The Golden Second

The margin of error is one second or less. This is the expected reaction time of a close protection officer. It is the difference between spotting something unusual, and acting before the unusual becomes life ending. The tolerance level for mistakes varies between minuscule and non-existent. Success or failure resides in that golden second- the time it takes to see - process- react or go down in history, for all the wrong reasons. This is the reality for the men and women protecting President Obama on his visit to Kenya. This is the time it takes to go from hero to zero. One second. All of Kenya will be judged forevermore on whether or not the individuals protecting President Obama woke that morning on the right side of the golden second. 

The protection specialist is not a role one falls into. When I first started on the business end of the industry I quickly learned this was no ordinary nine to five job.  It was a lifestyle. A vocation. It is arguably the hardest job in the world with zero tolerance for mistakes and maximum public scrutiny. Managing the protection detail behind a visiting head of state is a task like no other. There are few occupations in the world in which one second can impact the fate of a whole country. One second- it’s the space of one blink of an eye. It takes ten seconds to read this paragraph and five more to process it. In that time a protection specialist has identified an unusual movement, processed what it might be, spotted confirmation that it is out of the ordinary, anticipated the next action, reacted and exited a compromised location. You are still reading.

Protecting a President takes on a life of its own. What the public sees is a famous figure and police officers lining the street. The reality is that behind this picture the real layers of protection are invisible and unseen. This is the illusion of modern day security. Managing the impact and inconvenience on the public while mounting, maintaining and moving a small army of protection personnel. Protecting a President does not mean watching the President, it means watching everything else around the President. All of Kenya will be under scrutiny.

The close protection team around President Obama will be the last line of a layered defence around the man, on whose shoulders, the liberal world is represented. Protecting him presents a unique challenge. This President loves people. He loves getting close and engaging on a one on level. People in all countries love him even more for this quality. To put it mildly- this is a protection officer’s nightmare. The best protection is where the team can monitor and control every detail. In today’s world this just does not occur.

Every aspect of President Obama’s visit to Kenya will be scrutinised in detail, gamed and risk assessed. Every mitigation possible will be considered. On occasion, this has included travelling with sheets of bullet proof, plexi-glass or whole mobile communication systems.  The Presidential fleet of cars will usually be flown in-country several weeks ahead of the visit. The Presidential team can travel with upwards of fifty vehicles depending on the complexity, or number of engagements, in country. These cars are unique. They are equipped with separate oxygen supplies, bullet proof armour plating and Kevlar tyres. The cars have night vision cameras, built in fire-fighting systems and the President’s vehicle is stocked with supplies of his blood type, in the event this is needed.

The advance party which flew to Nairobi months in advance will have consisted of up to 40 secret service and scores of associated agencies, assessing the security and threat environment prior to the visit.  It is safe to assume that when the President lands in Kenya there may be as many as three hundred secret service officers, and upwards of a thousand supplemental US security and administration officers, from various military units. Thousands of Kenyan security will also supplement the outer layers of the protection team as undercover agents and visible police deterrents for all events. Units such as the GSU (General Service Unit) have specialised protection and recce (reconnaissance) wings and will be front and centre during the visit. On previous visits to the UK, by President Obama, there were as many as two thousand undercover officers mixed in with crowds at public events. I would imagine given the special nature of the President’s links with Kenya, and the current political environment in adjoining states, there will be significantly more officers involved in the protection operations for this visit.

I am a Director of a company which specialised in delivering cutting edge, hybrid training to Presidential protection teams and Police special branch units around the world. When introducing my company I am always greeted with mild surprise and a humorous retort when the words ‘woman and close protection company’ are combined. It is, after all, accepted conventional wisdom that close protection is a game for men who are battle hard and big. In reality, female close protection officers are everywhere but not seen. This is half the battle already won. The element of surprise is key in the art of protection. What the public sees is only one third the reality behind the security operation on a Presidential visit. A close examination of recent head of state visits around the world will show just how present female close protection officers are, at the pinnacle of the profession. The very belief that women cannot do this job is the reason they are so good at it.

Nothing could be further from the truth than the Hollywood image of close protection. In reality, bullet catching bodyguards built the size of small houses are liabilities not lifesavers. The job of a close protection officer is to be smart, lean and observant. The most important skill is the ability to spot what does not look right. If a close protection officer has to react then the first facet of the job has failed. Proactive planning comes first. Reaction, when it comes, if it comes, is limited to extraction not retaliation. A close protection officer is a swift thinker, first and foremost. Creative, skilled, drilled and adaptable.

Protection planning is a delicate and intricate business. It involves anticipating every possibility, every likelihood and risk assessing each activity, in the minutest of detail. Despite all the planning and risk assessment security is a compromise. It is the single second of lapsed observation which can present the weakness in the armour, which those who wish to harm Kenya or President Obama, will use to their advantage.   Even with all the surveillance technology employed; all the helicopters and security apparatus, the life of the president and the reputation of Kenya rests on the ability of the individual men and women closest to their ‘principal’. This is a unique security paradox. The greater the reliance on technology for superiority, in a threat scenario: the greater the need for human capacity and ability. Technology does not protect life - human beings do. Spare a thought for the men and women engaged in this visit. I guarantee you they will not have a peaceful night’s sleep until Air Force one lifts off from Kenya. All eyes are on Kenya in the coming weeks. Make us proud.

Picture credit: Joseph Sohm /Shutterstock              

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