Dave Austin, a police officer on-site at the Central Intelligence Agency, had heard about the protective operations training course from a few buddies at work. At the time, his image of the job was someone in a suit with an earpiece — basically a Secret Service agent. There were rumors about the perks of the job, too: you’re often face-to-face with the director, work on the Seventh Floor, run motorcades around D.C., you get to travel the world.
It all sounded like a good time, so he applied for the job.
Before long, he found himself in a room with Agency personnel from all different walks of life. The instructor immediately crushed any preconceived notions about the job they had applied for.
He told them about an incident in Mogadishu, Somalia. Something that happened before the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident on Oct. 3, 1993. A motorcade was attacked, and the special agents were able to get away, but their vehicles were shot up. The deputy chief-of-station had been shot, too, but he was evacuated and received medical attention. While a firefight may seem par for the course for anyone working in Mogadishu, the militants had a much more nefarious plan in place in the event that they got their hands on any members of the detail — and it was horrific.
“The word on the street was that the guys who attacked the motorcade intended to skin the protective agents alive, make lampshades out of them, and torture the deputy chief to death, while getting whatever information they could from him until he was dead,” Austin said, relaying the story that the instructor told his class.
“This is what you can expect in these places that we are going,” the instructor continued. “If you are not willing to put yourself in these situations, this line of work is not for you.”
The grim reality of being a protective agent caused several people to stand up and and walk out of the room. Yet the majority remained, ready to endure the two-month training program.
Austin successfully completed the course, and went on to work for the CIA for 12 years. In an interview with Coffee or Die, he gave a glimpse of what his work was like. His work was so secretive that he couldn’t reveal specific locations, dates, or times — and even had to be cleared to talk by the CIA’s Publication Review Board.
His work frequently brought him to the Middle East; the director of the Agency was involved in brokering a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, which meant Austin needed to visit Yasser Arafat’s place often.
“On one occasion, a guy on our team was doing a site advance. He was down at Arafat’s place. I was in the motorcade in the follow car, hauling ass down the highway,” Austin said.
They received a call on the radio that the meet had been canceled. They needed to leave the car to pick up the site advance agent. The remainder of the motorcade headed back into town, but Austin’s vehicle pulled off.
“He was ghost white,” Austin said of the fellow agent who was retrieved from the site. “Just horrified.”
When he got back in the vehicle, the agent let out a sigh of relief.
“My God, I didn’t think I’d see you guys again,” the agent said, per Austin’s account. “I was in the car coming back. I was sitting between these Palestinians. One guy gets a call. Pulls out his cell. He starts shaking his head. I said, ‘Everything okay?’ He said, ‘Israelis just bombed our compound.’”
They had initially left Arafat’s house because the Israelis told them that there was going to be an airstrike.
The dynamic between Israel and Palestine is something Austin became intimately familiar with, giving him a different, more complex view of the situation than what is typically presented to the American public. For instance, the U.S. government poured a significant amount of money into trying to modernize a Palestinian force to help fight militant Islamists, but Israel and Palestine continued to fight despite the effort.
Austin was at a location a few days ahead of the Arafat visit; at times, he was within arm’s reach of the Palestinian leader. A Palestinian man took Austin to a warehouse to illustrate how Israel had destroyed many of the resources the U.S. gave to Palestine.
“After an attack, the Israelis would knock out everything we helped build,” Austin said. The warehouse was no exception. Stacked on a forklift were several flattened vehicles that the Israelis had driven over with their tanks. The Palestinian man complained to Austin that the Israelis had destroyed their vehicles.
One thing Austin learned as a protective agent that has had an impact on his life is that it is important to find common ground with the people who are supporting you. He always found it more beneficial to sit down with people and say, “In order for me to do what I need to do, this is what I need from you. How can we meet in the middle?”
He also enjoyed the element of working in the shadows.
“You get a peek behind the curtain,” Austin said. “You get to see how Washington and the world operates. You get exposed to a lot of things — information that the average person never does and never will, even people in the government.”