At the Frontline: Former U.S. Secret Service Agent Bill Warren

According to Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama in January could draw record crowds. Fenty is predicting anywhere from 3 million to 5 million for the inauguration and surrounding festivities.

In anticipation of a record turnout, security preparations are already well underway to ensure that the historic ceremony goes off without a hitch. In fact, in a recent AP story, Washington D.C.’s police chief, Cathy Lanier, said that her department has requested an additional 1,000 officers on top of the 3,000 it typically requests from law enforcement agencies across the country to assist with the inauguration. Over at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit System, officials have made plans to temporarily close select stations for security reasons during the inauguration and to hold some trains until the presidential motorcade has already passed over those transit tunnels.

One man who is accustomed to protecting presidents and other dignitaries during large-scale events is former U.S. Secret Service Agent Bill Warren. Warren, who now runs Vectra Security Service, a security consulting firm in Atlanta, Ga., spent more than 20 years with the agency. Prior to joining the Secret Service, Warren served seven years in the U.S. Air Force working with the White House Communications Agency, which provides communication support to the office of the president.

Working primarily with the technical security team during his time with the Secret Service, Warren knows the types of challenges that authorities face in trying to keep the president-elect safe, having helped secure the inaugurations of presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. Warren is also experienced in the realm of private security, having headed up the security department at the Georgia Tech Research Institute following his career with the Secret Service.

In this “At the Frontline” interview, Warren shares his insights on dignitary protection and what the projected turnout of people holds for Secret Service agents and other authorities charged with keeping the inauguration safe.

What types of preparations go into security for a presidential inauguration?

Because of the scope of what it is, months of preparation go into it. Because of the enormity of the size of what we’re dealing with, we’re dealing with an entire city that we’re going to have to secure. There’s very extensive planning. Numerous personnel are brought in. In fact, in the past, the service has brought in all their field techs from all the different field offices to join the Washington team to coordinate all the different searches. Not only do you have to secure the inaugural site itself, you’ve got the parade route through the city, you’ve got all the balls that night that we have to provide security for. It’s a very extensive operation.

Each [inauguration], by the nature of the beast that it is, just keeps getting more involved. Being that this one is very much of a history-making event, I’m certain that it is going to be something unlike anything the service has ever had to operate before.

What kinds of security challenges does an inauguration pose?

The biggest challenge that we face is a large crowd. There’s absolutely no way you can secure the entire city. We’d have to evacuate Washington, D.C. completely, seal the borders off and then bring everyone back one by one, which is totally impossible to do. So right there, security is almost operating at a disadvantage because there are situations where you’re going to be bringing the protectee through an unchallenged atmosphere of the crowds. That’s where your levels of security have to come in. You have your inner most secure perimeter; then you have your next perimeter which is secured a little bit less, and you keep going out in concentric circles in your security (levels) until you get into the crowds.

That’s one of the biggest challenges that the service has always had with protecting a high value dignitary like the president. They are elected by the people and they are serving at the will of the people and they all seem to feel like they need to have access to the people. Unfortunately, that’s a problem that’s always going to be inherit with the job.

What’s your biggest concern of fear at an event like the inauguration?

In the present environment of the world, I would say my biggest fear would be a suicide attack, either explosive or biochemical. We’ve been fortunate in this country that that specter of this war hasn’t affected us that directly yet. But, in personal my opinion, the key word there is “yet”. And because we are dealing with a very large parade situation, there are surveillance teams that are observing the crowds, but they’re estimating up to the millions of people showing up for this. That is a daunting, daunting job when you’re looking at trying to secure that many people. It’s not a piece of cake for sure.

What kinds of security technology do you have at your disposal?

The service, as we loved to say, is the most premier law enforcement agency in the country, and because of that, I can fairly attest to the fact that our technical securities group, which is the one I was a member of, is operating with the most state-of-the-art electronic surveillance and search equipment that there is. In fact, quite a lot of it they developed themselves. They are very much on the cutting edge of technology.

As far as manpower is concerned, how much is required to protect the president at an event of this magnitude?

Something this big, I would almost venture to say that they will probably pull just about as many assets out of the field as they can pull. We’ll be pulling members of the military in from their technical fields to assist and so we’re probably talking several hundred technicians coming in and probably in the area of 1,000 agents all told.

How do you coordinate security with other law enforcement agencies?

The service has an ongoing relationship with what we call OTAs or other treasury agencies. They work with ATF very closely; the FBI will have liaisons with us and it will be a joint law enforcement operation. They have a facility in D.C. called the Joint Operations Center, which will have overall control. In that center they will have representatives from each law enforcement agency with direct communication with their people. It’s a very coordinated effort and the service has gone far above and beyond in trying to make this an uncomplicated and smooth operating unit as possible, considering the magnitude of what they’re doing.

In the past, we’ve always had very good cooperation from all the other agencies in D.C., from the park services, D.C. metro police, the FBI, ATF, and all the other different agencies that do give help to us. The service has an ongoing training program with most of the other agencies where they conduct dignitary protection drills to keep them up to speed on what we’re doing when we’re doing a dignitary protection so that their agencies are aware, their officers are aware of what we do.

In your time with the Secret Service, did the presidents that you protected take time to get accustomed to the personal security that you provided?

A lot them don’t like the attention that they get, but because of the nature of the job it’s just a kind of accepted part of it. The agency tries to stay as anonymous as possible with them to try and let them have as much of their private life as possible, but because of the nature of what they’re doing and the exposure they have, there’s an amount of pressure that we have to put on them to make sure that they’re protected.

Some presidents accepted it gladly and really didn’t seem to protest it and then we’ve had other presidents who’ve protested about the protection from day one. When you live in a fishbowl, you need to realize that you’re going to have people around you all the time. It’s just kind of the nature of the position, when they take it they have to realize that that’s part of the responsibility of the office.

Were there any presidents who would frequently deviate from the established security plan?

I would say President Carter liked to deviate from the schedule and try to get close to the people, try to be part of the people. The Clintons did to a degree. President Reagan, President Nixon, you could pretty much set your watch on their schedule.

Was there anything that you learned in your time protecting the presidents that you could apply to corporate executive protection?

I guess I would say for corporate executives, corporate security, the greatest (security precaution you could take is) to be cognoscente of your immediate area and things in your immediate area and try not to be so predictable. The bad guys are watching you and watching your operations so they see how you do things. If you keep doing the same thing, the same way all the time, it presents a vulnerability to you. So be cognoscente of your area and be willing to shift your routine.