As the U.S. Secret Service Special Agent in Charge for President Obama, President Trump and the White House, my designated mission – along with that of my team – was very clear: “Protect the President, his family and key staff from any harm at all costs.”

Although I will not provide specifics of the resources, tactics and means we employed to meet that mission, I can share some concepts and strategies that are relevant for our private clients and how I work today – along with my team here at Hillard Heintze – to help families gain confidence that their safety and security is assured.

My Priorities and Resources Protecting Presidents

A typical morning on duty at the White House as the Special Agent in Charge required review of all risks, threats and vulnerabilities that could impact the White House or First Family. This review was conducted in three spheres – recent past, present and future. My review of threats and recent incidents, and analysis of their intent, sophistication and organization allowed me to get a real-time snapshot of the threat landscape and our capabilities to identify and mitigate them.

It was critical that I maintain continuous awareness as this knowledge prepared me for any potential threat-related events. Operationally, maintaining this readiness required hourly – and sometimes immediate changes and modifications – to be sure we had the exact resources available to meet any challenge that could present itself.

Each day, all day, I kept one eye on the future. I considered any trip outside the White House a future event and it had to be planned down to the smallest detail – even down to the number of footsteps the President would take to walk from his limo or helicopter to the protection of a secure facility at a given event.

The resources provided to me for this holistic protective posture were unlimited. The key was to bring the right resources to each and every situation or event. This required a great deal of planning. Prevention lies at the core of our methodology – and has been the core foundation of the U.S. Secret Service’s protective strategies since 1901. Good planning can prevent a crisis and make decision-making much easier when a threat does erupt. With the President, I had contingency plans at every moment of the day providing different alternatives – options on which we briefed and rehearsed continuously.

My Priorities and Resources Protecting Private Families

I set up a very similar platform for protecting private families with whom I work today. When we bring on a new client and initiate our relationship, we set aside time to learn about the family and its culture, principles, history and priorities – among many other factors. This knowledge and insight helps me identify past events or situations that illustrate the risks, threats and vulnerabilities with which the family – or any one of its members individually – may have to contend.

Then our team at Hillard Heintze establishes a comprehensive and integrated set of procedures and safeguards that reduce the likelihood of those events occurring in the future. Our goal is to anticipate the family’s needs and continuously update security measures as necessary. While the depth and breadth of resources available to our work with families is very different from those at my disposal in protecting a President, the level of attention and our agility in adapting to change is the same. In fact, this characteristic is one our firm’s five founding principles: “Focus intensively on the details: they matter.”

Protecting Private Families in Practice: Three Examples

  1. Scheduled Appearances: For a President or First Family, a constant vulnerability is their advertised attendance at events that include many members of the public. To mitigate this vulnerability, the Secret Service plans multiple days in advance, employing screening techniques for the public to decrease the possibility of a weapon introduced at the event, designing and implementing barriers to contain and control large groups of the public and strategically placing buffers that increase the distance between attendees and the President. A notable and recognizable family attending a similar event would not require any of these measures but would benefit from a plan to safely exit the event to a pre-identified secure area if something unexpected were to occur. A plan like this requires having someone familiar with the family review the event site in person before the scheduled date, identify the risks associated with the event and build a contingency arrival and exit strategy.
  1. Secure Communications: The President requires secure communications. The technology to provide this communication structure is robust. A family also requires a secure and private technology platform that combats hacks or targeted attempts to infiltrate the family’s private financial, medical or personal information. At Hillard Heintze, our private client support teams regularly establish secure cyber environments with adequate physical security measures such as intrusion detection, smart camera systems and easy-to-use access control platforms that result in a significant decrease in the risk associated with an incident originating at a given residence.
  1. Insider Threats: One personal concern for me while the Special Agent in Charge was what we call the “insider threat.” I only wanted those with the highest degree of vetting able to have up close and personal access to the President. For families, I find that the concept is the same – only those with the highest degree of vetting should have access to what is most important to the family – such as their children, of course, but also their finances, their passwords, and the authority to make significant decisions on the part of the family. Similarly, plans to deal with employees who leave the family on good or bad terms must be incorporated. For example, a nanny, chef or property manager will take with them a great deal of intimate knowledge that could be a potential concern to the family. It is smart to put in place workable policies and procedures that not only involve due diligence for new employees and periodic due diligence for current employees but also establish guidelines that help govern how the family handles departing employees.

Balancing Privacy, Risk and Convenience

Ultimately, countering the risks to the principal – whether a U.S. president or a private citizen – is about knowing what the risks are, developing options and contingencies, and making decisions about which actions are most appropriate, day-to-day, hour-to-hour and even minute-to-minute.

A private family’s mere freedom to adapt and move – as opposed to the rigidity that constricts that of the President and First Family – provides me with the opportunity to develop highly personalized strategies for security for our private clients.

Comparing my service to both constituencies, the clearest difference, apart from the vast discrepancies in resources of course, is that families have many options in balancing their personal priorities across privacy, risk and convenience – and a President does not.

Sometimes those are very personal decisions that a private individual has the right to make. Effective security takes into account more than protection: it must also be able to support a dynamic lifestyle, not impede it. The objectives and preferences of the client – at the entity level and at the protectee level – dictate our response, often dynamically, as threat and other environmental conditions change.

Helping the family make the right decision, every time, is my job and helping them “protect what matters” is the mission for every single one of us on the Hillard Heintze team.


Learn more about balancing lifestyle and protection for private families in our Addressing the Risks While Protecting the Awards of Private Wealth Executive Briefing.