A version of this article first appeared on the Protection Circle blog.
I often find myself explaining to people outside the industry that despite its supposed “cool factor,” a covert operation isn’t particularly fun or “cool.” It’s a tactical method for achieving very specific goals, and it can be expensive, risky, and full of headaches.
That said, there’s no denying the fact that anyone who does this work collects a few interesting, even funny, stories over the years.
Let me give you just a tiny sampling.
Variety, it’s been said, is one of the spices of life.
I’ve had all sorts of clients over the years: clients who came directly from intelligence agencies, and who knew exactly what kind of covert operations they wanted. Clients who admitted that they didn’t know the first thing about covert operations. And clients who didn’t know the first thing about covert operations but claimed otherwise.
It’s this latter category that produces some of the funnier stories.
A production company from Los Angeles wanted a certain celebrity who was attending an event in San Francisco to receive covert protection. This, I was instructed, should take the form of a Secret Service-type close protection operator in a black suit with a pigtail earpiece.
Sometimes it’s my job to tell a client, no that’s actually not what you want. I had to explain that what he’d asked for was in fact a very overt form of protection, despite what my Hollywood client might be used to seeing in the movies.
On another occasion, a Silicon Valley client needed six covert operators spread out at various locations in their headquarters. My team met up early in the morning at an area coffee shop. We then made our way into the headquarters loading dock, where we were met by two of only seven people in the entire corporation who knew of our operation. (Except for one supervisor and one GSOC operator, even the campus security team didn’t know about us). The team geared up in an internal room, and each operator was discreetly escorted to their assigned location.
At some point during the day, the corporate security director became upset about my operators not being in place.
They were in place. Of this, we assured him.
But no. He would not believe us until we walked him to each site and discreetly pointed out each operator to him. He knew that all of them had extensive military and security backgrounds; perhaps he was looking for people who seemed to fit that profile. But I had specifically selected operatives who, based on age and appearance, did not fit that profile.
Casually dressed, camouflaged by their laptops and coffee cups, they were so well embedded into the techie environment that no one, including the man who had hired us, realized they were there.
Sometimes, a big part of my job is educating clients on the meaning of “covert.”
I also get to (or rather have to) employ a wide variety of operators. As always, the mission and the environment dictate how you operate and who you should employ.
One reason the aforementioned operation went so well was because the operators “looked the part.” They were relatively young, white, Asian, and Latino men and women who were dressed like hipsters and techies. Political correctness has no place in covert ops; an operative is playing a role, and that role should conform to what bystanders expect to see. We use their biases to our advantage.
“An operative is playing a role, and that role should conform to what bystanders expect to see. We use their biases to our advantage.”
The black middle-aged operators I work with (both ex-cops with extensive undercover experience) have a tougher time blending into a room of young tech workers. They can, however, make themselves invisible in the downtown environments where we often work.
And then there’s the short, friendly, middle-aged white lady who blends so perfectly into shareholders meetings that even I have a hard time spotting her. No one else in these meetings has the foggiest idea she’s carrying a concealed weapon, or that she’s an ex-police lieutenant with thirty years of law enforcement experience, ten as a SWAT operator.
As for large, serious-looking men with military, law enforcement, and security backgrounds, it’s interesting to see who can blend into different environments and who can’t. Those who can’t tend to be better suited for vehicular surveillance operations.
I’ve never managed any mobile vehicular operations, but static ones (oftentimes overnight) are quite common. In these types of operations, it’s interesting to see who has less experience, and therefore needs more guidance, and who has years of experience and knows the drill.
I once managed a complex overnight operation where five operators were positioned in five vehicles on different levels of a parking garage. The operators had to remain unseen in their vehicles for the entire night. Before the operation started, I met each operator at a nearby location, to brief them and to give them some provisions — snacks, water, energy drinks, and a couple of empty Gatorade bottles.
Some of you already know why you’d need that last item. Gatorade bottles have larger rims, which makes them ideal for relieving yourself of those energy drinks. Remember, we’re talking about an overnight covert operation where you don’t get any bathroom breaks. Also, when it’s dark and you reach for a bottle, the difference in shape helps you avoid drinking out of, or peeing into, the wrong bottle.
The operators with less static surveillance experience had no idea what the empty Gatorade bottles were for. I remember one of them looking quite bemused as I was talking, thinking I must be joking.
Explaining this to another operator however, an ex-Navy SEAL with years of PSD contract work in Afghanistan, earned me a different kind of bemused expression — this one for wasting my breath. I think his exact words to me were “This ain’t my first rodeo, kid.” We both had a good chuckle about it. I just had to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Fancy Meeting You Here
A few years ago, I was leading an op to detect hostile surveillance and other pre-incident indicators around a large tech conference. As I walked around a big dirt lot in the area of the conference, I saw a man enter the lot carrying a black plastic case. I kept walking by, then stopped around 200 yards further down the street by some trees and pretended to check my phone. It was a good static spot: I had a good distance, a clear field of view, and a few parked cars between us. The man had his back to me as he kept walking towards the middle of the dirt lot.
I remember thinking, Please tell me that’s not what I think it is. But sure enough, I saw the man stop, lay the case on the ground, and open it up. He took a medium-sized item out of the case, set it on the ground, and took out a smaller item which he held in both hands. He took two steps back, and the medium-sized item lifted off. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought.
I immediately reported that a drone was in the air and gave the exact location of the drone operator. The lot was owned by the company in question, and drones were strictly prohibited around the conference. Three uniformed security officers got to him within sixty seconds. I walked away as soon as I saw them.
My part was over. There was no point in sticking around long enough for someone observant to detect me.
About an hour later, as I was walking near the main entrance to the venue, I practically bumped right into my first cousin on the sidewalk. I knew she worked for the company, but so did thousands of other people. The thought of running into her hadn’t occurred to me (and wouldn’t have really changed much if it had).
Still, it’s a strange feeling when your personal and professional worlds literally bump into each other on a Silicon Valley sidewalk.
There are celebrated stories of how trainees in clandestine agencies are purposely made to run into friends and family members during training to see if they can maintain their covers. In my case, there would have been no point to such a thing. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t exactly operating in enemy territory. If anything, our unexpected meetup only helped me blend into the environment as we stood and chatted. My cousin knew what I did for a living and didn’t ask what I was doing there. She told me she was happy I was around that day.
I recently found myself on the opposite side of an accidental meetup. A British acquaintance of mine who organizes security conferences around the world was attending the recent RSA conference in San Francisco. We got together at a high-end hotel downtown to discuss the possibility of my being a speaker at a future conference.
The hotel was, unsurprisingly, full of RSA attendees, and various side-events and meetings were happening there. As soon as I stepped into the lobby, I saw a local professional acquaintance of mine sitting alone on one of the sofas. We had worked together in the past but hadn’t seen each other for some time. He was there providing covert protection for an important Silicon Valley CEO (which was one of the reasons his position covered the entrance to the lobby).
There’s no denying the awkwardness of a situation like that. But having both recognized each other, it would have been even more awkward to try to ignore one another afterwards. Besides, keeping him company, even if just for a few minutes, could help him better blend into the social environment he was in. So I joined him on the couch to wait for my British friend, and we got a chance to catch up a bit.
If there is such a thing as “cool factor” in covert ops, it comes into play when you get an unwelcome surprise — and the only way to keep your cover is to keep your cool and roll with it.
The Russians Are (Not) Coming
More than a decade ago, I led a multiple-day protective operation that included continuous stationary surveillance in a vehicle parked outside a high-end residence. I don’t usually consider operations like that covert, since there’s no real cover or concealment in play. Neighbors almost always notice after a while, and without fail, so do police patrol officers. For this reason, we always reach out to the SFPD beforehand to let them know about these kinds of surveillance jobs. (Professional courtesy of this sort can sometimes be useful and is usually appreciated.)
When I went to conduct an advance before the operation, I realized that the residence was within two blocks of the very large and imposing Russian consulate (the same one that was subsequently shut down by the State Department in September 2017).
My points of contact for this operation were two jovial middle-aged corporate security directors who had previously retired from the FBI. (The residence belonged to one of their corporate executives). I voiced my concerns that the Russians were sure to detect our presence and might assume we were there to surveil the consulate.
When I asked my contacts how we might handle this tricky situation, both of them started laughing. “The Russians aren’t going to bother you, kid,” one said. “We used to post agents out there all the time back in the 80s, just to fuck with them.”
The operation went smoothly — as promised, without any trouble from the consulate. If the Russians were wise to us, they sure played it cool. I chalked it up to professional courtesy.
About the author:
Ami Toben is the director of consulting, training and special operations for HighCom Security Services and the owner of the Protection Circle blog. He is one of the pioneer developers of the terrorist activity prevention, surveillance detection, and covert protection fields in Silicon Valley.
Trained in Israel, Japan and the United States, Ami has over 18 years of military (IDF) and private sector security experience. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ami provides special protective services to Fortune 500 corporations, foreign governments, foundations, political organizations and wealthy individuals.
His new book about private-sector espionage, surveillance detection, and covert protective operations has come out on June 5th. You can buy Surveillance Zone at Amazon, Apple iBooks, or Barnes & Noble.