Baghdad, DC

Gene Cerone put on the stereo as he walked into his Powder Mill home only a short drive from his office. The preset FM station played mostly oldies—a lot of Sinatra, soft doo-wop, and big-band music from the forties and fifties. This range of music probably appealed to folks over fifty like him, and it was soothing. Gene always could escape into the music.

He opened a white wine, Gran Viña Sol, an inexpensive but delightful chardonnay from Spain his sister Gina had turned him onto some years ago. When they would come home to New Jersey for the holidays, they all brought something, and one Christmas, Gina brought a case of Spanish wines, reds and whites, which he thought were terrific. Gene kept a modest wine cellar dominated by Spanish and Italian wines, with a few California cabernets to be patriotic. Nothing French. He poured himself a glass of the cool, amber-colored wine and dropped himself into the soft leather chair in his den. Running his fingers through his hair, he thought about the events of the day.

The office for Eugene Cerone was the Attack on Principal (AOP) Unit of the US Secret Service Special Agent Training Center in Beltsville, Maryland. He had more than thirty years with the Secret Service and was barely in his midfifties. For the last three years, he had headed up the AOP unit, whose responsibility was to develop real-world crisis scenarios for agents in protective mission training.

The exercises were sometimes held at the Beltsville training facility but more often than not, were on location. This meant using hotel facilities, airports, streets and highways, golf courses—anywhere his budget could support and his arm-twisting could elicit—reflecting potential real-life situations for the principals the Service was charged to protect. That meant simulation exercises involving the protection of the president of the United States, the vice president, and their families, as well as foreign dignitaries, realistically staged and executed by the AOP team.

The planning and execution of these exercises had all the aspects of a Hollywood production, except that it was real-time and the trainees were not aware of the plot twists and turns that would confront them. They were indoctrinated to react within a set of protocols, but at times, they were forced to improvise. The principal would be put in harm’s way, and the agents’ responsibility would be to prevent the incident altogether or to prevent harm to the individuals they were protecting and ultimately to ensure the apprehension of those attempting the deed.

The simulation today had been a bust. The group in training this week was made of veterans, currently part of several protective details excluding the president’s. There were eleven of them, seven men and four women, and they blew it.

The exercise involved the protection of the vice president—an actor stand in—and was carried out at the Capital Hilton Hotel on Sixteenth Street NW, about two long blocks from the grounds of the White House. It was the same place as the John Hinckley Jr. assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, when Eugene Cerone was part of the presidential protection team in August 1980.

Josh Bigelow planned and was responsible for the AOP simulation exercise this day. Gene had recruited Bigelow from Lester Dreyfus’s Digital Light Brigade, made famous for its incredible special effects, which had dominated Hollywood film spectaculars since their first Galaxy Conquest movie. They wrote the book on film innovation and continued developing it beyond the movie audience’s imagination.

Cerone knew it was not good enough for any agency of the US government engaged in security or protection to rely entirely on its own thinking. We’re too inbred, too structured, too process oriented, Cerone believed. We need to tap into the imaginations of the most creative minds in the country. Digital Light Brigade was one such place where there were no boundaries on innovation and creativity. Cerone was thinking about hooking up with Hollywood when he took over the AOP Unit. Then 9/11 confirmed they had to think differently, and on September 18, 2001, he sat down with Lester Dreyfus.

Josh Bigelow graduated from Cal Tech with an engineering degree and worked for Silicon Graphics before joining DLB. He had made some money before the Internet bubble burst in the late nineties but had strong feelings about social responsibility. In the spring of 2002, he was the Service’s first recruit from DLB. After completing the standard agent training programs, he became part of the AOP unit. Today’s simulation was Bigelow’s first as project leader, and Cerone thought how fortunate the Service had been in getting this talented young man.

Josh Bigelow staged this event as precisely as he had dozens of scenes in The Return of the Pharaoh, his last project before leaving DLB. Today delivered a double whammy. First, the vice president stand-in’s motorcade was damaged by an explosive device—compressed air, confetti, and red dye—at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Eighteenth Street. Then, the coup de grâce: As the protection team rushed the injured vice president to George Washington University Hospital—the same place Ronald Reagan was taken after the 1981 assassination attempt—a suicide bomber ambushed them at the emergency-room entrance. More white smoke, confetti, and red dye.

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