What does the Diplomatic Security Service do?

DSS agents fulfill a wide array of responsibilities, making them versatile pillars of American diplomacy. They are charged with providing personal protection for high-ranking officials.
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Diplomatic Security Service
A Diplomatic Security Service agent stands watch over former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) protects U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomats worldwide. Working in tandem with the U.S. Marine Corps, especially the Marine Security Guards, the DSS contributes to a multi-layered approach to safeguarding American interests abroad. While it’s an essential arm of the United States Department of State, the DSS often goes unnoticed. However, that doesn’t make their work any less worthwhile or valuable.  

Notably, the DSS was officially established in 1916, making it one of the oldest security services in the U.S. The primary mission of the DSS is to ensure the secure conduct of American diplomacy. Unlike the CIA and FBI, the DSS is deeply rooted in the State Department. That means its agents specialize in protecting diplomatic assets, information, and personnel.

Diplomatic Security Service roles and responsibilities

DSS agents fulfill a wide array of responsibilities, making them versatile pillars of American diplomacy. They are charged with providing personal protection for high-ranking officials such as the U.S. Secretary of State, ambassadors, and visiting foreign dignitaries. They often work in close collaboration with Marine Security Guards, who bring expertise in the physical security of embassies and consulates to the table. Beyond protection services, DSS agents are also at the forefront of security engineering. Together with other DoS colleagues, they spearhead comprehensive security measures within U.S. embassies and consulates to make them impregnable fortresses of American interests abroad.

In the rapidly evolving landscape of technology, they are responsible for ensuring the cyber-integrity of communication channels and sensitive databases. This includes defending against hacking attempts and maintaining secure lines of communication. In turn, American diplomatic efforts can proceed without interference. DSS agents are also involved in counterintelligence measures. They work tirelessly to detect and mitigate espionage activities targeting the U.S. diplomatic community. Furthermore, they conduct investigations, collaborating with other federal agencies to perform in-depth background checks for personnel and other security-related matters.

Beyond these duties, the DSS also manages Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) programs to train law enforcement agencies in other countries to combat terrorism better. This fosters goodwill between nations and creates a more secure environment for U.S. diplomats and citizens abroad. Additionally, the training often involves Marine Security Guards, who bring their expertise in physical security to these programs.

Diplomatic Security Service agent
A DSS assistant regional security officer (left) and a marine with Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team Europe during an exercise at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Russell R. Rhodes Jr./Released)

Training and skillsets

Earning a position within the Diplomatic Security Service is a rigorous process. Candidates first pass a challenging selection procedure that includes oral and written assessments. After selection, agents undergo extensive training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC). Agents then partake in specialized courses that range from high-risk driving to cybersecurity. Their training is dynamic and evolves to address current global threats. That makes DSS agents some of the most proficient and adaptable law enforcement professionals.

In a span of approximately six months, trainees dive into essential subjects vital for their future duties. They receive classroom instruction on topics such as criminal law, investigative techniques, counterterrorism, and foreign languages. Proficiency with firearms is a crucial skill, and trainees undergo rigorous training to ensure effective self-defense. Physical fitness is emphasized throughout their training, with specific standards to meet for graduation. Realistic scenarios like hostage rescues, crisis management, and surveillance operations prepare them for the unpredictable challenges they may face. Specialized driving instruction is also part of the curriculum, given the importance of safe and efficient driving in protective missions. T

Following the completion of their training, DSS officers continue to enhance their skills through advanced training programs. Depending on their assigned roles, officers may undergo specialized training in areas like explosives detection, cybersecurity, or tactical operations. Language proficiency is highly valued in diplomacy, and many DSS officers become proficient in foreign languages relevant to their assignments. While formal training is crucial, the true learning experience for DSS officers unfolds in the field as they work alongside experienced colleagues ahead of their first assignments.

Notable missions

The Diplomatic Security Service has a storied history of operating under high-pressure situations where precision, bravery, and rapid decision-making are essential. While many operations remain classified, some instances have come into the public eye.

One of the most significant operations involving the DSS was the aftermath of the twin bombings of U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Within hours of the bombings, DSS agents were among the first U.S. government personnel on the scene. They played a pivotal role in coordinating rescue and medical operations for the injured and securing the crime scenes. Their fast actions enabled other agencies to step in for further investigations. They helped bring about a quicker resolution to an international crisis.

The 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, drew global attention and showcased the hazards that diplomatic personnel face. DSS agents were present at the consulate and were deeply involved in the efforts to protect American lives during the attacks. Despite being under-equipped and outnumbered, they evacuated personnel and engaged the attackers, displaying exceptional courage under fire.

The path to Diplomatic Security Service

For those interested in a career with the DSS, several pathways can lead you there. Many agents have criminal justice, international relations, or military service backgrounds. Fluency in multiple languages is also a vital asset. The process typically begins with an application through the State Department, followed by a thorough vetting procedure that includes various assessments and interviews. Success here leads to a challenging but rewarding training phase, followed by assignments that can take you all over the world.

Working in high-risk environments, these agents ensure the U.S. maintains robust and secure relationships with countries worldwide. If you’re interested in serving your country in a unique and challenging way, joining the DSS offers an opportunity to be part of a critical yet often unsung facet of American security and diplomacy. The DSS exemplifies the core values of duty, respect, and honor, making it a fulfilling career and a noble calling. Their work, done mostly behind the scenes, deserves the utmost respect and admiration, cementing their status as the unsung heroes of American foreign policy.