Special Agent in Charge
Did you know there is a three-letter bureau in the Department of State that provides security and law enforcement?
The Diplomatic Security Service protects U.S. embassies and consulates. In the U.S., DSS special agents and security professionals protect visiting foreign dignitaries, bring suspected lawbreakers to justice, conduct criminal investigations and safeguard U.S. passports and visas. DSS is a smaller agency, but has a wider global reach than any other federal bureau, serving more than 270 embassies, consulates and posts worldwide.
Behind the Scenes
Ben Sides, a 1995 Georgia Southern criminal justice studies graduate, works for this little known agency.
“You don’t hear much about us because we try to support others in the background,” said the special agent in charge. “Say there’s a summit in a foreign country. We send agents, security engineers, diplomatic couriers and others to work in the background to make it successful.”
DSS has offices in 30 cities throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico where they fight human trafficking, investigate threats, guard against U.S. passport/visa fraud and protect visiting foreign dignitaries.
“For example, the last time Prince Harry came through Chicago, we provided a full package of bodyguards, and worked with local law enforcement to help keep him safe and secure,” said Sides.
Sides enlisted with the Marine Corps in 1987 in Savannah. He later joined the Marine security guard program, protecting embassies and consulates.
“When I was at the embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia,” said Sides, “I got to know the regional security officers at DSS. I thought, hmm, I have an interest in law enforcement, those guys have really cool jobs. That piqued my interest. I also met my future wife Paulette there, who also worked at the embassy.”
Straight Out of an Action Movie
There was excitement and danger for Sides in Mogadishu.
“During my time there, the Somali government fell. The rebels made their way into the capital and surrounded the embassy. It was a dangerous situation. The rebels were demanding that we surrender our compound and ourselves as prisoners. Of course, our ambassador refused to do so,” said Sides.
Sides was the last one out. He had to race through gunfire to jump on the final helicopter as it was taking off. Operation Eastern Exit, as it was known, became a case study for Marine and Department of State operatives.
Back to School
After Somalia, Sides took a leap of faith. With the support of his new wife, he went back to school with hopes of becoming a DSS special agent. He had family in south Georgia and wanted to reconnect with them.
“Fresh out of the Marines, I needed to finish my bachelor’s degree. I hadn’t finished college because back then I was a little lost in my young life. I was trying to attend on the G.I. Bill, was looking for value for my money and getting in-state tuition. I also wanted a school that could support an adult learner… It all came together with Georgia Southern,” said Sides.
Sides also wanted a school that would make veterans feel welcome.
“They welcomed me with open arms. Georgia Southern had an awesome military and veterans office. The counselors walked you through the process of your first registration, your first classes and checked in with you periodically. That was very helpful in reorienting back to civilian life and academics,” said Sides.
Part of the requirement for graduation was an internship. Sides wanted to get one at DSS. It was a very selective program, but Sides was accepted. He interned in Washington, D.C. for three months as his final project.
New Career, but Just as Adventurous
Sides has served all over the world as a DSS special agent.
“I started out in the Washington field office, then I was posted to Cairo, Egypt. I was in Antananarivo, Madagascar, and then I was assigned to D.C. again. Later Mumbai, Rome and Baghdad, all before Chicago.”
As special agent in charge of the Chicago field office, Sides supervises the Midwest region.
“My field office covers 13 states. We have states that border Canada, so that gives us quite a bit of work in the passport/visa fraud and human trafficking area.”
When asked what courses at Georgia Southern helped him in his DSS career, Sides doesn’t hesitate.
“Classes in public speaking and sociology for sure. You know, I’m in the people business. The classes I took at Southern gave me a great foundation for public speaking and engaging with others.”
Working at DSS continues to be rewarding.
“The reason I became an agent was to serve my country and to help others. Georgia Southern students who are majoring in justice studies or any of the sociological fields should always consider a career with the Diplomatic Security Service. As I said before, it’s a people business. We are trying to help others. That’s what we do.”
— Liz Walker