(VA) Danger is good for business


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Drizzt
February 4, 2003, 04:55 PM
The Virginian-Pilot(Norfolk, Va.)


February 2, 2003 Sunday Final Edition

SECTION: BUSINESS, Pg. D1

LENGTH: 1439 words

HEADLINE: DANGER IS GOOD FOR BUSINESS. BEACH COMPANY FOCUSES ON AVERTING TROUBLE,;
BUT ALSO GETS CLIENTS OUT OF IT

BYLINE: CAROLYN SHAPIRO THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

BODY:
The family called Jamie Smith in desperation.

Two American girls had been kidnapped by their Lebanese father, a Muslim who wanted them to have a fundamentalist upbringing.

Within a week, Smith and his team landed in Lebanon. They scouted the route that the girls, ages 7 and 10, walked to their school bus. The team hid a satellite phone along the way. Their mother, still in contact by phone with her daughters, told them where to find it for an important call. On the line, Smith won their confidence by telling the girls their dog's name and other personal information. He explained that a Mercedes would appear at that spot the next day, and they should get in it.

The car took them to a small boat. They rode to a larger vessel that sped them to an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Smith cut one girl's hair and put a wig on the other girl. In 12 hours, they were reunited with their mother in Europe.

All in a day's work, or a few days, for Smith, president and founder of Smith Consulting Group in Virginia Beach. The company has performed six such overseas rescue missions since launching in August.

Often, Smith has to break local laws in the process.

"We moved those children out of that country," he said of the girls in Lebanon. "We didn't move them through standard channels."

Smith's resume lists a stint with the Central Intelligence Agency. His staff of five includes Vice President Mike Byrd, a former SWAT team member and Drug Enforcement Agency task force agent; and director of training Thomas Wilburn, an Army veteran who served in Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta, a hostage rescue unit.

SCG trains law enforcement personnel in counterterrorism, firearms, and special weapons and tactics, such as blowing doors off buildings and handling hostages. It coaches businesses and organizations on security. And it helps traveling executives identify dangerous neighborhoods abroad, navigate visa regulations and avoid health risks.

So-called K&R operations - kidnap and ransom - are just one piece of the business. But they're the most dramatic piece.

It's the stuff of Hollywood. The 2000 movie "Proof of Life" depicted Russell Crowe as a Jamie Smith-type character helping Meg Ryan, who played a wife trying to negotiate her husband's release from captors in South America.

The Web site trailer for the movie opens with "25,000 people every year are kidnapped. For you, it's emotional. For them, it's a business.

"What would you do? Who would you turn to?"

That's what Linda Pelton wondered last month when her husband, adventure writer Robert Pelton, and two young hikers ventured into the jungle on the Colombia-Panama border and were captured by a right-wing paramilitary group. She called a friend, who called Brian Jones, a defensive tactics instructor and security consultant in Connecticut, who has arranged training events with Smith.

"When someone's life is on the line, you need to have the best person, the most skilled in a specific situation," Jones said.

Smith can handle distraught people, see the big picture and take charge, Jones said. "What separates Jamie from the others that I know has nothing to do with skill but has to do with his get up and go, if you will."

Smith picked up Jones' message Jan. 22, on his way home from a training gig in San Diego. He snapped into action, skipping sleep to make arrangements, and flew with Byrd to Bogota, Colombia, the next day.

They joined a journalist friend of Pelton's who arranged for the hostages' release to a priest. By the time Pelton, Megan Smaker and Mark Wedeven arrived in Bogota, SCG had found trusted drivers, secure places to stay and the fastest, safest routes between the hotel, hospital and airport.

"The whole focus is getting them out," Smith said. "So what your job becomes is more of a recovery and protection mission."

They shielded the former captives from the potential danger of opposing guerrillas seeking information the Americans might have gleaned in the jungle. Not to mention the swarming media. SCG also smoothed the way through the airport, where Smaker would have run into trouble because she had no entry visa into Colombia, having hiked in from Panama.

"I am so grateful for those guys. They were an absolute huge help," said Smaker, 22, who returned home to California a week ago. She said Smith had a "great bedside manner" and provided as much psychological support as physical security.

"They have this extreme, heightened sense of awareness. We'd be walking down the corridor in the airport, and I didn't notice certain things that they did."

SCG's role in rescue missions usually consists of behind-the-scenes, logistical coordination. The company arranges for medical help, identifies safe places to send and pick up e-mail, finds supplies and gathers information.

The missions almost never involve the theatrics of "Proof of Life," with camouflage-clad rescuers charging the bad guys with guns ablaze.

"I can't say it doesn't happen, but that's the absolute last resort," Smith said. "Once you move into that realm, you're putting a lot of people at risk."

The work does get dangerous. In Southwest Asia late last year, Smith arranged to meet a contact for supplies. The man pulled up in a car filled with people - not part of the plan - and all of them got out with guns.

"The guys we were working with were unsavory in the first place," Smith said. "And it was tense for a while. I didn't know what the deal was."

Smith reveals few specifics about his work, trying to avoid tipping his hand to potential perpetrators or to those who want to harm him. "You don't know who's going to show up at your hotel and try to kidnap you because you're the K&R guy," he said.

Controlling information is key in K&R. With Pelton's family, he told them to immediately shut down a Web site on which the author's fans could offer support and get updates on his condition.

"You have to be the hub of the wheel," Smith said. "And everything has to flow through you."

An SCG rescue mission costs $10,000 to more than $60,000, not including expenses. Smith evaluates the "threat matrix" of each job's location. Afghanistan rates at the top with a 5; a relatively peaceful place such as Bermuda rates a 1. He then establishes a daily wage for each team member required. The company has a network of 182 experts, ranging from a Navy SEAL to a linguist.

Most work comes to SCG by word of mouth. Having a client such as Pelton, author of "The World's Most Dangerous Places," whose name is sacred among people who relish risky travel, doesn't hurt marketing.

But Smith sees opportunity for growth in helping people avoid sticky situations. Specifically, he hopes to tap the expanding market for executive security, preparing insurance agencies or accounting firms or news organizations that have employees working in unpredictable places.

"We send a lot of technical, white-collar people in there with no training, in countries where we are not well-liked and that have lots of guns," said Gary Jackson, president of Blackwater USA Inc., a company based in Moyock, N.C., that specializes in training government employees but also does business security.

The world has plenty of executive security firms - some large, some small; some legitimate, some not, Jackson said. Demand continues to grow, though, as more corporations do business overseas and aggression against Americans escalates as a result. Two software developers from a San Diego company were attacked in Kuwait last month, and one died.

"Because of the world and the way the United States moves around the world - and we've got people everywhere - we're going to continue to put American workers in these places," Jackson said.

Smith, 33, a Mississippi native, first came to Hampton Roads for CIA training in Williamsburg. He vacationed in Virginia Beach and attended law school at Regent University in 1997 after leaving government work.

Out of law school, he became Blackwater's vice president and set up the subsidiary Blackwater Security Consulting. With his own company, Smith realized, he could turn his expertise into personal profit.

The company is now monitoring the rescue efforts of journalists in Indonesia and Colombia. Apart from SCG, Smith said, he continues to lend his intelligence background to U.S. antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan, which he declined to discuss.

Saturday, he left for a job in Northern Ireland. As usual, Smith skimped on the details.

But one thing is likely: Someone needs to be rescued.

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cookhj
February 4, 2003, 05:09 PM
ok, so do they have a website? i wouldn't mind working for them.

cookhj
February 4, 2003, 08:50 PM
i found their website in case anyone wants to check them out. they have all sorts of tactical, etc. courses.


www.smith-consulting-group.com

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