Cyprus Airport Delay | Reflections on the Office of Security (S.Y.)

Larnaca Airport | November 1977

My flight to Beirut from Larnaca, Cyprus had been delayed several hours due to engine problems. I had no choice but to wait it out. We were notified at six p.m. that the flight had been cleared to take off in about two hours. I called the after hours operator at the American Embassy Nicosia on a pay phone. A long pause ensued after I explained to the Cypriot woman that I needed to get a travel message sent to Beirut.

<Feature photo: One of the Black September terrorists steps out onto the balcony, where the Israeli Olympic team was being held hostage at the Munich Olympic Games (Associated Press).

When the duty officer came on the line I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I heard Security Officer Hildebrand’s voice.

“This is Hildebrand, can I help you?”

I explained whom I was and that my flight to Beirut had been delayed.

“I’ll walk up your travel update to the Communications & Records Unit. They’ll send a NIACT Immediate message to Beirut.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it… and sorry if I sounded disrespectful earlier… It’s been a long day. You were just doing your job.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll put you up at the Hilton next visit.”

“I’ll take you up on that.”

As he hung up I reflected on the importance on the role of S.Y. and the function of physical security at U.S. missions abroad.

The US Department of State | Office of Security (S.Y.)

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Security Victor Dikeos (left) stands with graduates of the first Basic Special Agent Course in November 1974 (courtesy of Bureau of Diplomatic Security files)

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Security or S.Y. wore several hats. First and foremost they protected both Secretary of State Cyrus Vance on official visits abroad and foreign dignitaries visiting the U.S.

S.Y. responsibilities also included:

  • Upgrade and prioritize physical security at U.S. missions abroad.
  • Security clearances for prospective Foreign Service Officers.
  • Monitor terrorist threat against U.S. missions worldwide. Develop emergency plans.
  • Assignment of Security Officers at key U.S. missions worldwide.
  • Develop an armored car program, a mobile reserve of equipment, and Emergency Actions Teams to train and assist missions abroad.

The rise of terrorism after 1968 had a great impact on S.Y. They got heavily involved in the physical security of U.S. diplomatic missions that peaked in the 1970’s.

Flashback | Philadelphia O.J.T.

While we were on a domestic assignment in Philadelphia in early 1977 my mentor (and boss) Norm Bates explained S.Y.’s mission. Bates shook his head over his beer after mentioning that the Black September terrorist group had murdered the Israeli team members at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany. He said that incident caused Congress to demand that the State Department improve the physical security of U.S. embassies and the protection of U.S. and foreign diplomats.

Bates said, “S.Y. responded by aggressively hiring agents from the military and police forces as a first step. Next, they tackled public access control at high threat missions. There has been good improvement as a result of S.Y.’s dedicated team effort.”

BEFORE security access upgrades. Marine Security Guard security post. Source: Department of State, Office of the Historian Files.

The Marine Security Guard security post at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia (shown here), circa 1970 was vulnerable to terrorist attack. Notice the glass entries, the openness, and easy access that made U.S. embassies prior to the early 1970’s difficult to protect.

AFTER security access upgrades. Marine Security Guard security post. Source: SY Focus

Beginning in the early 1970’s, SY built reinforced control booths with bulletproof glass for embassy entrances. The control booth also allowed the MSG to monitor the alarms systems and closed-circuit cameras around the embassy. (Source: SY Focus).

During my recent visits to Am Embassy Cairo, Athens, and here at Nicosia I had noticed additional S.Y. physical security upgrades through the use of closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras and reinforcement of perimeter walls (Am Embassy Athens). Bates had told me that most of the work was performed by US Navy Seabees, under the direction of S.Y.

After the third or fourth beer at the hotel bar in Philadelphia, PA Norm Bates had admitted that he had been tasked to provide radio support for S.Y. after returning from his assignment in Accra, Ghana in ‘74. He said his first trip with S.Y. was to Buenos Aires.

U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Buenos Aires. Source: Department of State, Office of the Historian Files.

Bates lowered his flagon of beer and said, “Yeah, when S.Y. got done in Buenos Aires the ambassador’s residence had a “safe haven,” with a steel-lined room, bulletproof glass, the ability to flood the rest of the residence with tear gas, and a ten days supply of food and water.”

I commented that somebody had a wheelbarrow of money to spend.

“The post funded it through the Admin Officer. The downside of embassy funding was that a lot of the old embassies were historical buildings. S.Y. would run up against a proverbial stone wall when they talked about the drilling and resurfacing required for the physical security upgrades.”

I hadn’t considered that possibility.

Bates said, “The RSO, known as ‘Bullets,’ commanded his own army in Buenos Aires. He enlisted an elite six-man U.S. Marine Corps Personal Protective Security Unit (PPSU). Those guys were expert marksmen, trained in hand-to-hand combat, and were expert drivers. Backing up our marines were over two hundred Argentine federales. Bullets wanted OC/PE to fund handheld radios for the federales.”

“Two hundred plus handhelds?”

“We settled on about two dozen radios for the marines and the federale team leaders. One thing for sure, nobody was going to get near our ambassador down there.”

Bates went on about aspects of the physical security upgrades both at the embassy and at vulnerable locations where Foreign Service Officers resided.

“The Seabees installed shatterproof or bulletproof glass in U.S. embassies, consulates, and some residences. They added Mylar film applications to windows for privacy and to prevent shattering. The Seabees also installed alarm systems, better lighting, and closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public access areas.”

Norm went on to tell me that President Carter was protected by the Secret Service. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, like past secretaries, was protected by S.Y. The lone exception was Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (1973- 1977) who preferred to be protected by the Secret Service.”

Norm laughed. “S.Y. and the Secret Service got in a pissing contest over Kissinger. The shit hit the fan for S.Y. when Georges Pompidou, President of France visited Chicago back in ‘70. During the visit, a protester spit on Mrs. Pompidou. Furious, President Richard Nixon demanded that the Secret Service, not the Office of Security (SY), protect foreign dignitaries who visited the United States. That put a damper on S.Y.’s credibility for a little while.”

Photo President Richard Nixon by Associated Press

Norm continued, “As a result of the Munich Olympic massacres in ‘72, President Richard Nixon created and oversaw the Office of Counter-Terrorism. It addressed hijackings, airport security, and the protection of foreign diplomats in the United States.”

Bates grimaced as he glanced at his watch. He did that cheeky Humphrey Bogart thing, and said, “Ah shit… I’m going to have to head upstairs to the room. Gotta call the wife.”

Norm Bates had culminated his physical security discussion (and his sixth beer) with the grimace—another bout with the gout plagued him.

Thus ended another lesson of my on-the-job-training in Philadelphia, PA…

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