During my career at the CIA I was involved in a variety of protective operations to include supporting very senior level government personnel to include the President of the United States.
One memorable occasion was the visit by President George W. Bush to Manila, the Philippines, in October 2003, when he on his way to Thailand, where he was to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. This visit served as a great example of how much of an asset you can be for the protective elements if you know and apply protective operations principles.
I was posted in South East Asia from 2001 to 2004 and in early September 2003, I was called into the Chief of Station’s office in order to discuss our role in providing support to President Bush’s visit. The Agency naturally took the lead on threat intelligence for the region and we were to work closely with the US Secret Service (USSS) and the rest of the embassy elements to make this a seamless visit. Since I had a lot of experience working with the USSS and in protective operations having served in the CIA’s Protective Operations Cadre (POC) for many years, I was asked to be heavily involved with all the prep for this visit. I began by asking to be included on all of the communications traffic about the visit as well as being looped into all threat reporting. I also needed to attend all of the planning meetings for situational awareness as well as to keep everyone involved focused on the security elements of the visit.
I knew that the USSS would be sending an advance team at least a week before the event, and that I would be directly involved in supporting them with their activities in country. The first step for any senior-level protective operations visit is the preparation of the threat assessment. It is a complicated and in-depth process of evaluating any and all possible threats and distilling the long list into a shorter, more critical probable list of threats. In the protective world, we call this “protective intelligence” (PI). I was lucky to have direct access to our own analysts and, with my guidance, we would be able to craft a near perfect PI report for the USSS.
An invisible layer of protection, PI is the outermost ring of security and it is a critical element. During this period, there were three known insurgent groups, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the MNLF and the MILF. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), also known as the National People’s Army (NPA) began their insurgency actions in 1930 and have morphed over the years. In 2003, the CPP/NPA was mainly targeting Philippine military and government officials but they were still skulking around and, while they kept a low profile, they were still players; especially on the island of Luzon where Manila was located.
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – a political organization in the Philippines that was founded in 1972, started as a splinter group of the Muslim Independence Movement and was the leading organization among Moro separatists for about two decades beginning from the 1970s. By 2003, the MNLF was largely defunct, replaced by a splinter group, formed in 1984, called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
A major threat in the Philippines as this time was the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an Islamic separatist organization that had carried out several high-profile assassinations and bombings, rightfully earning a reputation as the most violent Islamic separatist group in the Philippines. While most of the ASG’s activities were centered on Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago in the south, where the Sunni Muslim Moros were concentrated, the ASG also engaged in terrorist acts in the capital of Manila. The MILF had an on-again/off-again collaboration with the Abu Sayyaf Group made both groups a serious threat.
Besides threat assessments, I also was responsible for some of the logistical pieces of the visit. Specifically, I arranged to acquire the use of several armored vehicles which we would loan to the USSS. I had the vehicles taken in for servicing and cleaning to make sure they were fully prepped and up to snuff. Since I knew some people with excellent connections with all the Philippine security and police elements at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I knew we would be helping to coordinate the diplomatic clearance process for bringing in all the aircraft that would be involved in the visit. Besides Air Force One, there would be support aircraft needing secure areas to park and from which most of the US presidential support elements would operate.
I then began the arduous task of working with the various US government and embassy offices as they all tried to create their own “plan” for the visit. The “protocol” elements within US government offices are somewhat the enemy in any protective operations visit. They are often so politically-centric in their thought processes that they can’t seem to understand they would have to adapt to the visit to required security protocols and not the other way around. A presidential visit was probably the highest-profile diplomatic event an embassy could host, and all embassies are desperate to put on a good show and Manila was no exception especially in light of the fact that the region was such a hotbed of terrorist activity.
A visit of this magnitude required that embassy personnel doubling up on their workload across the board, because normal business had to be maintained at the same time all the labors associated with visit preparation were factored in. Of course, different offices were jockeying to get as much face time as possible with the president and his staff. This ego involvement was another issue that made my job difficult, but I was used to working with these “staff” types and used all my diplomatic experience and skills to herd those cats. If I couldn’t get them to bend on a particular issue, I knew that in the end the USSS would.
During this period the Philippines’ progress against the terrorist threats had not come without setbacks. The infamous bomber Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, architect of the Rizal Day bombings and a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist group who’d planned the 2001/2002 terrorist attacks in Singapore, escaped from a high-security detention cell in the middle of Camp Crame, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police, located in Quezon City. We were already hard at work putting together a threat package for the USSS, and the fact that this notorious terrorist had slipped from custody and was loose somewhere in the Philippines did not help us.
A week before President Bush’s visit, the USS Advance team flew in and the frenzy began. One of my bosses worked with the senior advance agent, while I was joined at the hip with the number- two advance agent whose main job was protective intelligence. This couldn’t have worked out better, enabling me to brief the advance team on our threat assessments as well as accompany them when they traveled to all the possible venues to be visited. Since none of the USSS agents knew the city, I did most of the driving, which also helped educate me on the possible routes the motorcade would take and allowed me to add my two cents about the driving patterns, traffic issues, and local environmental issues that are critical for route and contingency planning.
Besides the possible meeting venues, we also made trips to all the potential high-interest sites as well as to several hospitals. As you may recall, when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981 there were no Secret Service agents on standby at the local hospital, something that almost cost him his life because the hospital was unprepared for his arrival. This was not going to happen in Manila. There would be a USSS agents stationed at all the closest hospitals whenever the president was nearby.
The local press was on top of things, reporting that the Communist Party of the Philippines–New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) had issued a statement insisting they had dispatched hit squads with a mandate to assassinate the president. Other militant groups reiterated their plans to push through their widespread mass actions to pro- test President Bush’s visit. And against that backdrop, the Philippine government insisted that their military and security agencies had the situation in hand.
Then, on October 13, 2002, the US ambassador was contacted by the general in charge of the Philippine National Police (PNP). The general told him that Fathur al-Ghozi had been killed. Like a classic line out of the old movie Casablanca, the rumor was that he had either “committed suicide” or “died trying to escape.” While this was a big relief for us, taking a bad player and major threat off the board, the implications that it may have been a case of “extrajudicial killing”—a.k.a. the killing of a person by governmental authorities without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process—put the US in a difficult position. The US normally tries not to associate with any element of a foreign government that engages in extrajudicial killing, but with an imminent presidential visit, it appeared that the issue was resolved.
On October 18, 2003, the day of the visit, as part of the advance team I would be visiting each venue prior to President Bush’s arrival. I was on the tarmac as Air Force One arrived and, as soon as it parked, my USSS partner and I drove off to the next venue. For the next several hours, we were busy arriving at venues, checking motorcade approaches, parking areas, and the venue security before moving on to the next stop. A textbook operation, until President Bush stopped at the Philippine Congress building to give a speech. While he was speaking, local groups protesting the US military presence in the Philippines gathered in sufficient number to make the primary and secondary motorcade routes untenable. While we looked for alternative options, President Bush remained in the building.
Finally, the crowd dissipated enough for the motorcade to make its way to the next venue where the president was scheduled to meet some local people along a rope line. This was a very typical protective operations procedure where the protectee moves along a rope/fence line that provides a physical barrier between him and the public. Protective security moves on either side of the protectee, observing every movement by the largely unscreened crowd. Additional security elements move through the crowd, directly behind the public and in line with the protectee. Their job is to spot any movement or activities by people in the crowd facing, in this case, the president himself.
When we arrived at the rope line venue, the advance agent asked me to augment the USSS agents in the crowd, so I positioned myself approximately seven feet in front of the president while he moved along the rope line shaking hands and talking with the local Filipinos. I was on hyperalert status watching hands and movement by people directly in front of the president as well as to his left and right. Being asked to cover this position while I was armed was a serious compliment, as the USSS obviously trusted me to be that close to the president and to cover him when he was in such a potentially precarious position. Quite frankly, there is probably no greater protective operations job than being part of the USSS’ Presidential Protection Detail, and for a few precious moments I was in the inner circle protecting President Bush himself.
Supporting the USSS or other protective service during a high-level government dignitary visit, especially in the overseas environment, is a challenge but by understanding and applying the basic principles of protective operations you can be a force multiplier and help ensure the dignitary has a safe and productive visit.
US Presidential Security Support
By: Thomas Pecora
Thomas (Tom) Pecora is a former CIA Senior Security Officer who retired after 24 years of protecting Agency personnel. He managed large security programs and operations in Africa, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and in the war zones. He has over 29 years of experience in protective operations, crisis management, personnel/physical security, and counter-terrorism. As Director of Pecora Consulting Services, he provides security vulnerability and threat assessments, as well as personal safety and crime prevention/avoidance skills training. His memoir, “GUARDIAN – Life in the Crosshairs of the CIA’s War on Terror” will be published on May 7th, 2019.