Inside Secret Service Training
Special Agent in Charge Michael Bryant talks about the Secret Service and the rigorous program would-be agents must complete at the James J. Rowley Training Center outside Washington, D.C.
Before becoming special agents tasked with protecting the president and other top figures, recruits to the United States Secret Service must undergo rigorous exercises, exams and preparations at the James J. Rowley Training Center outside Washington, D.C.
The James J. Rowley Training Center is a 493-acre compound that is unmarked, behind barbed wire and hidden in the woods. There, recruits undergo physicals, written exams, and scenario-based drills and tests to prepare them for the dangerous situations from which they may one day need to rescue their protectees.
The Secret Service was originally created in 1865 under President Abraham Lincoln to help combat growing problems with counterfeit currency. "A lot of people don't realize that the Secret Service was formed for its criminal investigative mission," says Michael Bryant, Special Agent in Charge at the James J. Rowley Training Center.
Courtesy Of Library Of Congress
This photograph from the Library of Congress shows Secret Service officers in February 1864. From left: Col. George H. Sharpe, John C. Babcock, an unidentified man, and Lt. Col. John McEntee.
Criminal investigations of counterfeit money spurred the creation of the Secret Service during the Civil War era. It wasn't until the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 that agents became responsible for protecting the president - - the role for which they are best-known today.
Library of Congress
Presidents typically receive 3,000 threats a year, says a Secret Service expert. Obama is outpacing the average. "We understand the historic significance," says the current director, Mark Sullivan. "If we make a mistake, it's going to be devastating for the country. We're not going to let the country down."
"We train unlike any other federal agency," says A.T. Smith, an assistant director. "We train to the edge, and then we lean over."
The center's drills are increasingly scenario-based, says assistant director A. T. Smith, who had served as Hillary Clinton's detail leader. "For years, our training was based on the lone gunman and the long-range rifle. Now it's automatic weapons, multiple explosions as a diversion to a secondary attack."
New hazards have prompted a new emphasis in training -- a kind of extreme, lethal improv -- using scenarios that are dynamic and demand responses that run counter to typical human behavior. Smith says, "Our goal is to make it instinct."
Minute details are critical as recruits are tested in everything from weaponry and combat techniques to discreet surveillance tactics and emergency medicine.
Recruits learn how to appropriately protect their charge from threats as deadly as a chemical attack or as seemingly benign as an overly-agressive autograph seeker on a rope line. When one recruit uses too much force with an actor playing an autograph seeker, his instructor chastises him: "Too much aggression. You were on him like a spider monkey jacked up on Mountain Dew."
In the Secret Service, the saying goes, "You never quit. You always win. Everything else is negotiable."
Recruits spend months learning how to shoot and assemble their Sig Sauer P229 pistols, MP5 9mm submachine guns, Remington 12-gauge shotguns.
Recruits range from Marines and cops to a social worker and a retail manager.
Trainees have to score 80 percent in marksmanship. Why? The firearms instructor explains: "A bad guy's attacking POTUS, you fire and you miss. Who you gonna hit? POTUS!"
Before making it to this training, recruits undergo 12 weeks of basic federal law-enforcement training.
To alter reflexes, to rewire the "muscle memory" of recruits, the training center includes 37 buildings, including fake colonial-style houses and a mock airport. Facades line the main street: a cafe, a tattoo parlor and a hardware store. Here, recruits are drilled in a number of live-action scenarios meant to prepare them for real-world situations.
Recruit Krista Bradford trains on the combined weapons course.
Special agent trainees learn to wear gas masks in preparation for exposure to various gases.
"We in the Secret Service are super Type-A personalities, people who want to take control and win at all costs," an instructor tells recruits. But he warns them to stay within legal limits. "Don't get that little extra shot in there, that extra revenge . . . I want to make sure if I'm going through a door with you, that I can trust you. If not, I'm not going to let you take that walk on graduation day."
Those that pass the rigorous final exam reach graduation and become agents. "You have completed 28 weeks of the most intensive training of any law enforcement agency in the world," an instructor tells the graduates at their commencement ceremony.
The Making of an Agent (Post Magazine, July 26, 2009)
Washington Post Photo Store
Camera Works Front
Photo Editor, Audio Editor
upgrade your Flash plug-in
to view our enhanced content.
More on washingtonpost.com
More Photo News
View More Activity
© 2009 www.washingtonpost.com