Essay: Special agents at the Olympics

Diplomatic Security Service helps keep games safe.

Andy Wong/AP
Big games: In Beijing, fireworks explode over the Olympic National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, during a rehearsal for opening day of the 2008 Olympic Games.

In just a few days, elite athletes from all over the world will begin competing in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the capital city of China. Gymnasts will flip and twirl on the balance beam. Divers will plummet from the platform. Runners will bolt out of their starting blocks. Tourists will flock to the Games from all over the world.

Even the president of the United States is planning to attend the Olympics. And federal law enforcement officers from the US State Department will help keep all these people safe. In fact, some of them have been living in Beijing for quite a while, getting ready for the start of the Olympics.

Sean O’Brien and Wendy Bashnan are special agents with the Diplomatic Security Service, the law enforcement branch of the State Department. When they work in the US, they carry guns and badges just like other federal law-enforcement officers. Sometimes you might see them on the news wearing dark glasses, suits, and curly ear pieces as they protect important visitors to the US.

Both Mr. O’Brien and Ms. Bashnan packed up and moved to Beijing way back in 2006, when the US government asked them to. Their job? Working with Chinese law enforcement to ensure that the Olympics are safe for athletes and tourists.

“We’re here to make sure that Americans who come to the Olympics are safe,” says Mr. O’Brien. “We’ll help coordinate security for people like the president of the United States, corporate sponsors, and everyday tourists. We expect to see about 75,000 US citizens in Beijing for the Olympics, and we help keep them safe. Ultimately, the burden of providing security falls on the Chinese government, but we act as a bridge between the two countries.”

Even though they are law enforcement officers, Ms. Bashnan notes, “we can’t arrest people here in Beijing.... We are only allowed to enforce US laws on US territory. So, for example, if someone commits fraud or commits a crime on US embassy grounds, we can file criminal charges back in the States. But that’s about it. We’re really here to support the Chinese as they prepare for the Olympics.”

Ms. Bashnan doesn’t expect to see any Olympic events when the Games begin. “We are more likely to meet athletes and coaches before the Games, when they come into town for test events or media relations,” she says. “I met Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, when he was here.”

Mr. O’Brien, who also worked at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, won’t be able to watch any events, either. “In Atlanta, I was a site security person, which means I was working at the events and I got to see a few,” he says. “Here, I’m overseeing the agents who work at the sites, so I’ll spend the Olympics in an office building somewhere far from the events.”

Still, both agents love sports, and both agree that it is exciting to have the opportunity to work at the Olympics. “I’m a baseball fan,” notes Mr. O’Brien, “and this Olympics has baseball. It’s a trial event, and it won’t come back for the next Olympics. So that’s kind of fun.

Ms. Bashnan likes all sports, “but,” she says, “if I had to choose, I’d say football is my favorite.”

Both Ms. Bashnan and Mr. O’Brien are enjoying their time in China. “Here in Beijing,” says Mr. O’Brien, “you can see historical sites like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City [home to the emperor in ancient China]. At the same time, you see them building all of these modern buildings like the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, which will be Olympic venues, or the CCTV building [which is actually two buildings leaning against each other]. The Chinese have all these architectural achievements going back hundreds of years, and even today, they’re still building amazing things.”

Ms. Bashnan agrees that it can be interesting to visit Chinese historical sites, but she also likes playing golf and going shopping whenever she has a day off.

Both special agents love their work. “When I was in college, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer,” says Ms. Bashnan. “Then I realized that it was law enforcement that really interested me.” Being able to see the world as part of her job is an added perk.

“If I weren’t a federal agent, I’d probably be a history teacher,” says Mr. O’Brien. “What is cool about this job is that you can go around the world and see archaeological sites like the Great Wall of China. It’s like living history.”

What will they do after the Olympics are over? Ms. Bashnan hopes to be reassigned to “a Spanish-speaking country, so I can brush up on my high school Spanish.”

Mr. O’Brien will return to the US for a tour of duty in Diplomatic Security’s New York field office. He owns a house near a lake in New Jersey, and he’d “like to go out on my rowboat, bass fishing with my kids. This is more of a city life here.”

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