Transcript of Von Holt, Part 5
Note: Transcripts have been edited for readability and are not word-for-word reflections of the audio sections.
Mark "The Red" Harlan:Why don't you talk a little bit about the setup for protection. Let's say the President is going to come into town. What do you do?
Chris Von Holt:About a week or so ahead of time the Advance Team would come in from the President's full-time detail in Washington DC, and they would interact with our office ... set up the advance of where he is going to be and what he is going to do, in conjunction with the political staff that would also come from out of town. There are a lot of entities that are involved in anything the President does: there's us, the political staff, military components ... If he's going to go to a hotel you have the hotel staff and people in various functions there ... If he's going to go to a speech site you've got the host committee at the speech ... So there are a lot of entities that all have to act together.
We, of course, rely very heavily on the local police departments -- particularly the San Francisco Police Department -- because this is the biggest city in the area and the protectees are here quite often. So we rely on their intelligence section and their uniformed officers very heavily.
It's all put together in that week, basically with a bunch of meetings and walk-throughs. We go over inch-by-inch where he's going to be and what he's going to do, and assign responsibilities to everyone. So by the time he gets here it's all mapped out, literally minute-by-minute, and when he steps off the plane, it's almost like a football play in motion where everyone has responsibilities and he's really the only one that can do whatever he wants. Everyone else has things very well set that they need to cover.
RED:I assume that the President pretty much has Secret Service with him all the time as he travels around. So if he goes to Russia, he is accompanied by the Secret Service ...
RED:Now if you go to Russia and you meet Boris Yeltsin, obviously he's got some sort of body guard/protection going there as well ...
RED:So what do you do? How do you compensate, or compromise, these two sets of guards when you know that the Russian standing right over there is packing heat in the same room as the President?
CVH:Well, the advance team would go to Russia a week, maybe 10 days, ahead of time and iron all of that out ... who is going to be where, who is going to assume what responsibilities. We would work the protective formation around the President, even if he's with Mr. Yeltsin. Sometimes that is going to coincide with the Russian security detail around Mr. Yeltsin. So it's almost, again, something along the lines of a football play, where you know where your people are and hopefully you know where their people are.
There may be some tension between the two groups, but not a lot. Generally speaking we get along pretty well with the other protective services. We're over in so many countries now that they know what we do, and we know what they do, so generally speaking it's all worked out pretty smoothly ahead of time.
RED:Is there any sort of secret handshakes of the International Alliance? Or a special look that says, "I'm one of them and don't mess with me"?
CVH:(Laughs) No. There's no real secret to any of this. There probably is some comradery, because basically they are doing the same function we are, so there is a certain esprit-de-corps between the various agencies. And again, we are very lucky, most people -- whether it be the foreign protective services, or the local police departments -- get along very well with us. We couldn't function without them sometimes. So we're very fortunate in our relationships with these other agencies.
RED:Now I assume that one of the things they teach you when you're becoming a protection person is to look for things out of the ordinary, look for the anomaly. Situations like: everyone's cheering and clapping and one guy isn't, or everyone's walking to the left and some guy's moving to the right. It seems like, if you're in that type of situation where someone else has protection on them, that the other protection people are more likely to be more anomalous -- it's more likely for them to stand out of the crowd. What I'm thinking here, is there any chance for something to go horribly wrong and two agents end up just going at each other? Or do they give you some sort of special instruction on how that might work?
CVH:Well that's all worked out by the advance detail. Especially with the President, everything is choreographed, literally down to the minute, so we know exactly where he's going to be, exactly where Mr. Yeltsin will be and exactly where all of his protective detail will be. There's also usually either a pin system worked out for recognition between us and them or, on big events, a pass system with your face on the front it, along with a color/letter coding system. That way we know that that pass is foreign security and this pass is our security and the staff will have one, the press will have one. All passes have codes and it has your picture on it, so we know who you are supposed to be.
RED:I assume you have done protection yourself.
CVH:Yeah, quite a bit. I was on the Vice President's detail ... a couple of years with Vice President Quayle and a couple of years with Vice President Gore ... I was on the campaign detail with Mrs. Dukakis in '88 ... I was on the campaign detail with Senator Dole ... I helped institute the detail for Chelsea Clinton at Stanford ... So, yes, I've done quite a bit of protection, as everyone has, because the job is split between protection work and investigations.
RED:Is it possible to be a Secret Service agent and say, "No way. Not protection. Counterfeiting? You can give me all that. Fraud? Bring it on. But no way am I going to be in protection."
CVH:(Laughs) No, we're somewhat paramilitary. We have to be. It's not really a volunteer system. There's a set career track. When you sign up you know you're going to do a certain amount of time in an investigative office and a certain amount of time on protection and you'll bounce back-and-forth throughout your career. It's pretty well laid out when an applicant signs up. He or she knows what the job description is and you have to do both tasks or you can't work here.
RED:Even though you run an investigative unit, is it possible that you could still get called for protection today? Could they call you up and say, "Get your vest on, get your wire ..."
CVH:Oh sure. I'll work some of these smaller details that come through town. The Singapore detail when they are here. The President is in town quite often and I'll augment that. I could be transferred, literally tomorrow, on a protective detail -- it would be as a supervisor at this stage in my career, so that would be a little different than it was earlier in my career. But the short answer is, "yes."
RED:How does a supervisor work within protection? Do you say, "Someone's firing a gun! You take that bullet." How does that work?
CVH:(Laughs) Well, it's not quite that dramatic, but it's all worked out ahead of time. If you see the President or the Vice President or whoever else it is that we protect, the agents around him or her have a set formation -- again, it's almost like a football play -- and practice all the time. We go to our outdoor facility in Beltsville, Maryland, and run what we call AOP's (assault on a protectee), where the training agents that are assigned to train the division play the bad guys, the crowd or the protectee, and the good guy agents who are assigned to the protectee will work him or her through a mock village we have. There is a hotel and an embassy, storefronts. And sooner or later the bad guys will attack and you will practice on who has what responsibility ... who's going to respond to the attack ... who is going to respond to the protectee ... where is the motorcade situated ... how are you going to evacuate ... where are you going to go?
It's all worked out ahead of time, over and over again, so when something does happen in the real word, you respond almost as if by instinct. If you ask a few of the people that have been in real situations, where the protectees have been assaulted, they all say that same thing, "It was just like a training episode." It all kind of came down to a slow-motion where you saw the incident and you responded, really almost out of instinct, because you were trained to respond in a certain way.
RED:I assume that part of the training is to trying get over the natural reflex to run away if someone pulls a weapon, for example.
CVH:Sure. If there's a shot fired, the natural reaction for anyone in law enforcement is to: take cover yourself; assess the situation; respond to the situation. The natural reaction for us, if we're working close to the protectee, is to cover the protectee and to evacuate him or her to the limousine or to an area that we know is going to be safe. So you have to practice a certain amount to be able to instinctively perform that, as opposed to the natural human instinctive performance of trying to save your own skin.
RED:Right. Now I don't mean for this to be insulting, but doesn't that seem a little be weird at some level?
CVH:That's what everybody says, but that is the essence of the job when you are on protection. We prefer to think that the advance work is done so well that there will not be an incident, but of course there could be an incident anyway and if that does happen, you perform as you have been trained and people do get hurt. You know the famous film with President Reagan where Agent McCarthy turns, and you can tell that he is purposely turning his body the broad way, as opposed to the narrow way, in between the President and the assailant and takes a shot right in the stomach in doing so. That's an instinctive reaction due to his training. It is not the normal reaction that the normal person is going to have. It is something a little unusual, but that's part of the job description.
RED:Uh huh. Have you ever been fired at?
RED:I don't know how much of this you're going to be allowed to talk about, but you obviously carry weaponry on your person ... What do you carry?
CVH:The normal weapon we carry is a Sig Sauer 9mm. It's really just a basic semi-automatic pistol.
RED:Is that standard issue? Or as an agent are you allowed to pick your own weapon within a certain category?
CVH:That's standard issue. If you're working investigations, especially undercover, there are other weapons you can qualify with and carry.
RED:And then you have some other nice little toys like that whip baton ...
CVH:We have the extendible baton, some of the specialized teams will carry other weapons, M-16's, MP-5 sub-machine guns, shotguns.
RED:And you're wired as well ...
CVH:Yeah, it's an internal communications system. The earpiece you see on TV all the time just goes to a small walkie-talkie type radio that is encoded, so someone with a scanner from Radio Shack can't listen in. We talk to ourselves on various frequencies about what is going to happen next and what the situation is.
RED:What's the hardest, or the strangest, protection detail you've had?
CVH:Probably the most difficult detail was with Senator Dole at the very end of the campaign. They called it the, "96 hour marathon," where he was going to campaign for 96 straight hours. He did basically that. It was really unbelievable. He's about twice my age and it almost killed me. I have a lot of respect for the Senator in a lot of ways, but particularly for that ... that was a long couple of days.
RED:My understanding too is that you once did protection for Tipper Gore at a Grateful Dead concert.
CVH:I did. That's when I was on the Vice President's detail. Mrs. Gore went to a Grateful Dead concert. It was ... interesting, entertaining. She's a music fan and we went with her to various concerts. Just another one of the interesting days on the job.
RED:I assume this is not considered kosher ... If you think the Dead are playing particularly bad that day, you're not allowed to draw a weapon and open fire on the stage, right?
CVH:(Laughs) No, they kind of frown on that.
RED:I would think so.
The Secret Service has been in the press in an interesting fashion recently regarding the relationship of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and they've been calling forward Secret Service agents to testify in front of the Grand Jury. Do you have any comments about what it's like to be an agent and to maybe be call forward -- not necessarily in the case of Bill Clinton, but just in general. How does that make you feel? "Yeah, it's just a part of the job," or, "No, it gives me the creeps."
CVH:My personal feeling is we should be exempt from testifying about anything. Our function is to protect the people elected to office. We're non-political. We don't have any interest in what the protectee is doing politically with Congress, or with a certain bill, or a certain stance on any issue. We don't have any interest in what the protectee does in his or her personal life, and we should be there as people fulfilling our mission. We shouldn't have to worry about about being called to testify about something we don't have any interest in, or that we weren't listening to ... We purposely don't listen when the protectee is in the backseat of a limo. There's an agent driving and the supervisor of the detail in the front passenger seat and they aren't listening to what's going on in the back, they've got too many other things on their minds. The driver is trying to get where they're going, while keeping in mind the emergency routes, the routes to the hospital ... it's a very busy position. The supervisor in the passenger seat has a thousand things on his or her mind and really has no interest in what's going on in the back seat.
The President could be calling someone on the phone and if you get called to testify about what you heard, the chances very good you didn't hear anything because you're just too darn busy to listen. So it's a tough position to be put in. I think there may be a bill in Congress that will exempt us from having to testify on those issues. I know it's been talked about, I don't have any inside information on whether that's something that will happen or not, but it seems to be to be a good idea.