The Disparity Between Threat Estimate And Assessment Is Often Huge…and Dangerous

by David L. Johnson

One of the earliest international executive protection missions I advanced was a multi-nation tour leaving from West Germany and traveling to Athens, Greece, the island of Crete, Istanbul, Turkey, and returning to West Germany. Our principal for this trip was General Frederick Kroesen, Commander in Chief, U.S. Army Europe, and 7th Army. He commanded all U.S. Army operations in Europe and this trip was to visit U.S. Army and NATO installations in the region.  Like most first time experiences, this trip generated a wealth of lessons learned knowledge.

Before planning this trip, I knew two things.

One, General Kroesen had already been the target of a Red Army Faction assassination attempt in what was then West Germany.

Two, Andreas Papandreou had just been elected president of Greece, and there was strong popular sentiment that American military bases there should be shut down. During the Greek presidential campaign, there had been violent anti-American demonstrations at some of the locations that General Kroesen would visit.  For instance, a pipe bomb was detonated in the lobby of the hotel where we would stay, and sporadic gunfire had been directed at the gates of a U.S. military base we were to visit, as well as along our motorcade route to the base.

This was a multi-stop, multi-country visit.  This is not uncommon, but not that common.  The point is, each location must be individually examined and treated based on their unique elements and threats.  This was not one advance; it was three advances loosely stitched together with air travel.

Before I get into the details of this mission, I need to explain the first step in conducting an advance-producing the initial threat estimate-and how we differentiated threat levels. These methods still apply today.

Initial Threat Estimate

Advance research starts with the initial threat estimate of the locations you will visit. In preparation for your mission you will be talking to various people such as the U.S State Department Regional Security Office (RSO), local police, and other sources.  These people should at least be able to provide you with basic threat information.

You want to assess the security situation in each location, identify groups of interest that might be operating there, their cause, positions, demands, history, and modus operandi, and if your mission will have public exposure in the media. If you develop an estimate of the threat environment early in the planning and research phase, you will be better prepared to determine the resources you need for your team.

This step will help later when you do the onsite advance. The U.S. State Department is an excellent starting point for current security travel advisories.

A final comment about sources.  At the time of the mission described below, I was Army too.  I was assigned to protect General Kroesen on his travels and we had access to resources that civilians do not always enjoy.  For example, military intelligence and other official contacts.  Admittedly, it may be harder, and more costly for civilian advance teams to get the same intelligence, cooperation, and contacts the Army provided us.  Nevertheless, you must develop your own sources for these essential elements of information.

Threat Levels

The following list is how we assessed threats then, and what I still use today, to differentiate threat levels.  There are other definitions and descriptions of threat levels but those listed below are consistent with generally accepted versions I have encountered worldwide:

Negligible – indicating that there is very little risk of violence being directed at the individual concerned and/or no credible threat information exists.

Low – the risk of violence being directed at an individual is a potential that cannot be discounted, but is not considered likely and/or little or no credible threat information exists.

 Moderate – risk of violence being directed at an individual is a potential that cannot be discounted and various factors indicate that some potential exists for the manifestation of violence even though no particular or specific threat may have been identified.

High – risk of violence being directed at an individual is considered probable and/or a specific threat has been identified which is believed to be credible.

 Imminent – risk of violence being directed at an individual is expected based upon analysis of credible threat information. The incident is expected to manifest itself within a short time frame.

The Initial Threat Estimate Given To Us

If General Kroesen and I, American military, were recognized, he would have been a prize target of opportunity for anti-American factions willing to use terror tactics to further their cause.  I wanted a formal threat estimate before we departed.  That would give us an idea of current events and what we might be up against.  I contacted the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, gave them our itinerary, and asked them to work up something for me. Here is what I got back:

The preliminary threat estimate for Greece revealed that anti-American violence had apparently ceased after the election, probably because of President Papandreou’s suspension of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Greece and the U.S.A.  SOFA governs the rights and responsibilities of each country’s military personnel when they are in the other country.

The SOFA addresses specific issues about what U.S. military personnel can do and how we operated while in Greece, such as carrying concealed weapons. The SOFA suspension meant that we no longer had legal authority to carry weapons off our military installations.  We would be in grave legal jeopardy had we needed to use deadly force against Greek citizens.  This included defensive action against, among others, the November 17 Organization, the Greek terrorist group that killed U.S. Navy Captain Tsantes in November 1983 and attacked U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Judd later that same year.  Nonetheless, the intel folks judged that we would have no problems in Greece and the threat was assessed as low.

Crete, they told us was a sleepy little island with beautiful scenery and offered no problems we should be worried about. Threat in Crete was designated negligible.

There was good news about Turkey. The year prior to our trip, on May 5th, 1981, the Turkish Army conducted an offensive against several terrorist organizations and had been successful in killing or arresting many of these terrorists. In fact, I was told since they did that, acts of terrorism in general had gone down statistically by some 300%, so while there was no guarantee that we wouldn’t have any problems, it was judged that there was little likelihood of any violent action manifesting itself during our trip. The threat in Turkey was assessed as low to moderate.

That was what the intel guys came up with in response to my request for a formal threat estimate. Now, we had some information that we could begin working with. Would you agree?  Does this information make it easier for us to figure out what kind of configuration our protective team should take in each of these countries? Yes or no, this intel was all we had, and off we went on the second part of our advance, the onsite threat assessment.

The Onsite Threat Assessment We Did

Occasionally, you will not be able to compile much information about a location until you are on the ground there. Furthermore, the situation in a location may be fluid; constantly changing. In other instances, you’ll just not be able to get accurate up-to-date information about the location before you leave your office. Nobody knows the local situation and environment like the locals, so always, always, always, update your threat estimate upon arrival at a site.

Armed with our intel estimate, my partner and I headed off for each of those locations.  We had flight schedule problems and had to advance the mission out of order.

Our first stop was Crete. The intel guys nailed it; it is a very nice “sleepy” little island.  The itinerary there was small, and it did not take us long to finish our advance there.  We then did what every American “tourist” does with free time in a foreign country; we went sightseeing.

The next morning, we flew to Athens. In spite of the hectic itinerary there, the initial threat estimate was verified almost verbatim by the senior agent of the U.S. Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) who had overall responsibility for law enforcement and intelligence in Athens. Later in the day we flew to Istanbul.

In the Istanbul airport baggage claim area, we saw “Wanted” posters pasted on the walls. These posters started at one end of the room continued around the corner and ended out in the hallway.  At first, I thought they were copies of the same poster because all the folks had full beards or mutton chop sideburns.

My partner took a closer look and discovered that all the names were different. In law enforcement, that is a clue. We wondered if these poster boys had already been arrested and the authorities were just slow to take down their posters.

Early the next morning we started verifying our threat estimate. We got a major surprise. We learned that, at that moment, there were 29 different armed groups operating in Istanbul. We also learned that in the year prior to our visit, the Turkish military had fared well against dissident groups. On the 5th of May, the year before, several friends of those characters on the wanted posters had been killed in a firefight.

Now there were indications that seven to nine of these “dissident” groups were planning armed attacks in Istanbul the upcoming 5th of May. It was estimated that five to seven groups were planning to attack the Grand Bazaar with explosives. Anniversary dates are important to terrorist organizations too.

We checked our itinerary for May 5th. We were to escort General Kroesen to the Grand Bazaar where he hoped to buy a Persian rug. Our new reality was significantly different than what was implied in the intel report that, statistically speaking, “…acts of violence had been reduced by over 300 percent!” This was critical current information I needed and would use.

I called the General’s office and asked his aide, Major Bodine, to ask him what color Persian rug he wanted. Major Bodine asked why I wanted to know.  I explained the situation to him and said that I could buy one for the General on May 4th and he could reimburse me later, or he could go to the “Fire Sale” on May 6th and get one on the cheap. Major Bodine was in the car with General Kroesen during the earlier assassination attempt.  Based on this latest information, the General decided to change his itinerary and avoid the problem area altogether.

Here is an important note:  We had critical information that would strongly show the need to change the itinerary.  Nevertheless, the advance agent does not have the authority to direct a change. The advance agent is compelled to recommend a change and should have options available when making a recommendation but the authority to actually make the change belongs to the principal alone.

Now, with all our advance work for every itinerary stop completed, we would return to Athens and wait for the General to arrive. We would escort him thorough all the stops and return home with him to West Germany.

We landed in Athens on Saturday and went to our hotel. The General would arrive Monday so we had time for more sightseeing.  We went to the Acropolis and took pictures of ourselves with the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite. From there we could overlook Athens.

The author in Athens
The author in Athens

From that vantage point we noticed quite a few people out and about in the streets. Most of them were carrying long poles, or broom handles, each of which had a large red flag attached to it. We thought perhaps these people, literally hundreds of thousands, had something to do with the recent election or were celebrating.  Whatever, we went off on our own business and finished the day having our pictures taken in front of every headless, armless, old statue that we could find.

That night we took our OSI colleague to dinner to thank him for his help with our advance.  During casual conversation we told him what we had done and seen that day. We mentioned seeing the people in the streets carrying red flags and asked him about that.

“Oh,” he said calmly, “that’s just the Communists.”

“Communists!  What Communists?” I replied.

“Oh, didn’t you know?” he said.  “The Communist Party is the second largest political party in Greece.”

I replied, “You don’t say. And what exactly were they doing today?”

“Doing? They were practicing for the big parade,” he explained.

“What parade?”

“The May Day Parade,” he said with a puzzled look on his face. “Don’t you know about that?”

“No. We didn’t know about that.”

Can you sense that we had stumbled on to another clue? The May Day Parade our colleague informed us, is an annual event in honor of the most revered day on the Communist calendar.

“How many folks are going to march in this year’s May Day parade?” I asked.

“About 1.8 million, or so,” he said matter-of-factly.

Our principal was due to arrive on, you guessed it, May 1. Oh boy!

We asked our friend if he knew the precise parade route. He did, but that did not make us feel any better. The parade route crossed our motorcade route no less than thirteen times! Now I don’t know how you would feel, but my partner and I weren’t real keen on planting a U.S. Army General in an OD green car with “For Official Use Only” plastered on the sides and driving him in, around, and through, 1.8 million Communists on any May Day anywhere. Especially if that anywhere is a country where at least part of the population had expressed a “Yankee Go Home” sentiment and on occasion was prone to express that belief with violence and explosives.

Objectively, there was no intelligence that the Communists were planning any violent activity. Nor, was there any intelligence that there would be any anti-American activity other than rhetoric from speakers.  But there is such a thing as target of opportunity. Moreover, in my humble opinion, trying to maneuver around 1.8 million anybodies is going to make you late for an appointment or two.

We were fortunate to be military. We commandeered helicopters to replace some of the motorcade movements; it’s better to fly over the masses then drive through them.  We planned the rest of our motorcade routes to avoid the parade.

 Lessons Learned

It is important to examine some of the experiences and dealings with the people who had “helped” with our threat estimate and assessment.

First, what did I learn from the threat estimate I got before I left my office? Remember that intel guy? We opened our books to him so we could get information from him that we would use to formulate our mission plan. Having read my account of the difference between what he told us about the situation in Turkey—“acts of violence had been reduced, statistically speaking, by over 300 percent”—and what we discovered on the ground from our own observation and talking to local sources, I think that you’ll come to the same conclusion I did. There was a huge disparity between what we got from distant sources, and the information we got from onsite sources.

On return to West Germany I had a little talk with the intel guy since he was our “official” source for that mission and would be for future missions.  It didn’t take long talking to him before it was evident that I was not dealing with a professional. He admitted that he viewed my request as just make-work. He told me he didn’t believe that there was sufficient reason for him to expend much effort; it was a short trip, not too many people knew we were coming, and we all took it too seriously anyway. All he did was task one of his subordinates to write-up something that would get us off his back.

I’m glad we didn’t just accept his report at face value and kept mining for information on our own.  As it happened, there was “armed” activity in Istanbul on the very day the General was there, including one of those pesky car bombs!  Had we not done our own assessment; it is possible that the General’s name might have been on the victim’s list.

Second, our man in Athens who had so generously helped us during our hectic visit to his office had also let us down, in a manner.  He knew about the May Day parade the first time we talked; it’s an annual event! So why didn’t he or any of the others we talked to that day in Athens bring it up? For precisely that reason, it happens every year. The parade was common knowledge to all the people in country, but somehow the parade slipped their minds when it came to planning our motorcade route. Our contact had lived in Athens for four years and had become so familiar with the routine that he expected that we would know about the parade. Therefore, in the limited time we had to discuss threat, he concentrated on information that, in his estimation, we didn’t have. He assumed we knew about the parade. We assumed that had there been any local threat information we needed to know, that he would tell us.

Over the years I have spent working in this field, I have met and worked with a lot of people in the course of conducting threat assessments for all kinds of principals and missions. Far too often I met people who gave me information that in no way reflected reality. I’ve heard every reason and excuse for not producing quality threat assessment information.

Some wouldn’t admit that there was a problem in their area of operations because that would be tantamount to admitting failure on their part. Some had the attitude that I really didn’t need to know.  Others had the attitude that nothing ever happened at their location, or if it did, it wouldn’t make any difference. They knew I was going to do the mission regardless and felt that I could get all the resources I needed so why should they go to all the bother of digging through mountains of information for me.

There were others who just didn’t believe I had any idea what I was talking about and weren’t about to share any “sensitive” information with me. Occasionally I would meet people like the man in Athens who had been in place for so long that he didn’t recognize that, what to him was routine common knowledge, might affect my mission if I were unaware of it. Sometimes I would meet very unprofessional people who would tell me anything just to get me out of their office.

On the other hand, and just often enough to make me believe they really existed, I met and worked with some highly professional and concerned people who went out of their way to help me learn all I could about a particular area, terrorist group, or other potential threat.

We Are Getting Better But There Is More To Do

In all fairness, developing threat estimates and assessments is still a developing field of endeavor, especially in the corporate sector. If we, as protective security agents, continue to improve and refine the methods we use to conduct threat assessments, and better communicate to others just what kind of information we need and why we need it, then the people we depend on to provide that information—especially the intelligence community—will be more attuned to our needs, and information will likely be more forthcoming. This is one area of the protective security field that can really make a difference in the success of our efforts and I hope it will continue to develop in a professional manner.

I share this experience with you in order to highlight and reinforce my warning to the community: You cannot rely on just one source of information for your threat assessment. No one, and I’ll say it again, no one, but you have the responsibility for doing a thorough threat assessment. Your team is the one that will face the conditions that exist at that location, and the consequences. You may well be with them when they do.

What did I do as a result of all this? I learned to ask better questions. Keep that in mind if you find yourself dealing with similar situations.


PSC member David L. Johnson has over 40 years of Dignitary and Executive Protection experience mostly garnered with the US Army, as a State Department Diplomatic Security Contractor and as private sector business owner. He has coordinated Presidential, Cabinet, Ambassadorial, and Senior Executive level protective programs in threat environments ranging from negligible to that of imminent assassination attempts by state sponsored terrorist organizations, conditions of Coup D’état and ultra-nationalism. He has conducted multiple high threat or politically sensitive assignments in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and contract management in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Johnson developed multiple training programs on a global basis and conducted executive level consulting for a wide spectrum of clients. Mr. Johnson’s awards and honors for his efforts include the DoD Meritorious Service Medal, five US Army Meritorious Service Medals, and US State Department recognition. He is currently semi-retired but serves as Supervisor and Emergency Management Coordinator for Pine Township, Clearfield County, Pennsylvania.  He is a member of the PSC Advisory Council.   [email protected]

 This article was developed from the book ADVANCE: The Guide to Conducting a Protective Security Advance, by David L. Johnson, and available from Varro Press.

Athens cover photo by Miltiadias on Unnsplash

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