Interview with James McJunkin
James McJunkin, Principal at Global Security Innovative Strategies (GSIS), most recently served as the Vice President of Safety and Security Operations for the Chicago Cubs Baseball Club, led the FBI’s second-largest Washington DC field office and served as the highest-ranking Counterterrorism official at the FBI.
Brennan Borgestad, Business Development Manager at Scylla, interviewed Mr. McJunkin to learn about his extensive security experience in both the federal government and the private sector and find out what he thinks of physical security challenges and the way to address them.
You have an extensive security background in both the federal government and the private sector. Could you tell us more about your experience?
“My background goes way back. I was 21 when I started my career as a trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police,” recalls James. At the age of 25, he joined the FBI and worked for over twenty-five years as a field agent and executive leader at the FBI. After retiring in 2012, Mr. McJunkin embarked on a private security career and worked as the Chief Security Officer and CISO at Discover Financial Services. He then headed the Safety and Security for the Chicago Cubs Baseball Club and now works as Principal at Global Security Innovative Strategies (GSIS), a security consulting and investigative firm that provides security services for clients around the globe and across different industries.
Was it your childhood dream to become a Police officer and an FBI agent?
“Actually, it was. I mean, I grew up on a dairy farm in Western Pennsylvania, so I think my initial strategy was to do anything that would get me off the farm. So, I worked really hard to try to find a way out.” Jim remembers interacting with state troopers at the gas station which his father owned and operated. They used to bring police cars there for service and he washed more than a few of them himself during that time frame. At the age of 21, he became a trooper and spent almost four years in the Pennsylvania State Police before being drawn in the direction of the FBI. That was the reason he volunteered and successfully maneuvered the complicated selection process to become a Special Agent of the FBI. After 911, life changed and he was transferred from a field supervisory position to FBI HQ Counterterrorism Division located in Washington, DC. Over the course of nearly ten years, he held ascending leadership positions at FBIHQ-CTD, including the top spot as the Assistant Director. He also was assigned two tours at the Washington (DC) Field Office in the roles of Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Counterterrorism branch and, eventually, as the Assistant Director in Charge of the entire field office.
What were your goals and responsibilities during the time you were in the FBI Headquarters Counterterrorism Division?
After 911, the FBI was challenged to change its operational approach from “reactive to proactive.” That was the goal set by Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI at that time. Changing the direction was a very difficult feat, especially in regard to the fieldwork as the new intelligence-driven approach required an evolution of the way agents did the job. He shared that task with a few other Special Agents. “I would consider myself one of the architects in changing that culture and traditional approach, a switch from reactive to a proactive stance, to one that is also intelligence-driven. We also had to hire and train analysts that fit the FBI culture and who could actually provide a certain level of service and performance that met the FBI expert performance expectations. And then we had to figure out how to operate in that environment. That included building relationships with the CIA, the Department of Defense (mainly within the Special Forces operations commands) and also within the Department of State,” he recalled.
Did your experience in the field help you realign the security approach to a proactive one?
“Sure, I was in the field for almost 17 years before I went back to headquarters for my first tour. So, part of the cultural change had to do with me changing the way I thought about things, and how I approached things. And then my expectations of how the field would change were colored and influenced by that exact experience. So having been a field agent and a supervisor for so long and the FBI agent with no FBI headquarters experience until I landed there after 911 really equipped me for doing a better job of managing that transition in the field for those field bosses.”
You have extensive experience in investigation. Apart from counterterrorism operations, what other big investigations were you involved in?
“I’ve been involved in lots of major operations that probably no one ever really heard about but they were significant cases within the region I was in,” James McJunkin admits. Among the well-known cases are the Atlanta Olympic bombing and two other bombings that occurred after the Olympics and were committed by the same suspect. He also investigated public corruption, mainly police-related public corruption, he dealt with criminal drug trafficking organizations and their activity, and also the criminal involvement by sworn law enforcement officers. He worked violent crime and did drug cartel-type work including physical surveillance of the drug targets. “It was a very interesting time,” confesses James, “I wouldn’t change a single day of my career. I had a ball, I was challenged, I was engaged, I was always busy and I wouldn’t regret a second of that.”
What was the transition from a high-level government investigative capacity to private corporate security like?
James McJunkin describes this experience “as sitting in a room, watching a baseball game and listening to a foreign commentator who is speaking a language that’s totally unfamiliar to you. But if you listen carefully enough, you can understand what’s going on. You just put your experience together with the commentary and eventually you learn the language. And once you learn the language, then you’re pretty much in a good place to succeed.” That was the case with Discover. Jim had to change his approach to things, the speed used to approach things, the methodologies employed to get strategies in place. But he was lucky to have great people there who helped him learn a great deal about business and develop his approach to security within that business. He also learned from his intelligence and FBI experience and was able to transform the way of dealing with private security, introducing a new security approach that blended the best of the old world with the best of the new world.
What are the main similarities and differences between the FBI and the private security space?
Bureaucracy is the first similarity. There are certain doors and thresholds you have to go through in order to get your business proposal to a place where it could be staffed, funded and executed. Similarly, the government sector has its share of red tape and organizational requirements that have to be met before you get approval for things.
The most significant difference is the speed and the way to react to threats. “At the FBI, we were consumed with the threat and were making sure that what we were doing was not only effective but also very timely. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit around and mull things over before we took action,” says James. In the business environment, it takes time to make sure that you’re doing things efficiently to give the company the greatest value for its money. That slows the process down.
What unique challenges do sports organizations and sports teams face from a security perspective? And how does Scylla help address them?
In the sports environment, whether it is the National Football League, NBA, or NASCAR, security should function in a way which is almost invisible for fans. They are the customers and pay a lot of money for the opportunity to watch a sports event and have a good time. Ensuring a safe and comfortable environment for spectators is what security should do. That is not an easy task and requires a combination of strategic, human, and technological approaches. Jim’s advice is “to understand the strengths of your team from a human perspective and then give them the necessary tools to be the most effective and allow them to be as invisible as they possibly can.” It’s a delicate balance and the interplay between skills, the way you approach the security construct, and how you actually design your program. It’s also important to utilize the correct technologies that can maximize the effectiveness of your strategy.
Jim McJunkin admits that one of the typical problems was people who tried to get into the stadium in the middle of the night. They would climb the exterior of the stadium onto the second level, which created all sorts of problems for the company including from a liability perspective. Video surveillance is vital in this respect. The problem is that you have a fixed number of security personnel that are responsible for monitoring all the things that are going on inside and outside the stadium. And when they’re looking at CCTV cameras, which might number twelve hundred and even thousands, it’s impossible to follow and accurately collect information from every one of those cameras simultaneously. They’re built to identify or to record activity that is within the aperture of that camera. And they’re not smart enough to tell the operator in the JOC when there’s something happening in their camera view. So, the disconnect is that if you don’t have the right camera view on the screen at the time that something happens in front of the camera, you can’t be proactive with that.
“Rather than worry about it, we tried to do everything we could to smartly prevent it. So, we searched for a system that would allow us to maximize our ability to quickly and effectively mitigate some of these problems that we weren’t creating. In the end, we landed on Scylla,” says Jim. There were a number of reasons. First of all, the price, amazingly low for the ability to maximize the use of the system and return the investment. Scylla’s technical team and their direct client relationships were arguments in favor too. “They were among the strongest I’ve ever seen,” explains McJunkin. “In fact, they sent the team down and we’re actually sitting in our Joint Operations Center for a week during the opening week of the home games in Chicago with the Cubs. And they were taking notes about everything we were doing, all the incidents that we were responding to, how we responded to them, and then they were able to help us design and customize Scylla to help maximize our ability to respond to those situations and incidents in a more effective manner. Thus, they helped us teach the system since it’s AI-driven. If you don’t teach it what you want it to know or teach it how you want it to respond, it’s just not going to be that effective.”
Another major threat to an open environment like a concert or a sporting event according to James McJunkin is the high angle shooting threat. Scylla AI helped the Chicago Cubs address it effectively. “What we were able to do is to combine some high perch cameras that were strategically placed and had 360-degree capability and Scylla artificial intelligence to monitor and analyze baseline activity on those rooftops 24/7,” explains James. “Scylla identifies behavior anomalies and directly alerts the Joint Operation Command center so that they assess with their own brain whether that’s a shooter threat or not. Thus, Scylla and the AI-based behavioral assessment allow us to very effectively mitigate the high angle shooting threat now. And I think that’s a model for any other stadium or concert venue in the United States.”
What other verticals except for sports facilities can Scylla be a good fit to?
Mr. McJunkin considers that any industry that has a CCTV camera system would actually benefit from Scylla. Correctional institutions, law enforcement, Customs and Border Patrol, any kind of industrial complex, warehousing, hospitals, and schools need to take a hard look at Scylla, which at a very affordable price will maximize security infrastructure making it proactive rather than reactive. “And if you haven’t been an intelligence-led security apparatus, you’ll learn more from the integration of this technology in your day-to-day operations. If you’re waiting for something to happen and your plan is to react to it, you’ve already lost the game and your company needs to look for somebody that thinks more strategically than that,” says James McJunkin.
What made you join the Scylla Advisory board?
“First of all, I was impressed with Scylla’s solutions that work really well. Another reason is the business ethics that they apply to their products. They’re very concerned about how the product will be used, whether it is a perfectly legitimate way or not. That provides a certain level of responsibility that I don’t see very often in corporate America,” says James. Besides, Scylla’s products can be customized and tailored specifically for the organization to meet their unique needs.
Speaking about good security and good safety, James McJunkin is convinced that the security apparatus has to be 360-degrees and clearly understand the risks they have. Thus, pre-operational surveillance, analytics on everything that is going on, looking for connections, and making a clear understanding of the security strategy are critically important to mitigate risks and actually save the company money. It’s also required for the staff to have proper training and understand how they fit into the larger strategy and do their portion of it. As for technological tools that allow maximizing their capabilities, they are sort of the cherry on top.
Please watch the full interview with James McJunkin on our official YouTube channel.
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