Secret Service agents are like human surveillance cameras: They see everything that goes on behind the scenes involving the president, first lady, vice president, and their families. At the same time, they are a bulwark of democracy. If a president is assassinated, it nullifies democracy.
In a new chapter to the paperback edition of In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, I reveal that threats against President Obama have become so disturbing that a secret Presidential Threat Task Force has been created within the FBI to gather, track, and evaluate assassination threats that might be related to domestic or international terrorism.
The task force operates within the FBI’s National Security Branch. It consists of twenty representatives from pertinent agencies, including agents from the FBI and Secret Service and operatives from the CIA, the NSA, and the Defense Department, as well as analysts.
The hardcover edition reported that threats against Obama rose by as much as 400 percent compared with when President Bush was in office. While threats fluctuate, the level continues to be high enough to call for the threat task force.
At the same time, the Secret Service, which let party crashers into the White House in November, has been spinelessly acceding to requests of the Obama administration officials for Secret Service protection in instances where there are no threats against them. No one outside of the government has heard of most of these officials, but they have one thing in common: They enjoy being chauffeured free of charge by the Secret Service.
This expansion in protection has occurred at the same time that the Secret Service has cut corners because of understaffing and with a management culture that is complacent about potential risks, thus jeopardizing the president’s safety.
Those Secret Service deficiencies led to Michaele and Tareq Salahi’s intrusion at the White House state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The breach occurred because of a deliberate, conscious decision by uniformed officers to ignore the fact that the Salahis and Carlos Allen, a third intruder, were not on the guest list. Those decisions are an expected consequence of the agency’s practice of cutting corners.
The corner-cutting also include: not passing crowds through magnetometers or shutting down the devices early at presidential events; cutting back on the size of counter-assault teams and bowing to demands of staff that the teams remain at a great distance from protectees; not keeping up to date with the latest, most powerful firearms used by the FBI and the military; not allowing agents time for regular firearms requalification or physical training, which the Secret Service covers up by asking agents to fill out their own test scores.
Undoubtedly, the uniformed officers who decided to wave the Salahis into the state dinner were aware of the corner-cutting and were overwhelmed by the workload. In part because the Secret Service refuses to demand funds for adequate staffing, the attrition rate is as high as 12 percent a year within the Uniformed Division alone.
On top of this, the agency bows to political pressure. When agents refused to drive friends of Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary to restaurants, she got her detail leader removed. The fact that Secret Service management does not back personnel when they are just doing their jobs had to contribute to the uniformed officers’ reluctance to turn away guests at the state dinner and thus potentially face repercussions.
In recounting what protectees are like behind the scenes, the book describes as well how difficult Jenna and Barbara Bush were with their agents and how Vice President Joe Biden ignores Secret Service advice about his protection. To make the press think he came to work early, Jimmy Carter would walk into the Oval Office at 5 a.m., then nod off to sleep. Lyndon Johnson would order Secret Service agents to drive on crowded sidewalks so he could make an appointment on time. Johnson would urinate in front of the press corps, which included women reporters. He had a “stable” of women with whom he had sex at the White House and at his ranch. In addition, Vice President Spiro Agnew, a champion of family values, had extramarital affairs while in office.
Despite the breaches and corner-cutting, President Obama has said he has complete confidence in the Secret Service, indicating that he sees no need for a change in management. Given the clear warning signs, that is just as reckless as Abraham Lincoln’s and John F. Kennedy’s disregard for security.
Lincoln resisted efforts of his friends, the police, and the military to safeguard him. Finally, late in the Civil War, he agreed to allow four Washington police officers to act as his bodyguards, but on the night of his assassination, only one D.C. patrolman, John F. Parker, was guarding him.
Instead of remaining on guard outside the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, Parker went to a nearby saloon for a drink. As a result of Parker’s negligence, just after 10 p.m., John Wilkes Booth made his way to Lincoln’s box, sneaked in, and shot him in the back of the head. The president died the next morning.
Kennedy told Secret Service agents he did not want them to ride on the small running boards at the rear of his limousine in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
“If agents had been allowed on the rear running boards, they would have pushed the president down and jumped on him to protect him before the fatal shot,” Charles “Chuck” Taylor, who was an agent on the Kennedy detail, tells me.
In the case of Obama, in the view of many current Secret Service agents interviewed for In the President’s Secret Service, the result of the Secret Service’s corner-cutting could be a security breach with deadly consequences.
While Secret Service agents are brave and dedicated, the agency’s management needs to be replaced. On the night of Obama’s state dinner, it was a pretty blonde. Tomorrow, it could be an assassin.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
The recent news report that corner-cutting at the U.S. Secret Service has put President Obama's life at greater risk may be the most attention-grabbing disclosure emerging from Ron Kessler's latest book. But there's a lot more in this fascinating exposé, which penetrates that federal agency's longstanding mission and tradition of sworn secrecy.
Never mind that the book's title is stiffer than the Secret Service's public persona — dour-faced agents wearing pressed suits, dark sunglasses and earphones, scouring crowds for potential threats. Inside the covers, Kessler's lively narrative is loaded with details of how the federal agents, authorized to protect the president and other national leaders, get the job done — and sometimes don't.
But what fuels this high-energy read isn't Kessler's investigation of the Secret Service's training, procedures and strategies — from guaranteeing the safety of the president's food to analyzing daily threats. Instead what turns these pages are the amusing, saucy, often disturbing anecdotes about the VIPs the Secret Service has protected and still protects. The secrets, in other words.
Some of it would border on tabloid sensationalism if it hadn't come directly from current and retired agents (most identified by name, to Kessler's credit). Of course, you'd expect the salacious stories of John Kennedy's libido, but the less-told tales of an often-drunken and philandering Lyndon Johnson caught with his pants down are shocking. Family-values champion Spiro Agnew had his hotel-room peccadilloes, it seems, and nice Jimmy Carter his animosities. Richard Nixon's peculiarities? Beyond excess.
Anecdotes of hard-to-handle members of the first families abound here as well, including Jenna and Barbara Bush's bar-hopping, Hillary Clinton's angry clashes with low-level White House employees, and Nancy Reagan's cold, controlling habits.
Balancing the sordid tales are the kinder stories of presidential humanity — like George H.W. Bush and an agent searching for hidden cookies in the middle of the night, Miss Lillian Carter delivering a six-pack to the Secret Service boys (dutifully refused), and Ronald Reagan mailing checks for thousands of dollars to needy strangers.
So why the all the blabbing from zip-lipped agents? A respected journalist and former Washington Post reporter, Kessler somehow instills trust even in wary civil servants and federal bureaucrats.
He did when researching such government-insider books as The Terrorist Watch and The CIA at War. He has done it again by persuading the Secret Service to cooperate, making this an insightful and entertaining story.
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