The shoppers at MJ Designs are all the usual suspects. A woman in leggings and a rhinestone-studded sweat shirt picks through a basket of silk flowers. A young mother explains the concept of “paint by numbers” to her toddler. And a guy with a tape measure clipped to his dungarees examines a Monet reproduction.
Nothing in this arts-and-crafts emporium seems out of placeexcept the idle lady in the fabric aisle. She has been following me around all afternoon. I first noticed her in the Cedar Park CVS, buying a bottle of Tide. Then I saw her in the Pan AM Shopping Center parking lot, loitering by the pay phones. Now, when I catch her eye, she picks up a pillow and sniffs it, deeply.
Making a note of her stiff denim shirt, her wiry salt-and-pepper bob, and her obsession with pillows, I head for the exit and out to the parking lot for a reconnaissance with the blue team.
“I got one,” I tell them.
Frank, Leo, and Susan take down my description as we drive to our next checkpoint, the Oakton Shopping Center. We are scouring the shopping emporiums of Northern Virginia in search of bad guys as part of our training at the Diplomatic Security Antiterrorism Course (DSAC) in Dunn Loring. DSAC is a two-day course for State Department foreign-service officers on their way to foreign postings that’s designed to teach them what to do when things go wrong. Over the next two days, they will work on surveillance detection, attack recognition, emergency medical care, defensive and counterterrorism driving, and dealing with explosive devices.
DSAC is a quick course for the Everyman, the Harrison Fords of the State Department. “This course doesn’t turn out a finished, ninja type who can climb walls,” says Charlie Sparks, the head of training, drinking his coffee out of a “Top Secret” mug.
Aside from actually deploying bombs, students learn everything else the hands-on wayfrom gathering intelligence to crashing through roadblocks. The people in the course will be spending their days abroad doing things like processing visas, but the State Department wants them to be preparedjust in case. Says Rich Ingraham, a DSAC instructor, “Out of the 18 students in this group, maybe three or four of them will put to use what they’ve learned here. But that’s not the point.”
Having just spent a good part of the morning learning the finer points of surveillance detection, we head out to put classroom theory to the test. Our instructor is X.L. Beard, a former Interpol agent who warns us against getting too caught up in our temporary role as secret operatives. “I don’t want you coming back in here smelling like Ben Gay ’cause you’ve been twisting your neck around like Linda Blair,” says Beard. “Don’t go breaking any laws or busting any traffic lights. I just want you to have a heightened sense of awareness.”
Frank, a foreign service officer who will soon be headed to Ljubljana, Slovenia, starts out driving for our team. We cruise around in our Lumina watching to see if we are being watched. Susan, a blonde with a bad case of the fidgets, thinks she has spotted one of our surveillants.
“Look,” she cheers, “the guy at the fire hydrant is smiling at us. I’m writing him up. He was cute.”
When it comes to combating terrorist surveillance, it helps to know your adversaries. In our case, they are mostly diplomatic security employees and interns serving as targets. “Oh, what the hell,” says Frank. “Write him up.”
In the Fair Oaks Mall parking lot, a red Honda with a spoiler on the back comes out of nowhere, practically hitting us full-on. “I think that’s one of them,” deduces Leo, who until now has been sitting quietly in the back seat.
“I hear Hecht’s is having a sale,” says Frank, as we walk toward the mall for our 45-minute lunch break.
At the appointed hour we rendezvous with the rest of the class, which has also been assigned to color teams, as in Reservoir Dogs. I’ve been running with the Blue team. Once in the classroom, I look around at everyone’s name cards to see where they’re posted: Bogotá, Beirut, Ankara, Tel Aviv. I’m not going any farther than Wheaton anytime soon, but I’m feeling important by proxy.
Beyond the ability to sniff out provocateurs, there are practical skills to be mastered just in case things get bloody overseas. Our next exercise is emergency training, where we pair off and learn how to do a body assessment and a pressure bandage. Our instructor, Lynda Graham, tells us about “not-nice situations”like the time where an American courier got her arm bitten off by a lion.
“Our marines gave her six pints of blood,” she says.
When we learn how to apply a tourniquet, someone going to Thessaloniki raises his hand and asks, “Where do we put the severed limb, like if we find a hand in some corner?”
“On the victim’s chest,” says Graham. “Don’t forget to mark the forehead with a ‘T’ [for tourniquet] and record the time with a marker or the victim’s blood.” Switching gears, Graham quips, “Now let’s talk about shock.”
We wrap up the first day with a surveillance detection debriefing, consisting of embarrassing video footage of us trying to spot our tailers. My Blue team is caught in all its glory valiantly trying to get into the wrong car. “I was hoping no one was filming that,” sighs Frank.
Day 2 begins behind the wheel of a white Chevy Caprice. We are at BSR, a racetrack in West Virginia, about to learn some good ol’ ‘Merican, Dukes of Hazzard-style driving as a way of escaping trouble in far-off lands.
“Don’t look at the cones, look between them, because that’s where you want to go,” says my advanced-driving instructor, Matt Croke, pointing his index finger to my line of vision. I am on my second loop around the track, weaving in and out of tightly spaced orange cones. I imagine the cones to be chickens on a dirt road in Phnom Penh.
With every serpentine motion of the car, the two students in back sail to and fro across the seat. I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car in more than two years, but I manage not to knock over any cones. I want to please Croke, who looks like a cross between Ed Harris and Bull from Frasier. He strikes me as having a short fuse.
It has been established that I get incredibly car sick in the back seat (and in the front as well), so after my turn, I wait on the side of the track for Daria and Paul to drive. I notice they go a lot faster than I did. They also don’t need to take Dramamine.
Next, Croke drives us over to a skid pad, a smaller track that has been wetted down by sprinklers. After Croke demonstrates the techniques of skid control, Ms. Barfbag is up at bat. I figure if I don’t skid in the first place, I won’t have to control anything.
I advance cautiously around the loop a few times until Croke says, “Take your foot off the gas,” and proceeds to put his own foot on the pedal and floors it. The car immediately spins out of control. “Get off the gas, get off the gas!” yells Croke, as sky and ground become one.
I reflexively slam on the brakes with both feet and end up in a ditch. “OK, OK,” says Croke, “that’s exactly what you should do when you lose control.” I get out of the car, my inner ear cursing the world, and wait on a grassy hill. As I squat down with my head between my knees, it begins to rain. I pick through the weeds, looking for a four-leaf clover until a van comes and drives me back to the lodge for lunch.
“I love this stuff,” chirps a woman who looks like a kewpie doll. My stomach lurches anew.
“We just learned how to J-turn,” she motions with her hand. “And zooming backwards at full speed and then whipping around real fast was so much fun.”
It turns out a J-turn is a Starsky and Hutch stunt that involves a reverse 180-degree turn. This trick is used when the road ahead is blocked, the bad guy is attacking you from the side, and the road behind you is clear.
“You don’t look so good,” Croke says to me after performing a couple of sickening J-Turns.
I get in the driver’s seat, shift into reverse, and go backward with the pedal to the metal. “One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand….Foot off the gas! Crank the wheel!” he yells. Once again, road and sky are all relative to one spinning so fast. The car screeches to a rubber-burning halt.
“Good,” remarks Croke. “Next time, head in reverse a lot faster, then you’ll really get the spin going.” I glance in the rearview mirror at Daria and Paul, who look as if they’re out for a ride in the park.
Our last lesson is in rammingwhich explains why the DSAC course has been nicknamed “Crash and Bang.”
We all don helmets, pair off into rent-a-wrecks, and take turns slamming into and shoving aside a beat-up car that has been set up as a barricade. We all excel at bumper cars, and I find that this is the only maneuver that doesn’t make me want to puke. You can’t discount the psychic value of bashing the hell out of another car.
“This looks like the Beltway,” says one of the instructors, surveying the damage.
With our frustrations fully vented, it’s now time for a more delicate topicimprovised explosive devices. We meet Ray Gomez, who is waiting for us in a makeshift shed, smoking a butt. “I know you’re all wondering if it’s possible to build a bomb out of a Swiss Army knife, a paper clip, and a piece of foil from a gum wrapper, just like MacGyver,” Gomez begins. Then, pausing for effect, he says, “Let’s just say, it’s not impossible.”
Next, Gomez deploys various explosives, and in the span of 10 minutes manages to blow up a briefcase and the front end of a car, as well as quite a few sticks of dynamite. Gomez clearly likes his work. He is constantly comparing the few ounces of explosives he is using in his demonstration to the thousands of pounds used in terrorist bombings. “There was between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds used in Oklahoma City,” he says.
In simulating the Centennial Park bombing at last year’s Atlanta Olympic games, Gomez loads mason’s nails into a 69-cent funnel from Hechinger’s and points it at an almost obliterated car. Sounding a lot like Macho Man Randy Savage, Gomez yells, “Fire in the hole!” The funnel blows the nails in a specific pattern, which rat-tat-tat-tat into the passenger door, creating angry, jagged holes.
“Imagine aiming that into a crowd,” Gomez remarks.
After blowing up his last letter bomb, Gomez adjusts his tinted aviator glasses and asks, “Who’s buying the beer?”
After a tough day of mastering the rudiments of counterterrorist measures, a cold one seems well earned. But I can’t help being suspicious of who might be watching us at the bar. CP