On the Plane

Rice's Shadow

Mike Evanoff is The Bodyguard.

His formal title is Special Agent-in-Charge of Protective Operations at the State Department. But the former Washington area high school football star is better known among those who travel with the secretary of state as Condoleezza Rice's shadow.

Evanoff is rarely more than a few feet away. Aides have fluctuating access, but Evanoff is always there. He usually knows where Rice will step before she does.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives at Findel International Airport in Luxembourg, while Michael Evanoff, Diplomatic Security Special Agent-in-Charge of the Secretary of State's protective detail, coordinates security arrangements. (AP)

"We have a science. I can tell you she'll take 13 steps to the right and 10 steps to the left and then get into the car. We advance every route she will take -- steps, driving, how many stairs she'll go up. We know if the ground is too soft for high heels," Evanoff explained shortly before Rice's current trip to the Middle East. "In this business, there are no drop-bys."

This week's swing through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories will be Evanoff's last foreign trip with Rice -- at least according to the current schedule. This fall, he will become director of security for NATO headquarters in Brussels. Protecting the secretary of state usually leads to other high-profile jobs. The head of former Secretary of State Colin Powell's protective team went on to direct security for the Washington Redskins.

The son of two Metropolitan Police officers who met at the D.C. police academy, Evanoff has particular respect for women who break professional barriers. His mother was the first woman on the Supreme Court police force.

As a member of the Diplomatic Security -- the State Department's equivalent of the Secret Service -- Evanoff earlier protected some of other most famous women in the world. He twice protected Princess Diana during U.S. visits as well as Jordan's Queen Noor.

Diana, he recalled, was funny and playful, once in an elevator pulling out the earpiece through which he is connected to a team of agents. Rice, by contrast, is "high energy, and keeping up with her is high energy."

Protecting the secretary is a top job at the State Department. Evanoff was previously regional security officer in Pakistan. In 1994, he was in charge of security when the new U.S. embassy was opened in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict.

Over the past three years, Evanoff has had several hair-raising moments running a team of some 75 men and women who protect Rice.

"The secretary is not Princess Diana," he said. "She's somebody who averages a threat a day -- telephonic, from the internet, or by letter. We check out every one of them -- from someone serving life in prison to an individual who doesn't like her politics because of the [Iraq] war."

The most dangerous moments, however, have been on the road. During an unannounced trip to Baghdad in March 2006, Rice's entourage was forced to drive from Baghdad Airport on the famously dangerous route to the Green Zone because a thunderous rain storm prevented helicopters from flying.

Dozens of U.S. troops and Iraqis have been killed by roadside explosives and other kinds of attacks while traveling on the airport road.

Adding to the challenge, Rice brought British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw with her from a previous stop in Liverpool.

"I looked at the two of them and I'm thinking: I just can see the Senate hearings on C-Span asking 'Now why did Evanoff take the secretary of state on the airport road?" he recalled.

"A lot of things flash though your mind: I should have gotten higher SATs. I shouldn't have played football in college and studied harder. Did I say good-bye to everyone?" he said. "The trip took 45 minutes, but it felt like hours."

At the other extreme, Evanoff has to be ready for a full range of safe situations, including the opera. Working with Rice has redefined the essentials for the protection job. The new motto: Have gun, have tux, will travel.

"We have to be discreet where we go and not overwhelm the scene. The last thing we want to do is look like a bunch of male thugs when we go to a women's empowerment seminar," Evanoff said. He has tripled the number of women on the secretary's detail.

Evanoff's team is part of a larger operation. Unlike the Secret Service, Diplomatic Security is little-known even though it is one of the two largest State Department bureaus, with some 1,800 agents, couriers, and security engineers. Its agents protect visiting foreign officials below head of state and run security for 285 U.S. embassies, consulates and missions in 159 countries. Worldwide, it has 34,000 employees and contractors.

The bureau is also in charge of passport and visa fraud, fugitive returns from abroad, and counterterrorism coordination. Its agents played a key role in the capture of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

"The bureau is a combination of Secret Service, FBI and CIA," said Evanoff, who has also worked in Morocco, the Philippines, Germany, Croatia, and Denmark.

Since returning to the United States, Evanoff has bonded with Rice particularly over football, which he says they discuss virtually every day.

Rice has often expressed her desire to be National Football League commissioner. Evanoff was on the Washington Post's All-Met first team in 1979, when he played middle guard at Oakton High School in Vienna, Va. He was also on the Eastern Kentucky University team that won the 1982 NCAA Division 1AA National Championship.

"I've been amazed at some of the things Rice sees on a play. I forget I'm talking to the secretary of state," he said, chuckling. "I'll miss that."

-- Robin Wright

By  |  July 31, 2007; 1:34 PM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East, July 2007
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