a hit. More agents are reporting that they like their jobs, but their families are struggling. Go on any DS message board, and you’ll see spouses who are worried about how to tell their children that yet another unaccompanied tour is coming their way. You’ll hear from spouses who are trying to manage households in far-flung locations while their employee spouse has disappeared on yet another TDY with no clear end date. And, of course, you’ll hear about the special hell that is DS bidding.

For tandem couples, the challenges of trying to keep a family together can be even worse. “DS has tried to make it work for us,” says one agent and mother of two. “But somebody has to raise the kids. Somebody has to be there.”

“It’s going to work early on,” she continues, but “it’s difficult down the road.” For the first eight years of her career, she says, “things were easy.” But as the couple advanced in their careers, it became harder to find posts where they could serve together. And because they have small children, they are facing multiple years apart as they separately complete the requirement to serve at unaccompanied posts.

It used to be that agents were required to do an unaccompanied tour once per career, but now it's once a decade, and the math works against tandems: “That’s four years apart during our career,” she says. “My generation of agents didn’t sign up for that level of hard-core, high-threat work. What’s the plan for families left behind?”

“If you’re a tandem,” she says, “expect to sacrifice. The question for us now is, how deep is that sacrifice going to be?”

The long-term separations take a toll on marriages, so she’s not “shocked and horrified” when people split up. “What does this separation do to the quality of relationships?” she asks. “Separating made us stronger,” she adds. “But it can be a death sentence.” She wouldn’t have been able to move up the DS ladder without the support of her agent husband, whom she calls her “biggest cheerleader,” but she thinks she’s an outlier: “If we can make it work, we’ll be the exception, not the rule.”

Together since high school, Jim and Shannon Eisenhut have been part of DS for more than a decade. They are currently posted in Miami, but they plan to move to Baghdad—for the second time this decade—in 2017. Jim thinks the key to success as a tandem is flexibility. “Your career path isn’t as simple,” he says, because of the multiple approval processes you have to go through to try to get assigned together.

“We don’t have kids, but it’s still challenging,” says Shannon. “We just want to be together, and because of that our options are extremely limited.” That’s why the couple decided to go back to Iraq for a second tour.

Recent changes to the nepotism regulations have restricted tandems like Shannon and Jim even more, and they say many tandems are encouraged to take leave without pay so they can stay together without quitting. “I know a handful of agents who have decided to leave DS,” says Shannon. “Some have already left.” They were “rising stars,” she says, but they couldn’t find a way to make the career work for their marriages.

The Eisenhuts think DS could fix this problem and retain more of their qualified tandems if the bureau created a roster of telecommuting jobs. Imagine one spouse is assigned to a post in South America or Europe. Put the other spouse in the same post, and that person could be a “regional desk officer” with a quicker response time than somebody else posted back at headquarters. There are ways to make this work, they say, but “it comes down to funding, policy and changing mindsets.”


Evolving Environments

DAS Rice says half-jokingly that if he were to apply for a job with DS today, “they wouldn’t hire me.” When Rice joined DS 30 years ago, a typical agent class was made up of “about one-third former military, one-third former police officers and one-third people like me, who came out of grad school.” DS now hires a larger percentage of people with military experience; and, while that isn’t a bad thing, Rice wants to maintain the diversity of experience that has made DS strong historically. The department focuses on hiring a workforce that looks culturally diverse; but Rice argues that for DS intellectual diversity is equally important: “I want the best brain regardless of the husk they wear.” He believes that the strength of DS lies in the fact that its personnel come from a broad range of backgrounds.

Like the rest of the State Department, DS seeks smart, flexible employees. But because their role within State is different, their best employees are different, too. Regional security officers work within an environment that is constantly evolving, depending on the changing threats at any given post, and Rice says a good RSO is capable of solving problems in a way that is “diametrically opposed to the regular Foreign Service.” The State Department typically makes decisions on a consensus basis, but in an emergency situation, “we don’t have time to reach agreement. We take action.” A successful officer knows when to make a decision independently and when to strive for consensus.

The ability to lead is of vital importance. DS Agent and Assignments Officer Greg Batman says assignment panels look for people with a track record of leadership, and agents are taught leadership skills from the beginning of their careers: “Even in basic agent school, we’re looking for ways to get that message across.” When they arrive at post, he explains, assistant RSOs are often put in charge of a guard force of more than 100 members or a team of local national investigators. And “if we’re going to put people in leadership positions, we need to train them how to lead,” he says. Some agents argue that even more training is necessary earlier in their career, noting that mandatory leadership training required by the department doesn’t start until the FS-3 level. While many in DS do well with the “learn by doing” approach, it can overwhelm a first- or second-time ARSO.

DS personnel advocate the need to assume reasonable, informed risk, but only with the understanding that the risk must be acknowledged, shared and taken in the best interests of the U.S. government.

With DS mandating paramilitary training for all of its agents regardless of their assignment, the skill sets of agents will necessarily broaden and change. Some people aren’t happy with this direction, expressing concern that the paramilitary aspect of DS may become predominant. When she started 10 years ago, one agent notes, “I didn’t recognize the militaristic aspect of this career.” While she believes in the importance of this training, she thinks DS needs to do more to support its staff as the demands on them grow. “We’re seeing more temporary assignments to high-threat posts making us more paramilitary,” she says. “But the military has a strong support system for families. If that’s where we’re going, we need to have an equally strong support system.”

Another agent agrees that the militarization of the organization is important, but difficult for agents to manage. “I think DS does an exceptional job of training and preparing us for the multiple roles we have abroad,” she says. Still, she adds, “no matter how much you train me, my 5-foot self will never be ready for combat. I didn’t sign up to be part of a paramilitary organization, and I feel I have a different set of skills that would be of value to this agency elsewhere, not just in places like Iraq.”

So how does DS train people so they can move from places like Iraq to more traditional embassy settings, and back again?

A DSS security engineering officer (left) assigned to the Office of Security Technology inspects a temporary antenna used to relay security video feeds near the United Nations headquarters in New York in September 2016. Looking on are a mobile video system program manager (center, in red jacket) and another DSS security engineering officer (right).
Department of State

Building a Better Agent

Everyone who has been through the 11-week Advanced Tactics and Leadership Skills training course—which all agents, from the most junior to DS seniors, are now required to take—agrees that the training is an excellent primer for what to do in an emergency. ATLAS replaced and expanded the two-week-long high-threat training courses that were previously required only for those going to danger posts. With threats rolling in across the globe, even in places that used to be considered safe, the training has become a necessary addition to the DS toolkit.

RSO Dinoia says the training helps prepare people for the wide variety of roles they’ll play throughout their career: “We are specialists, but we need to break that down further than just ‘DS vs. FSO.’ We specialize for short periods of time for a particular assignment, but we have the ability to switch to a different challenge at the next place. What you do in Baghdad or Kabul will be different from what you do in other places. That core training prepares you.” Batman agrees, explaining that a new agent, first posted to Baghdad, might think it’s okay to show up next in Europe and head to the country team meeting with a gun strapped to his belt. He or she has to be taught that different posts require different roles.

Of course, before you can take the ATLAS course, you have to be hired—and it’s become harder than ever to make it through the selection process. One senior DS agent says the bureau is actively recruiting a more diverse group of people than in past years; and while the organization may be moving in a more militarized direction, it isn’t necessarily seeking former military personnel to fill the ranks. The current group of DS seniors is almost entirely made up of white men, he says, but that’s because “when these folks came on, that’s almost exclusively who applied.” In the next few years, he says, you’ll see the results of DS recruiting efforts, as they pull in more women, minorities and people with advanced degrees.

Some people express concern that the paramilitary aspect of DS may become predominant.

The question now becomes, how do we keep these new people happy? In the past DS hired people who were qualified for the job, he says. But, he adds, “we didn’t manage their expectations. The job is complicated and extremely stressful on families.” Past recruits didn’t understand that, he explains: “They didn’t get that there can be enduring medical issues, mental or physical, because of this job. We hired people and didn’t help them understand what we needed or what they’d be doing.” Now that DS is doing a better job weeding out the recruits who aren’t really up for the mental and physical challenges of the job, he thinks retaining the good employees will become less of an issue.

The Pain of Bidding

Spend a few minutes talking to a DS employee or spouse about the job, and you’ll most likely get an earful about bidding. In the “normal” Foreign Service, they’ll remind you, almost every bidder gets an assignment on the same day in late fall. But for DS bidders, the process drags on for months, and the wait can be agonizing. Says one agent who is currently on his third overseas tour, “This is the first year of the ‘new shortened bidding season.’ Yeah, right. The department apparently forgot to tell the DS seniors, because it seems to be business as usual on the bidding front.”

Kurt Rice has an explanation: Foreign Service officers “are writers. They talk to people.” They can do that at any post, whereas “specialists have to bring specific backgrounds to each post. We have to put people in who have the right skills. We need to put people where they can flourish.” Greg Batman agrees that DS leadership considers “where the need is, and where the person fits.”

Batman thinks people need to look at “realistic bidding and the overall numbers.” There are “a finite number of jobs for people at the FS-3 level,” he says, and the process itself takes bidders out of DS. To become an RSO, for example, you have to lobby with the regional bureau. “You go outside of DS,” explains Batman. “If they’re bidding on RSO jobs, we have to wait for that regional input.”

What holds the process up, explains Batman, is this: “Everyone is bidding on the same 10 positions. We had more than 60 bidders for Oslo, Skopje, Sydney. That’s not hard to fill.” But at some point, he adds, “you have to go to African posts, Moscow, headquarters. Right now we have over 30 jobs in Baghdad alone. We have jobs with a service need to fill, but we can’t make people bid on them.”

Spend a few minutes talking to a DS employee or spouse about the job, and you’ll most likely get an earful about bidding.

Bill Miller believes part of the problem is the sheer number of bidders at the middle levels. “Do the math,” he says. “Our top 10 bid positions at the FS-3 level had 548 bids. That’s an average of 54 bids on each job. For every one person who is excited about their assignment, 53 will be upset.”

“Ten years ago, you put in a list and you got an assignment,” says Batman, whereas now potential bidders need to sell themselves to prospective offices. “The expectation is you’re making the calls, engaging with these offices. The reality is there are a lot of great agents. You need to contact those offices and tell them why you’re the best person for the job.”

When agents complain that they believed they’d spend the majority of their career overseas, DAS Rice corrects them. When he came on in the late 1980s, he says, “we never did get overseas.” Back then, there was a five-year rule before you could serve overseas. “We used to have more RSO jobs for our size. Now it’s way harder to be an RSO. You probably have to do multiple ARSO tours.” His advice to frustrated bidders: “There’s only one rule in the Foreign Service: needs of service. Sometimes you will benefit, sometimes you will not. Bloom where you’re planted, be flexible and work to make yourself into a commodity.”

Changing Times

“Bloom where you’re planted” is good advice not just for bidders, but for everyone under the umbrella of the Diplomatic Security Service. As they move into an increasingly uncertain and dangerous future, DS agents have to be prepared to change with the mission.

Flexibility, creativity and intense training are required of anyone who wants to stay in the bureau. The people who have survived and thrived as DS has taken on broader, more complex responsibilities are excited about the challenges they see ahead, even as they remain pragmatic about the struggles they’ll be forced to endure, both personally and professionally, to stay afloat.

Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor. The spouse of a DS agent, she has lived in Amman, Moscow, Yerevan, Almaty, Beijing and, currently, Washington, D.C.


Not Just Guns, Guards and Gates…

When most people think of Diplomatic Security, they think of federal agents with their guns and badges, or of the regional security officers they meet overseas. But of the 50,000 employees of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, only about 2,100 are special agents. DS also employs more than 220 engineers and 100 diplomatic couriers, as well as 160 security technicians, 1,000 uniformed officers, 850 civil servants and more than 37,000 Locally Employed guards. DS even counts more than 100 Seabees—members of the U.S. Naval Construction Forces—among its staff.

Overseas, says Kurt Rice, the deputy assistant secretary for threat, investigations and analysis, a security office at a large embassy needs all of these people to be successful. Together, he says, a good team can work as “an orchestra for calm” in an emergency. In the United States, analysts and other civil servants are a critical piece of the puzzle, without which DS simply couldn’t function.

One analyst who has been with DS for the past decade says the “new DS” recognizes and respects the importance of his role. “The analytical role was less important back when the bureau only focused on guns, guards and gates,” he says. His role is to provide actionable intelligence to both DS leadership at headquarters and RSOs in the field. Using his analysis, “informed RSOs can take chances. They are more likely to be successful because of the work we do.” Because of his work, “FSOs can go out from behind the walls and do their jobs.”

“Every civil servant in the bureau has a role to play,” the analyst continues. “It all goes to serving greater DS.” Without couriers to move classified pouches from post to post, for example, embassies would cease to function. “Pouches are more than just papers,” he points out. He also singles out Seabees, who maintain and repair security systems at embassies overseas, and employees of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, who work closely with DS to ensure that new buildings meet all security standards. “DS couldn’t exist without all of these different people,” he states.

One Seabee, a former employee of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Security Technology, praises the training and resources DS gave him. “ST has some of the most sophisticated security and countermeasure systems available today,” he says, and provides “top-tier training to its engineers and technical specialists.” The biggest difficulties he faced while in his position at one of the largest embassies overseas, he says, arose because of the sheer size of the RSO office. At a large post, he says, not everyone who works for the RSO shares the same office space; this can create a “sense of disconnect” that a good RSO will work to overcome. He applauds the work done at the DS Command Center in Northern Virginia, saying that their employees “provide information and support that allows informed decision-making” at post.

Seabees. Engineers. Office managers. Locally Employed staff. Making sure all of these people are on the same page is critical to keeping DS on task across the globe. Every employee at headquarters and throughout the various field offices knows who they are supporting around the world. And each one of them fills an important role within the bureau.