Five minutes before his job interview, John Fisher parks at Ace Fire Extinguisher Services in College Park, his window open and his stomach jumpy. He is nibbling on spoonfuls of cottage cheese when shouts erupt from the car next to his.
Fisher believes what he is seeing is real.
"Gun! He has a gun!" a man with a Secret Service earpiece yells, riffling through the glove compartment.
"It's my brother's gun!" a man in a black ski cap growls. "I didn't know I had a gun!"
Fisher's eyes pop. He slides down in his seat, cranking his window closed.
"Hands behind your back," says the man from the Secret Service, ratcheting his handcuffs.
"Man," says Fisher, wiping a spray of white flecks from his chin. He crosses the street to his job interview. "Did I pull up to the wrong spot."
Unwittingly, Fisher had driven into the climactic scene in a secret world of shadow theatrics. The man in the ski cap is a stage actor; the agent with the earpiece is a Secret Service recruit.
Every day, as Washingtonians go about their overt lives, the FBI, CIA, Capitol Police, Secret Service and U.S. Marshals Service stage covert dramas in and around the capital where they train. Officials say the scenarios help agents and officers integrate the intellectual, physical and emotional aspects of classroom instruction. Most exercises are performed inside restricted compounds. But they also unfold in public parks, suburban golf clubs and downtown transit stations.
Curtain up on threat theater -- a growing, clandestine art form. Joseph Persichini, Jr., assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, says, "What better way to adapt agents or analysts to cultural idiosyncrasies than role play?"
For the public, there are rare, startling peeks: At a Holiday Inn, a boy in water wings steps out of his seventh floor room into a stampede of federal agents; at a Bowie retirement home, an elderly woman panics as a role-player collapses, believing his seizure is real; at a county museum, a father sweeps his daughter into his arms, running for the exit, while a raving, bearded man resists arrest.
"The goal is to make the training realistic and relevant," CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf says.
‘It’s very Washington’
For the role-players, like Tony Bullock, the College Park gunman in the black ski cap, the genre offers access to an outlaw's life and an uncommon way to make a living.
"I had just moved to the city and didn't want to wait tables," says Bullock, on break during a robbery scenario with the Capitol Police. A stage actor who's played Hamlet and the earl of Essex, Bullock also earns $20 an hour role-playing candidate stalkers and thugs. "It's very Washington. My actor friends in New York are giving swimming lessons."
The Capitol Police hires role-players -- actors, college students, teachers, psychologists, retired police officers and military -- through MPRI, a defense contractor in Alexandria. MPRI draws on a cast of 500. Half have security clearances, ranging from confidential to top secret.
"My family thinks it's ridiculous -- you were a cop for 27 years. Now you're a bad guy?" says Bob Bracaglia, a former SWAT team leader who now begins his workday at a government site, pouring white powder into his suicide vest. As a presidential limousine rolls closer, an instructor cues, "How about a little homicide bomb?" Bracaglia throws himself at the limousine and detonates.
High-end role-players like Barry Spodak, a threat-assessment expert who trains at multiple agencies, earn as much as $300 an hour. Spodak, a psychotherapist who helped establish role-playing after the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, says his characters evolve to reflect contemporary threats.
When Spodak first played a character named Jeffrey Barry, he was "a mentally ill person, picking up trash and babbling about killing Reagan." During the 1990s, Jeffrey Barry believed Joan of Arc wanted him to kill Bill Clinton. Today Barry, still mentally ill, wears a Muslim prayer cap, receives messages from the 12th-century sultan Saladin and tells trainees he has incinerated a kitten as "a sacrifice to Allah."
Characters also change with presidencies. "I just had to dump 18 roles from the Bush administration," Spodak says.
For Obama, Spodak created a new character, Gideon Caine, a white supremacist who works as a data-entry clerk at Wachovia.
In one session, two trainees visit Kaine at his mock home. As they sit down, Kaine refuses to talk to, or look at, the Hispanic female trainee. He calls the president a "mud person," puppeteered by the "spawn of Satan." The trainees assume the spawn of Satan is Vice President Biden.
"Wrong!" snaps Spodak, playing Kaine. "In Hebrew, do you know what the word 'Rahm' means?"
"No, sir, I sure don't," says trainee Vincent Seymour.
"'Rahm' means exalted. You know what 'Emanuel' means?"
The trainees stare.
"The anointed lord. Rahm Emanuel -- the exalted, awaited lord. He is the Antichrist himself!"
As Kaine, Spodak wears suit pants and a starched white shirt. Spodak keeps two huge suitcases in his trunk, stuffed with costumes, fake teeth, fake blood, a glue-on goatee, and a greased-down hippie wig custom-made for $600.
Action and pain
Scenarios can resemble a film shoot -- minus the lighting -- with prop knives, assistants with clipboards and a tense director/evaluator talking into a headset. One Secret Service exercise opens at a Prince George's County nature center:
"Nice to see you all today," ad-libs presidential candidate Alex N. Taylor, played by instructor Mike Lopez. "Hopefully, you will all give till it hurts. I'm here to talk to you about my plans for a greener planet. I'm thinking of turning New York City into a big farm park. You got any questions?"
An actor cast as an "overzealous environmental activist" creates a disturbance. Agent-trainees hustle him out. The actor shouts: "You are suppressing my Fourth Amendment rights! Or maybe my First Amendment rights! It's one of those rights! Aaaagh!"
In another scenario, "Magoo's Fitness Center," the president of Caribbean nation visits a gym. Act One opens: "1:15 p.m., problem: Mr. Magoo advises that masseuse has called in sick (substitute masseuse is wanted)." A curvy, blonde role-player sidles up: "Mr. President, are you going to work out? I could train you. We could have a very tight workout schedule." The drama peaks at 3:10 p.m.:
Bob Fajkowski, a silver-haired actor who played the secretary of defense in the movie "Syriana," says he started role-playing three years ago, for the FBI.
"They try you out in minor roles, like standing on a corner, looking suspicious," Fajkowski says. He says he enjoys the frisson of danger: "On the stage, you know the end. When you're role-playing, it's always an adventure."
Sometimes too much of an adventure: Mike "The Horse" Dutch, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 280 pounds, has been playing villains for five years. He's been hit by so many training bullets that he has "black-and-blue dots all over . . . the size of a dime." When Dutch sunbathes at the beach, people stare, "like I have leprosy."
"I hate getting shot in the rear end," says Bill Embrey, who wears shorts under his pants to soften the impact. "I'm stiff, for goodness sakes. When did we have our last 'force on force?' "
"Tuesday," says Dennis O'Toole, his role-playing partner. They ambushed President Obama's security detail during in-service training, firing simulated AK-47s.
O'Toole rolls up his sleeve, revealing a pocked arm. "Sister Mary Margaret is in these FX [special-effects bullets]. They will help you learn your lesson."
Embrey and O'Toole play "op-4s," opposition forces, and "tangos," terrorists. They specialize in assassinations. Embery's wife, a kindergarten teacher, describes Embrey's job as "playing all day." Some days the men hide out for hours in the woods at a secluded Maryland site, waiting for a motorcade to prey on. Once, after a snowfall, they wore white camouflage and lay so still, O'Toole says, that an agent "stepped on me."
"It's tough to be role players. We're there to lose," says O'Toole, a 30-year police veteran. Embrey is a former Navy SEAL. "They hire old guys who are no longer operational."
Now the men study al-Qaeda transcripts and videos of assailants, altering their attacks when new tactics emerge, such as the assault in March on the Sri Lankan cricket team. "With most Islamists, it's 'inshallah shots' -- they don't aim. They usually just let lead fly. In Sri Lanka, we noticed a difference."
Talk or fight?
At the FBI, Persichini says, role-playing is being used to fine-tune interviews and interrogations. One role-player who's helped upgrade techniques at several agencies said that the first time he made a verbal threat, the trainees "grabbed me by neck, put me up against the wall and screamed at me for 10 minutes. That was the level of sophistication."
Now the emphasis is on talking. Recently, a Secret Service instructor holed up in a garage for 2 1/2 hours watching a remote feed as a live-action sequence unfolded in the living room of a house rigged with eight cameras. Agent-trainees sat stiffly on the couch, questioning a man who drove up from Arkansas carrying a picture of himself with a machine gun and a Google map, highlighted in pink, circling Bill and Hillary Clinton's Chappaqua, N.Y., home.
The role-player, a burly retired Anne Arundel cop, railed about "Hillary Ro-Damn Clinton."
"God has put me on a mission to stop her! She's going to use secretary of state as a launching pad for the White House. She would destroy us as a nation if she became president!"
The two trainees persuaded the Arkansan to check in to a mental hospital. The trainees before them had flunked, engaging in a chase and a shootout.
"That's the spontaneity" of role-playing, says Rick Kiernan, spokesman for MPRI. "It gives you a dynamic you don't get from drinking your own bath water."
At times so dynamic that even the role-players have trouble distinguishing reality from theater.
In College Park, outside Ace Fire Extinguisher Services, when role-player Tony Bullock saw the man pull up next to his car, he assumed he was an actor like himself. Bullock yelled about his gun. He growled in handcuffs. Then Bullock saw the cottage cheese fly out of John Fisher's mouth. "I thought: 'Oh, this poor guy. He's not part of this at all," Bullock recalls.
Fisher was not a role-player. He was a guy who had answered a help-wanted ad to be a service technician. He walked into the Ace building on shaky legs.
Richard Kimbell, in Ace personnel, recalls interviewing Fisher: "He had a lot of good qualifications." He put two stars next to Fisher's name. "I don't remember him looking over his shoulder for a guy with a black ski mask."
But he didn't hire Fisher. "Overqualified," Kimbell decided. Not right for this role.