Be Your Own Security Advisor – Security Tips from a Counterterrorism Expert

The thing about CIA intelligence officers is that you must be tuned into your environment, aware of your surroundings, and able to spot when something looks wrong or out of place.

Ultimately, we are searching for counterintelligence threats because we don’t want to end up detained, charged with espionage and dumped in a foreign jail.  That is a CIA officer’s worst nightmare—to be caught in the act and blown as an agent.  Therefore, we have to be on our game every time we conduct an operation.  We have to know:

  • Is anyone following us?
  • Listening too closely to our conversations?
  • Standing too close?
  • Are they using walkie-talkies in their cars?
  • Do they have earpieces in their ears?
  • Do they look out of place?
  • Are they acting normally?

The other major thing we are looking for are people that could pose a security threat to us.  As Americans living and working abroad, we are the natural target for people who hate the United States.  We are the people that terrorists want to hijack, carjack, kidnap, or kill.  Therefore, we have to pay extra attention to what’s going on around us.  The same goes for men and women concerned about keeping themselves safe on the mean streets of America.  Gone are the white picket fence days-of-old when we still had our innocence.  September 11th stole our sense of well-being and since then, mass casualty attacks, school shootings, and assaults by crazies and lone wolfs in public places, have become the new normal.  We have to adjust our ways of seeing the world and become our own personal security advisors.It’s not hard—especially for women who tend to be tuned in to their surroundings (the mama bear protective instinct).

This Feminine Collective series will give you the tools you need to keep you and your loved ones safe.  But before we delve into the specifics of how to prepare for, and respond to various types of attacks, you have to learn how to be your own secret service agent.  You must have the rudimentary knowledge to comb a location and identify potential security threats.  Situational awareness is the key to safety.  Without it, you are toast.

I regularly scan for threats when I’m in large, crowded, public places like malls, concert events, sitting in the lobby of a large hotel (more of an overseas concern), getting into and out of my car in parking lots and parking garages, walking on the streets of a city next to dumpsters, alleyways, etc.  In those moments, my antenna is all the way up.  I’m looking for anyone or anything that is out of place:  an abandoned bag, a person skulking around looking shifty, a strange car parked close to mine with someone inside of it, individuals who appear confused or nervous or simply seem out of place for the area, etc.  I’m not paranoid, but I’m searching for clues to be sure that someone is not in a position to harm me.  A few of the things that have popped out at me when I’m “in the zone”:

  • I see a lot of drug deals going down or about to go down.  It’s not a direct threat to me, but I’d rather not stick around and place myself in a more vulnerable position.
  • My husband and I were walking on Capitol Hill when we noticed that a car pulled up and was driving very slowly behind us.  A guy got out of the car and start walking towards us.  We both straightened our posture and picked up our pace.  My husband, who has amazing street smarts, pulled up his jacket as if he was reaching for a gun (which he did not have).  With confidence, my husband turned around to glare at the guy who seemed to be pursuing us.  Thank God he wigged out, made a sudden U-turn and took off in the opposite direction.
  • While driving close to home in 2002, I saw two men in a rental car taking covert photographs of a water treatment facility in Arlington, VA.  (I called in their tag number and vehicle description to the FBI hotline.)
  • While walking to my car in the parking garage of a prominent mall in northern Virginia, I heard some loud noises and what sounded like an assault taking place in the stairwell.  I grabbed my phone ready to call 911—that’s when I turned the corner and saw a man and woman struggling—the woman was screaming for him to let her go.  I yelled, “Are you OK????”  I realized, at that moment, that it was an Arab couple so I instinctively yelled in Arabic, “What are you doing to her?  Shame on you!  Shame on you!!!” They stopped fighting, looked shocked and embarrassed, and then ran away.
  • In a major department store, I walked right into the middle of a surveillance operation.  I saw several men ducking behind shelves and wearing earpieces although I never saw the rabbit (the person they were surveilling).  No one else in the store seemed to have a clue what was unfolding right in the middle of their little shopping trip.

Funny how paying a little bit of attention to your surroundings reveals details you’ve never noticed before.  Turn up your security antenna, and you will be ahead of the game and more switched on than the majority of those around you.  Then, if anything does go down, you’ll be ready.

Photo Credit: Christoph Scholz Flickr via Compfight cc

Categories: Women's Issues + Awareness

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Michele Rigby Assad

After obtaining a masters degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University, Michele applied—along with hundreds of others from the university--to work for the CIA. After a long and grueling hiring process and a year of intensive training, she became an intelligence officer for the National Clandestine Service, the covert (operational) arm of the Agency. Serving for a decade as a counterterrorism officer, Michele worked in all of the awful places you hope you’ll never visit, including Iraq during the height of the war. To date, Michele has traveled to 45 countries, lived in six of those, and has a lot of crazy stories to tell about life overseas. While working for the CIA, Michele initially decried the traits that made her different from senior male officers, but later realized that these traits were what made her a great intelligence officer (empathy, intuition, strong interpersonal skills). Now she’s on a mission to show women that they have the elements to be a Femme Fatale—the incredibly intelligent and operationally astute woman that gets stuff done. After years of service to her country, Michele has left the undercover life behind and now works as an international management consultant focused on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She has a more “normal” life now and a lot more time to do the things she loves: writing, cooking, traveling for pleasure, walking on the beach—and most of all, inspiring others!

  1. I love your response Marla! I love it that you were raised this way. Good for your family and good for you! They are such simple concepts that go a long way in keeping us safe. Using them overseas in your modeling job was priceless, I’m sure. I’m sure you’ve taught your kids too. We need to do more of that!

  2. Thanks Michele! This is good stuff and I’ll be forwarding this to my daughter and all of the other women in my life. Keep it coming!

  3. I love this! I was raised with a police officer for a brother – he was much older than me. He was in Vietnam, then police department on SWAT and various other things. I went on a ride along with him at 16 (the second they would allow me to). I was raised like this. Keys in your hand exiting a mall. Look under your car as you are walking toward it. Walk down the middle of sidewalks in city streets – not near the buildings, not near the street. Cross the street if coming upon a dumpster. Pay attention to whats behind you, in front of you, and next to you. If someone is approaching you turn and face them and they usually run away. Attackers want an easy target. Not someone who will fight them, etc. I never looked at like I was paranoid. It was a fun game for me. It was second nature. It helped me immensely in Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and New York. As a model, we were always sent into questionable areas on castings because upcoming photographers and art directors always lived or worked in areas with cheap rent. I carried mace and I walked with a purpose. Thanks Michele for validating that my behavior is normal – for CIA anyway.

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