BELTSVILLE – As the “presidential” motorcade rolled into view, an unmarked van sped out from a side street and blocked its path.
The street erupted with gunfire and explosions, as rockets rained down from nearby rooftops and Secret Service agents leapt from their black Suburban sport utility vehicles to return the terrorist gunfire.
It was a scene straight out of Hollywood, but it unfolded on a quiet patch of land off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway on Tuesday, as the Secret Service opened the gates of its Rowley Training Center to members of Congress, their staff and the press.
“It’s an opportunity to show members of Congress what kind of training we do here,” said Special Agent Jim Mackin, a spokesman for the service.
Every would-be Secret Service agent goes through training at Rowley, a roughly 300-acre complex that opened in the 1980s. Agents start their careers here and return periodically for refresher courses or specialized training, Mackin said.
The initial 12-week training course exposes agents to legal classes, defensive driving, computer training, investigative technique and weapons training, said John Tomlinson, the assistant director for public affairs for the agency.
Lectures are conducted at buildings across the campus, including some classrooms that make up the back of a faux hotel in Rowley’s “Tactical Village,” where simulated terrorist attacks are staged for agents in training. A new $10.6 million office and classroom complex is also under construction at the site.
Besides protecting current and former U.S. presidents, vice presidents and visiting dignitaries, the Secret Service is responsible for combating counterfeiting and fraud involving credit cards, computers and even cellular phones.
“We think of (security) when we think of the Secret Service,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the agency, as he watched Tuesday’s demonstrations. “But the Secret Service is also our primary law enforcement agency against fraud.”
But much of the focus Tuesday was on the security part of the job and the firepower that goes with it.
Several members of Congress and their staffers rode shotgun in a squad of Chevrolet Camaros as Secret Service instructors ripped the cars around a defensive driving course. Wheels smoking, the cars carved though cones and executed “j-turns” — a move where the driver spins the car around by slamming the brakes while speeding in reverse.
Agents receive initial drivers’ training on the sports cars before moving on to custom, armored limousines and sport utility vehicles, said the driving instructor, Special Agent Jeff Wise.
Before the driving exhibition, Wise showed reporters two armored Cadillacs but, for security reasons, he only permitted sweeping camera shots of the cars. He opened one of the doors noting that they are so heavy that “you can lose fingers, even limbs, if you get them caught.”
One of the cars on display was a limousine designed for President Reagan. The roof had been raised by 3.5 inches to offer the former president a better view through the thick, multilayered bullet-proof glass, Wise said.
Although both of these cars had been retired from the active fleet, don’t expect to see any of them showing up on the auction block any time soon, again for security reasons.
“We use them until they no longer move,” Mackin said.
En route to the site of the simulated motorcade attack in “Tactical Village,” a line of brand new Cadillacs, stickers still attached, awaits use by presidential candidates in the 2000 elections.
At the “Tactical Village,” the members of Congress and their staffers were pressed into service Tuesday as crowd members. The two-by-three-block area is like a movie set with many of the settings agents might find themselves in: a suburban motel, mid-rise office buildings and downtown streetscapes.
Rep. Michael Forbes, R-N.Y., said he was impressed with the pyrotechnic display.
“This money is being well spent,” he said. “I’ve been reassured by what I’ve seen today and that the Secret Service is ahead of the curve.”
In addition to the motorcade drill, the Secret Service agents demonstrated sniper and receiving-line-gone-bad reaction training as the “president” arrived at the hotel.
While Tuesday’s events were carefully scripted — first the receiving line, then the sniper, then the motorcade — agents in training never know what situations will be thrown at them in Tactical Village.
“We like to make it as realistic as possible,” said Mackin. “We want our people to react like they would in real life.”