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With crises brewing around the world, the US's diplomatic 'special agents' are sharpening old skills and learning some new ones

Stavros Atlamazoglou   

With crises brewing around the world, the US's diplomatic 'special agents' are sharpening old skills and learning some new ones
  • The State Department relies on its Diplomatic Security Service to protect diplomats around the world.
  • The department and DSS are confronting more challenges amid increasing geopolitical tensions.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the world and drew a scathing response from the international community.

In the 20 months since then, the US has led an international effort to arm and train Ukraine's military and support its government economically and diplomatically. Meanwhile, half a world away, the US faces increasing competition with China, which US leaders have condemned for its pressure on Taiwan, violations of international law, and political repression at home.

US diplomats are at the tip of the spear for those efforts, living and working on the frontlines as they deal with friends and adversaries, at times in dangerous or isolated outposts. To protect those diplomats, the State Department relies on a little-known but highly capable agency — the Diplomatic Security Service.

Protecting US diplomats in an evolving world

As the State Department's law-enforcement and security arm, the Diplomatic Security Service has been protecting US diplomats at home and abroad since 1916. The DSS is the US law-enforcement agency with the largest global footprint, and it works closely with governments around the world.

With about 2,500 active special agents, the DSS is responsible for four main missions: protecting US diplomats and foreign diplomats in the US, conducting passport and visa fraud investigations, ensuring the security of classified US travel documents, and performing security background checks.

The DSS has developed several initiatives to ensure the safety of US diplomats and missions amid an evolving operational environment.

As part of its mission to protect State Department personnel, facilities, and information, DSS routinely conducts emergency planning and exercises to prepare for incidents at US missions overseas.

Its Mobile Security Deployments, which are specialized tactical units, are on standby to respond to any heightened threats or emergencies at home and abroad.

Regional security office teams also develop and maintain an emergency action plan, which outlines the roles and responsibilities of individuals in an emergency or crisis, for each diplomatic mission. These plans are reviewed regularly to ensure that they are still relevant and reflect any changes in the operational environment.

DSS agents led the way when the US reopened its embassy in Kyiv in May, and Insider understands that the DSS has created a robust security program tailored to that facility.

The Overseas Security Advisory Council, which is part of the DSS, provides another layer of security. The council collects information from private-sector security professionals to gain insight from US businesses and institutions operating overseas about the security situation on the ground.

"Through the council, the State Department can exchange information in real-time with hundreds of private businesses, faith-based organizations, and other US entities," a State Department spokesperson told Insider.

The DSS also manages the department's Foreign Emergency Response Team, an interagency team that is on call to respond on short notice to critical incidents worldwide.

"The team deploys overseas to advise, assist, assess, and coordinate crisis-response activities. It may deploy in response to terrorism incidents and significant threats, to support chiefs of mission during large events like the Olympics, and during US counterterrorism exercises," the State Department spokesperson added.

The US military, mainly through its Joint Special Operations Command, also has special-operations units on constant standby to respond to any terrorism or hostage situations abroad.

Another DSS initiative aims to give diplomats and their families the tools to survive overseas. The Foreign Affairs Counter Threat training program is a five-day course that provides diplomats and their families with skills to enhance their security awareness and preparedness.

As relations with Russia and China have deteriorated, the DSS has had to adjust its activities to ensure it can protect US facilities in those countries and the diplomats and staff at them, but it's dealing with a growing set of threats from outside the physical realm.

Proliferating cyber threats

Following a string of high-profile cyberattacks against government agencies and private businesses, US national-security officials are increasingly focused on cybersecurity.

Insider understands that the State Department's IT network is under attack by malicious state and non-state cyber actors on a daily basis.

Protecting the communications, data, and systems used by US diplomats is part of the DSS purview. The service operates a cyber-operations center staffed by a leading team of dedicated cyber operators who monitor diplomatic digital infrastructure and data on a 24/7 basis.

Moreover, the DSS works closely with the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget to ensure the State Department meets the requirements for cyber operations laid out by federal regulations and legislative mandates.

The DSS has changed how it protects US diplomats and classified information in order to keep pace with the evolution of technology and the cyber domain. It is pivoting to a "zero trust" security model in which it takes a "never trust, always verify" approach to all requests for access.

As a result, the DSS is no longer looking to protect all its data at the same level but to adopt levels of protection that reflect the sensitivity of the data and its importance to the State Department's overall mission.

In addition, Insider understands that the DSS is currently completing the roll-out of an advanced, multi-factor identity management system that would provide further protection against intrusions.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He has a B.A. from the Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. in strategy, cybersecurity, and intelligence from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and is currently pursuing a Juris Doctor degree from Boston College Law School.

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