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For Security Trainees, a Threat Theater

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Psychotherapist Barry Spodak loves to act. He creates schizophrenic, bipolar and paranoid characters to help law enforcement agents assess threats on the lives of presidents, supreme court justices and other VIPs. Video by Pierre Kattar/The Washington Post

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By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

Five minutes before his job interview, John Fisher parks at Ace Fire Extinguisher Services in College Park, his window open and his stomach jumpy. He is nibbling on spoonfuls of cottage cheese when shouts erupt from the car next to his.

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Fisher believes what he is seeing is real.

"Gun! He has a gun!" a man with a Secret Service earpiece yells, riffling through the glove compartment.

"It's my brother's gun!" a man in a black ski cap growls. "I didn't know I had a gun!"

Fisher's eyes pop. He slides down in his seat, cranking his window closed.

"Hands behind your back," says the man from the Secret Service, ratcheting his handcuffs.

"Man," says Fisher, wiping a spray of white flecks from his chin. He crosses the street to his job interview. "Did I pull up to the wrong spot."

Unwittingly, Fisher had driven into the climactic scene in a secret world of shadow theatrics. The man in the ski cap is a stage actor; the agent with the earpiece is a Secret Service recruit.

Every day, as Washingtonians go about their overt lives, the FBI, CIA, Capitol Police, Secret Service and U.S. Marshals Service stage covert dramas in and around the capital where they train. Officials say the scenarios help agents and officers integrate the intellectual, physical and emotional aspects of classroom instruction. Most exercises are performed inside restricted compounds. But they also unfold in public parks, suburban golf clubs and downtown transit stations.

Curtain up on threat theater -- a growing, clandestine art form. Joseph Persichini, Jr., assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, says, "What better way to adapt agents or analysts to cultural idiosyncrasies than role play?"

For the public, there are rare, startling peeks: At a Holiday Inn, a boy in water wings steps out of his seventh floor room into a stampede of federal agents; at a Bowie retirement home, an elderly woman panics as a role-player collapses, believing his seizure is real; at a county museum, a father sweeps his daughter into his arms, running for the exit, while a raving, bearded man resists arrest.

"The goal is to make the training realistic and relevant," CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf says.


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