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The Things You Should Know About Covert Operations

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According to The Free Dictionary, covert operations are so planned and executed to conceal the identity of or permit plausible denial by the sponsor. They differ from clandestine operations, which agencies or individuals perform in secret and that stay confidential. The ultimate goal of a covert operation is to secretly complete objectives without anyone knowing who sponsored or carried it out presently.

Usually practiced in military strategies, experts believe these ops have the beneficial effect of preventing the escalation of disputes into full-blown wars. Powerful countries, like the U.S. and Russia, have a long track record of covert operations abroad.

However, as a rule of thumb, smaller and less stable nations cannot conduct this type of action. That’s because they possess limited funds and have a narrower range of international interests.

Under U.S. law, the Central Intelligence Agency has the duty of leading covert operations unless the country’s president determines that another agency should do so and adequately informs Congress. A department of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, called the Special Activities Division, is responsible for covert action and special activities. The latter include paramilitary operations and hidden political influence.

For the most part, the CIA has earned its current badge of mystery precisely due to this type of operation.

Similarly, the Soviet Union and Russian Federation have deployed covert operations for many reasons, such as to:

  • Diminish the credibility of Western governments,
  • Drive wedges into Western alliances, and
  • Plan for coming wars.

Covert Operations in the Private and Public Sectors

Interestingly, covert operations are increasingly conducted in the realm of the internet. Attacks originate from hidden bases and offices. There, malicious actors, sponsored by the state, implement activities with a wide range of goals. These include disinformation campaigns, infrastructure sabotage, and contingency military intelligence collection.

However, they aren’t confined to the public sector.

Covert operations are no longer limited to government organizations and have flowed more prominently into the private sector, specifically in executive protection. 

Hollywood and the media would have you believe that the principal(s) enjoys having the extra layer of protection via a black suit, earpiece, and sunglasses. However, many principals do not have close protection because it creates what may be interpreted as limited movement and forfeiture of freedom. 

This is why the executive protection agent and detail must find a balance between protection and freedom of movement, which in executive protection is difficult and needs to be mastered.

Matthew Porcelli, Security Manager, Harvard Protection Services

Executive Protection Covert Agents

The world of executive protection has numerous different branches. One of them is covert EP. That is, the art of doing everything an executive protection team can do to keep a protectee safe without being noticed. In other words, to stay out of the executive’s way as best they can.

Covert executive protection, sometimes called protective surveillance, is valuable for many reasons, some of which include:

  • Stealthy protection officers that no one notices,
  • Drastically increased freedom of movement for the principal,
  • The covert team acting as a Counter Attack Team (CAT) and operating as an additional layer of protection, in addition to the current security team,
  • Concealed protection for the entourage, family members, or friends who are resistant to accept a security presence.

Put differently, covert operations in executive protection are high-level services that primarily center around staying invisible to the public eye. In fact, everybody’s eye.

covert operations

Unlike your everyday EP agent, an executive protection covert officer has a higher salary. Usually, this type of work pays around USD 120,000, while hiring companies prefer candidates with prior military or government experience.

The path to becoming an EP covert officer is strenuous, to put it mildly. Some of the requirements in job postings for a position in this category include:

  • Working extended or irregular hours, and willing to work Wednesday to Sunday on 12-hour rotating shifts,
  • Traveling in support of protective operations advances, both domestically and internationally,
  • Conducting site surveys and documenting them for dissemination to team members,
  • Demonstrating responsibility for all equipment used to support the protective operations program (medical supplies, vehicles, and communications devices).

To even be considered for a position, you must pass an extensive background check and in-house training assessment, among other things.

The Overt Fun of Covert Operations

Contrary to popular belief, covert operations aren’t always pleasant and harmless. Most of the time, they can entail unsafe tasks that occasion plenty of planning, surveillance, and ― you guessed it ― debilitating stress.

Despite the cool factor that people sometimes ascribe to it, a covert operation is often risky, difficult to manage, and expensive. Still, to shine a little light on the calamity that EP covert officers face daily, let’s glance at some amusing situations.

Namely, people with zero or limited experience in the industry usually think wearing a black suit with a pigtail earpiece is covert as hell. Well, they are dead wrong and need to stop projecting movies into real life.

If a covert operations officer is joining a public happening of any kind, they must blend into their environment. For instance, when attending a tech event, wear the clothes of techies and hipsters. When entering a coffee shop downtown, behave like the ordinary Joe and average Jane. Don’t stand out by any means.

In the last ten years in the USA, we have seen a trend in Covert Protection.” It used to be a few team members augmenting the EP Team as secondary duties. Then it went to full “CovPro” teams providing support to the EP Teams. Now we see many clients who prefer the “CovPro” solution as their primary EP solution, with entire Covert Protection teams instead of the Executive Protection teams. 

The low profile methods are attractive to many clients, who prefer not to “flash” their protection or at least have a small visible presence from their EP Team and a much bigger “covert” presence that goes unnoticed.

Martin Nielsen, 3D Executive Services

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

An astonishing thing that can happen during covert operations is meeting a cousin during a public event. Do you speak to them? Do you say hi back or ignore their existence altogether? Will your cover be blown if you start chatting with people you know?

Strange and accidental encounters of this sort surely necessitate a certain degree of pondering in advance. This is especially true if random people approach you in the most inconvenient of moments.

For instance, suppose an event is about to start. A crowd of people gathers around the person you are protecting, and a random person tries to make small talk. Say, they find your glasses, eye color, or jeans to be impressive. You need to respond politely and decline their request for conversing while not sounding strange or discourteous.

However, the most prevailing circumstance of all is the endless waiting time. Often not discussed a lot due to its dull nature, waiting for a principal can genuinely be an ordeal in and of itself. Countless hours spent mingling with your environment, expecting them to show up. Perhaps occupying yourself with stuff that you neither like nor enjoy doing.

Not so fun after all, right?

In Conclusion

In this article, we looked at the volume of covert operations in the military and private sectors. Specifically in the EP industry, where it has a broad range of applications.

We have supported some clients with covert EP. Sometimes at the request of headquarters or their global security director and for various reasons. From the principal simply not wanting any protection (but his company/insurers demanding so (for some high-net-worth individuals but not “famous” per se) to some principals just preferring not to have people tagging along too closely but loosely following them. 

So often, the EPA(s) are stuck between a rock and a hard place, but blending in and being able to move at a moment’s notice (some link with the principal’s EA would help!) is vital. 

Kenji Okamoto, Managing Director, Vector Risk Management

A daunting endeavor disguised as entertaining and safe, covert operations have repeatedly been presented as an ideal job. Most of this baggage is the media’s fault, who uncritically report on the matter, and that of movies that portray covert agents as invincible individuals who rarely get caught. Yet, even if they do, they manage to win the day by some miracle.

Before you even think about exploring this EP branch as your career path, think twice. Actually, take as much time as you need, as it isn’t an easy decision to make.

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  1. Well written and quite an authentic picture of the reality on the ground. From my experience, close protection is a sliding scale of applications from the overt to the low profile to the covert. Even the term “covert” itself has its own level of applications. A protector’s job maybe to blend in and be the gray man or woman in securing a principle, not so easy even domestically, here in the US. Now imagine that your job is to manage the safe and covert exfiltration of an intelligence asset or principle from a foreign country without alerting suspicion from government authorities; this requires a whole different level of covert applications to succeed in the detail.

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