Robert Shuster, 29, is director of technical training at the Institute for Public Safety in Woodbridge, Va., one of several executive protection firms in the Washington area. He also takes on occasional temporary protection assignments and teaches counter- terrorist evasive driving. Shuster grew up in Pittsburgh and received a bachelor's degree in law enforcement and corrections from Pennsylvania State University. He came to Washington in 1977 for a brief stint as a clerk with the FBI. After being advised that the best way to begin an investigative law enforcement career is to get hands-on experience, he spent three years as an officer in the Alexandria Police Department. Shuster first entered the executive protection field working for a local company that he prefers to leave unnamed. In his four years there, Shuster and his colleagues, who were all former Secret Service agents, protected numerous clients including corporate executives, entertainers, religious leaders and foreign diplomats. It was there that he became involved in the training aspect of the business. He has been with IPS for two yeginia, and is not married. "The job involves too much travel," he explains. He is interested in sports and rock climbing, and has a first-degree black belt in karate. Shuster was interviewed in a crowded restaurant in Alexandria, which, he noted, "is the best place to hold a clandestine conversation." Brian McGuire is a Washington writer.
Q: Why don't you like the term "bodyguard."
A: It carries a bad connotation, the TV stereotype, big guys with no- necks and no brains to go along with it. Many bodyguards per se are just hired guns. I'm not saying that theyre incompetent (but) they're less competent to deal with the problems that terrorism presents today. They may be adequate for an entertainer or a public figure but not one that would carry any significance to a terrorist.
Entertainers need big guys who can get them through crowds. My type of work is more related to someone who has a very serious threat on them, for monetary or political reasons. It demands a little better caliber of research. The security person has to do his homework and know what he's up against.
Q: Is there a type of person who goes into this line of work?
A: Mostly people that are former somethings or other -- government agents or police officers who found it more lucrative to be in private business. Rarely do you go from college to be an executive protection agent. You have to get a little street experience.
The type of people that go into that type of work are athletes in school, physically oriented people. I don't want to say they weren't the intellectual type -- but they weren't the ones majoring in engineering. They liked physical things, being outdoors. Maybe it's adventure.
Q: Would you say that the average person might be politically conservative?
A: Politics doesn't have much to do with it. Conservative? Yes, because, here again, where do they get these people from? Law enforcement and government agencies. They attract conservative people.
Q: How do people react when you tell them the kind of thing you do?
A: A little surprised. Many times they don't believe me because I am relatively young, 29. Most of the people in my business are considerably older. They then automatically lead into the misconceptions about what's it like to do all the traveling. It's not really that exciting a job. You do a lot of traveling. You meet a lot of interesting people, go to a lot of nice places. However, the day to day things that you have to do are very mundane, very orderly. Making sure this is one, that's done. And you stand around in a lot of hallways actually.
Q: So it can get boring at times?
A: Very. Which is bad in a way because if you do your job well nothing ever happens because part of doing your job well is doing proper advance work. That breeds a little complacency and can be very dangerous.
Any time we do a trip we'll send someone out to do advance work, make sure there are no logistical hitches. Cars are lined up. Hotel rooms. Those are the non-security concerns. If things are not set up logistically, you're maximizing your exposure by staying in a place maybe that you didn't want to stay. Or transportation isn't lined up and you have to take something a little less secure.
Q: You have to keep a budget in mind?
A: Depends on the client. You have some clients where you have carte blanche to a degree. Then I have clients where you have to really watch the pennies, not that they won't pay it, they just don't understand that sometimes you can get things done effectively by spending a little more money.
Q: How many people have you worked for in protection?
A: I'd say about 40 or 50 different people, anywhere from a duration of two or three days to months at a time on a full-time basis.
Q: What kinds of people were they? What's the range?
A: I've worked for entertainers; managing editors of major magazines who were having problems due to a particular article that ran in their magazine. I've worked for government officials, foreign governments, usually visiting foreign diplomats. I've worked for one aide to a particular congressman who was having some very severe threats from an organization. Corporate executives, especially when they travel abroad. When the corporate executive travels abroad he becomes a target. He becomes the symbol of capitalism in these depressed countries. They're very vulnerable.
Q: Describe that last job that you had.
A: I was with a visiting diplomat, and he was on vacation. I traveled with him for a month. We started in New York City and went to Orlando. A few days in Orlando and we went to Santa Barbara. Then a couple of two-day trips down to San Francisco. That was business. Then on to Las Vegas which was for him entirely pleasure, for me a nightmare. I hate Las Vegas because we work non-stop hours in that city. And then we went on to Honolulu for R & R. For him again, anyway. There for 10 days and he went on to Tokyo. I, of course, spent a couple of extra days in Honolulu before I came back.
Q: How many people were on that job?
A: That was a very low key detail, only had four guys on it. We've had operations where we take as many as 10 to 15 security people and work it just like the Secret Service does.
Q: What's your relation with the client when you're on a trip that long?
A: Purely professional. There's a trap you can fall in in this job because you're with the person, be it a man or a woman or older or younger or children, you're with them their every waking hour usually, and it's just natural to talk to them occasionally and sometimes you become quite friendly. Some of them are very nice people. Let's face it, you have diversified backgrounds, and they're as interested sometimes in what you do as you are in what they do, or who they are. So you get into conversations and sometimes quasi- friendships develop. It's that point at which you become not a professional. You're just a buddy that's taking them on a trip, and they no longer listen to you when you make security recommendations. So it's a problem. You want to maintain a good rapport but maintain your position as a professional. You can be friendly, but when you say something or make a recommendation to him, he should take it as being received from a professional that he has hired to do a job.
Q: You're on a job, is it 24 hours a day or do you work in shifts?
A: The more experienced people on the trip will work the protectee, that's what we call our client. The newer or part-time people work a residence security, whether it's a hotel room or a home. Two guys do that. They usually split up the day in two 12-hour segments. And the people that are on the person, physically around him and with him all day, are usually with him all day. It's very common to have days start at 9 o'clock and end -- if he's a night person -- at 2 or 3 in the morning when he comes home from whatever entertainment he had planned for the night. So the hours are usually about an average of 14 hours a day on a trip like that. Of course there are no days off but that would be ridiculous, you know: "I don't feel threatened on a Friday or Saturday so you can have those days off."
Q: Would you work for somebody you didn't like?
A: I wouldn't work for someone if I knew they had a serious drug problem and they were always doing illegal things. We have turned down clients for that reason. We've got offers from people domestically that were having problems with let's say a spouse, threats and things like that. That's not really a matter that I want to get concerned with. That's a police matter more.
We've been approached by entertainers that had reputations for tearing down hotels everywhere they stayed. Rock groups and whatnot. Don't really wish to be associated with them.
Q: In your experience have there been actual attempts made to kidnap somebody?
A: No. If you do your job well you can avoid problems like that through proper planning. Let me put it this way. There's an organization, terrorist or criminal or whatever element that wants to do harm, wants to kill, wants to kidnap a particular individual. They will do it eventually. Your goal in security is to "harden your target" -- a kind of a coin phrase you use in the field. Make the person that you're working for so difficult a target, so hard to get them that the potential adversary, the terrorist or the criminal, chooses someone else who's much easier. If you're not where they think you're going to be they can't attack you. You make yourself a difficult target to both predict and to get to. Being able to shoot bullseyes at 300 yards is totally unrelated.
Q: Do you ever worry that (when) a crisis occurs maybe you wouldn't --
A: React in a particular way? Reactions are according to what you've been trained to do. When you're working day to day in a job you're always playing little mental reaction drills with yourself. Now what am I going to do if this happens? Where am I going to take it? Am I going to react to the problem? Probably not. I'm going to react to him and get him away from the problem. I'm going to "cover and evacuate," as they say in the business.
You don't have to react. You already have a plan in your mind of what you're going to do. The Secret Service never teaches how to react to a problem. That's not their job. They react to the protectee -- in their case, the president. They cover his body. Cover it and get their bodies between anything that is a threat to the president and him and then they evacuate him.
The gun is -- well you have to have it but you'd certainly better not depend on it. I cannot remember a time where the Secret Service has returned a shot in defense of people. I can remember several times where they've taken shots, but they haven't returned them. Most often it is inappropriate to use a weapon to return fire at a threat because, let's face it, it's in a city, it's in a situation where you returning fire would not eliminate the problem. It would just hit an innocent bystander.
Q: I could see somebody saying, "I'll step in front of a bullet for the president or the pope but I wouldn't do it for a TV star."
A: It doesn't matter who you're protecting. You're protecting a client. You're doing your job in a very organized and professional manner. Whether it's protecting the president or one of the Smurfs. Youre paid to do a job and you do it. And you do it the same way no matter who's standing back there. That's the difference between people that are very good at the job and people that just try to sell themselves as being very good at the job. If you're not prepared to do that you should select another line of work.
Q: Do you ever have dreams about your work? A: I have dreams about being shot and about doing things wrong and having things go disastrous or doing heroic things. Everybody has crazy dreams like that. Some of mine are very vivid.
Q: How much do you make?
A: I knew you were going to ask me that. You really think I'm going to tell you? It was a nice try. I can round it off. I make less than $100,000 a year and I make more than $25,000. I guess that's a little too rounded. A person can make a decent living at it. Secret Service agents' salaries are dependent upon how much overtime, how many years they've been there and what types of work they're doing, but they can make a decent salary, $40,000 or $50,000 a year.
Q: What do you do on vacation, days off?
A: Vacation? Let me think. Isn't that where you don't have anything to do at any time, you don't ever have to be any certain place? I've heard about those. On vacation I totally relax. It's funny, a lot of people say, "Why do you need a vacation, you just got back from Honolulu?" I make an analogy by saying I want you to take an eight-hour time period. During that eight hours I want you to constantly know what's going on around you at all times. Notice every little thing. Look at all the people. Try to figure out why theyre here and what they're doing. Look at every single thing that's happening around you. Never once daydream. Never once think about what you're going to do when you get off: "I wonder what my wife's doing, or I wonder what my kid's doing, it's a soccer game today." Always be aware of what's going on around you, what is going to happen and what you're soon to do. And I never work eight hours. Our shifts are always 12, 14 and sometimes 16 hours. Then tell me that I don't do anything. Do that day in, day out, on a trip that's a month long with no days off and you'll understand what I want to do on vacation. I want to sleep. I want to sit on the beach and close my eyes and not care what's around me. I want to be totally unaware of what's going on.
Another thing, on these trips youre going to nice places but you're not doing the things that you want to do. You're not living your own life, you're living someone else's life. You're doing the things that he wants to do. And even if they're nice things you're working while you're doing it so you can't really enjoy the surroundings, you have to be attentive to what's going on. And though it's not exactly sitting at a desk youre not out on a picnic either.
Q: When is your job most interesting for you?
A: When I first get the assignment. You first find out what you have to do, what you have to accomplish, planning it, doing all the homework, setting things up and then doing it. What's the great line on television? I love it when a plan comes together. When you see something you put together happening and going off without a hitch. That's it.