Just off Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan, only two blocks from St. Patrick's Cathedral, yellow taxis stop and start before a row of heavy glass doors at the base of an imposing 47-story building. A single doorman stands outside, his white-gloved hands folded. Above him the name of the building is scrawled on the aging concrete: The Waldorf-Astoria.
The old hotel has been casting its shadow over 49th Street since 1931, when it was built to replace its two forebears, the Astoria and the Waldorf. (Both hotels were flattened to make way for the Empire State Building.) In all that time, it has consistently been the hotel of choice for celebrities, heads of state and visiting dignitaries.
But the Chinese company that acquired it in October 2014 has announced plans to overhaul the entire building, even selling off more than 1,000 rooms as condominiums. The renovation will put the hotel out of commission for three years. In the meantime, leaders of state and other dignitaries will have to find another home away from home in New York City – and their protective details will have to adjust.
The Safest Place in America
In my position with the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), I spent plenty of time on protective details outside the Waldorf-Astoria. Historic landmark though it was, for us it was just one more venue to secure, one more set of halls, corners and doors to surveil and assess. Protecting the legendary hotel has always been a gargantuan task, handled by a mix of the New York Police Department, the Secret Service and the DSS.
Every year when the U.N. General Assembly convenes in New York City, hordes of foreign ministers and heads of state descend upon the legendary hotel. The VIP guests include U.S. presidents, rock stars, professional athletes, and New York's rich and famous. Street closures create horrendous traffic, and the hotel is flooded with bomb-detecting dogs, hazardous materials teams, police and agent snipers, uniformed cops, and plainclothes detectives.
As countersurveillance special agents, Scott Stewart and I would spend long hours standing watch outside the Waldorf-Astoria, at the arrivals and departures area known to us as "the well." Our assignment was different from the norm, because arrivals and departures are chokepoints — perfect attack venues. Surveillance agents would be dressed down, out of our suits and in casual clothes, with jackets hiding our Sig Sauer pistols, extra magazines and handcuffs. The job was to blend in and not look like we were watching, all the while staying laser-focused on trying to spot the bad guys who may have also been surveiling the area.
It was a lonely job. There were hours of boredom, black coffee, cold mornings and sometimes rain, surrounded by brief radio calls of "five to seven minutes out" into our earpieces from follow-car shift leaders in motorcades as VIPs arrived and departed. But all the effort was worth it, because when our agents were posted outside, the Waldorf-Astoria may easily have been the most well-protected location in America – or so we thought.
A Wake-Up Call
In 1993, we discovered that the Waldorf-Astoria was one of several planned targets in a terrorist plot that – fortunately – never came to fruition. The plan came to light after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the Blind Sheikh and currently a ward of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, led the terrorist cell. During our investigation of the sheikh's group, we uncovered several secondary targets, including tunnels leading into Manhattan and heliports where VIPs arrived.
But what really shocked my colleagues and me was the terrorists' fixation on the Waldorf-Astoria. Among the plans, the cell hoped to make the hotel's well the site for the assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. When Mubarak's motorcade slowed to a crawl to make a hard right turn into the well — a protected and covered underground garage — an attack team would deploy from the back of a stolen FedEx truck. The team would then toss hand grenades and fire AK-47s, targeting the agents in the follow cars before executing Mubarak.
That was not the end of it. In the investigation following the World Trade Center attack, we unearthed all kinds of other plans, some of which seemed to be pulled right out of a Robert Ludlum or Brad Thor thriller novel. Some attack scenarios involved infiltrating the hotel dressed as staff and waiters before sneaking up the stairwells on nights when the terrorists knew we had fewer agents on duty. They had done their homework.
A key and yet frightening lesson from the New York City plots was the degree of pre-operational surveillance that the terrorists had conducted, despite the numbers of cops and agents at the Waldorf-Astoria. We never saw them. We never caught wind of their plans or their presence. And if they had opted to go through with their attack on Mubarak or another VIP, we may well have been caught unprepared.
Needless to say, the discovery of the New York City plots was a wake-up call for security professionals. Everyone remembers the first World Trade Center bombing, but it was the terrorist plots we uncovered in the aftermath of the attack that forced positive changes in protection practices. We adjusted our protective mindset and tactics to improve protection by greatly enhancing our countersurveillance methods. To stop the attack cycle, we needed to interrupt it and spot the surveillance before plans were put into place.
None of the plots against the Waldorf-Astoria ever came to fruition. After we began improving our countersurveillance methods, the lonely hours we spent outside New York City's historic hotel became more worthwhile. We knew to look not only for potential attackers but also for people who seemed to be staking out the site, possibly formulating a plan for a future attack. Our job became a chess match of sorts with our adversaries. And today, as I picture the Waldorf-Astoria standing tall and whole as it has for decades, its history unmarred by tragedy, I like to think we won.