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In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect Paperback – August 3, 2010
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Never before has a journalist penetrated the wall of secrecy that surrounds the U.S. Secret Service, that elite corps of agents who pledge to take a bullet to protect the president and his family. Kessler portrays the dangers that agents face and how they carry out their missions--from how they are trained to how they spot and assess potential threats. With fly-on-the-wall perspective, he captures the drama and tension that characterize agents’ lives and reveals what they have seen, providing startling, previously untold stories about the presidents, from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as about their families, Cabinet officers, and White House aides.
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.
“[A] fascinating exposé . . . high-energy read . . . amusing, saucy, often disturbing anecdotes about the VIPs the Secret Service has protected and still protects.” —USA Today
From USA TODAY, Reviewed By Don Oldenburg, Special for USA TODAY
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.
Copyright 2009, USA TODAY. All Rights Reserved.
- Publisher : Crown Forum; NO-VALUE edition (August 3, 2010)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 285 pages
- ISBN-10 : 030746136X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0307461360
- Item Weight : 8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #57,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Kessler intersperses chapters about the Secret Service’s culture, procedures and nagging problems, with those dishing on the presidents. Secret Service agents aren’t supposed to leak what they see, and generally don’t. But they do here, particularly former agents no longer bound professionally and embittered enough to spill it.
The Service really does have problems, or did when Kessler wrote this. You can write some of this off to people bitching about work, but much seems substantial, particularly when Kessler compares it to related agencies like the FBI.
Agents are promised ample training to stay sharp, responding to different scenarios of attacks upon their protectees. They usually don’t get it. They work too much overtime, the roster stretched too thin by demands for protection from a growing array of government officials, their families and foreign dignitaries. This stresses marriages and family life. Service leaders agree to this, without commensurate increases in budget and personnel, to curry favor with political leaders and to empire build. Their employees pay the price.
The Service maintains a retro management style, reminiscent of the Postal Service. It hearkens back to when workers were all men, mostly military veterans accustomed to hierarchy. Their wives all stayed home and were expected to follow loyally behind whenever their husbands were transferred. ‘It was tough on us, it’ll be tough on you,’ managers say, ‘so suck it up.’
Life ain’t like that anymore. Unwanted transfers create disruption when spouses can’t or won’t go along. Agents tire of missing birthdays and graduations, of working straight through weekends again and again. The Service, failing to acknowledge this, hemorrhages well-trained, experienced people. They leave rather than accept a transfer they don’t want, or when they can’t get one they need.
The favor of superiors is crucial in promotion, and promotion is crucial to getting a better high-paying job after leaving, so agents go along to get along, not making waves. Then they leave the SS for the $$.
Many agents at this writing were armed with obsolete, lower-power weapons, older machine pistols, presenting little deterrent to terrorists likely armed with real assault rifles. The Service, still traumatized by JFK’s 1963 assassination in Dallas, is too focused on the lone gunman, some agents say, rather than terrorist scenarios a more real threat nowadays.
With presidents traveling more and more, the Service to lessen the work has slacked off on forcing crowds through metal detectors. In one unpublicized incident, a terrorist threw a hand grenade at George W. Bush while he spoke in Tbilisi, Georgia. Only because the grenade failed to explode did Bush survive. The Georgian government had been prepared with metal detectors but the Service waived using them.
There’s of course a lot of dish here and, confess, that’s half the reason you read this. The book was published near the beginning of the Obama administration so there’s not much about them. A few highlights:
Agents' favorite presidential couple were the George HW Bushes. Their patrician breeding really came through. They knew agents’ names, remembered the details of their lives, and looked after them. Barbara Bush baked cookies for them and made sure, one very cold day, a hatless agent had a warm hat to wear. “Son, don’t argue with the First Lady,” her husband told the young agent, who tried to demur when she pressed one on him.
The George W. Bushes were close behind. Laura Bush was maybe their favorite First Lady ever. Dubya was a physical fitness buff, running and then, after his knees protested, biking, with the most fit agents assigned to his personal protection so they could keep up with him. Dubya’s manner in private, they said, was very different from his tongue-tied public speaking style; he was warm, witty, funny and confident.
Bill Clinton was late all the time, but they respected the major cause of it. He loved chatting up people, including grunt-level workers like maids and busboys, whose names he remembered, and whom he enthusiastically talked to even when there were no cameras around. His impromptu plunging into groups gave the Secret Service nightmares, but they respected the reasons behind it.
Hillary was another story. She hated cops and didn’t want those in uniform anywhere in sight, lessening the deterrent to potential attackers. She was rude to agents and other employees, regularly. She had a nasty, ill-tempered tongue which she unleashed as soon as she was out of the public eye.
Agents disliked the Carters and found Jimmy phony on things like not drinking or carrying his own bags. When he did it for a photo op, the bag was empty. Otherwise agents had to carry his bags. His annoying micromanagement included controlling the schedule for the White House tennis court, including when he was out of town.
Presidential kids could be a handful. The Bush twins regularly tried as youths to shake their protection details. There were incidents with drinking in bars and fake IDs - the stuff many college kids do, but that those in the public spotlight really can’t afford to do.
In addition to the history of the Secret Service and its constantly expanding responsibilities for protecting the President and an ever-expanding list of other leaders deemed important enough to receive SS protection the book is fascinating in other ways. (Please pardon the negative connotations of using SS as shorthand for the Secret Service).
The bulk of the book is gossip about the people the SS has protected over the years and the readers are going to be amazed at the glimpses the book provides of the real characters of many of the protectees. Here are some the questions that are answered by the book, but you are going to have to read the book to learn who is who:
What President was most disliked by his SS guardians? Which First Lady wanted the Secret Service Agents around and inside the White not to carry guns? Which Presidents never spoke to their Secret Service Guardians over a period of years even though he was constantly within a foot or two of them? Which First Lady was found crawling around in the garden so drunk she couldn't stand up or find the house? Which President's son would go to the Georgetown bars, get roaring drunk, smoke pot, and then pick up women by asking them if they wanted to come back to the White House and have sex there (most apparently accepted)? Which Secret Service protectee got into drunken bar fights so that his Secret Service agents would have to intervene? Which President would step into Air Force One after smiling and waving to the crowds and cameras outside and then once inside the plane "out of sight of the crowds, he would stand in the doorway and grin from ear to ear, and say, `You dumb sons of bitches. I piss on all you?'" as he started taking off his clothes as he walked down the plane's aisles and often reached his private quarters fully nude so he could shut the door and spend some quality time with some of his secretaries and female personal assistants? He did this even when his wife was sometimes on the plane. Which President, famous for his smile, never smiled once he was out of the public's view? Who was the cabinet level officer who was too cheap to buy a plane ticket and so had his Secret Service Detail drive him home and back each weekend--a distance of several hundred miles each way? And who was another cabinet secretary who would have his secret service agents drive him to visit his mistress every Thursday through Sunday in another city several hours distant from D.C?
Which Presidents and First Families were the most liked, respected and appreciated by their Secret Service Agents? What President refused to have either his military doctor or the Military Officer carrying the nuclear code football for launching missiles stay in the same town as the President--meaning that a surprise nuclear attack might be successful even before the President could have ordered a response? Which President(s) actually got caught having sex on a sofa in the Oval Office by his very annoyed wife? Which President and which first ladies refused to let any of the White House Staff look at them as they walked around anywhere inside the White House? Which President liked to pretend he was carrying his own luggage when the bags were really empty? Which President liked to get to the Oval Office at 5 or 6 a.m. and then promptly shut the curtains and take a long nap? What were many of our Presidents and their families really like? How many First Ladies actually ran the nation? These nagging questions and many others are all answered in this tome. Which Vice-President had angry mobs attack his limo and then the American Embassy after he fled there--the 7th Fleet had to send Marines to save him since the local police had disappeared? Which First Couple "were the biggest liars in the world?"
This book isn't going to do anything to enhance the respect for many of our elected leaders from either party. Many of them were nasty, phony, ruthless, borderline unstable, irresponsible, paranoid, despicable people. They weren't at all who the voters thought they were when they elected them. The readers are in for some big surprises at the eye witnessed glimpses into their leader's private personalities.
The Secret Service was added to the Home Land Security Department after 9/11 and has been suffering many negative results since. The book explains how today's Secret Service is mismanaged, under-funded, has had it's responsibilities doubled without any increase in resources. The Service is rapidly losing its best agents and still considers the main threat to be a single, crazed individual with a gun as the chief threat to the President. With that model, according to the book, the teams protecting the President have been under-armed compared to run-of-the-mill terrorists, under-manned with five or six agent backup teams often cut to only two individuals. The book's author, who interviewed more than 100 present or former agents and had the cooperation of the Secret Service in doing the book, suggests that the SS is now set up in such a way that a group of well-armed, suicidal terrorists could easily overwhelm the President's Secret Service Protection. If he recent gatecrashers at the White House State Dinner, one of which has an Arab sounding first name, had been trained enemy agents, they could easily have killed the President. In fact, they could have fatally infected or killed every person whose hands they shook at the party. This is a very timely read.
The arrogance and selfishness of Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan and the Bush daughters was not new news. It's difficult to imagine the most exalted people in our country treating the folks paid to serve them poorly - but I guess that something happens to the brain chemistry of some after breathing the White House air. Thank goodness for the kindness of both Barbara and Laura Bush and their husbands - and the Obamas.
Ron Kessler has given us a rare opportunity to see the presidency from the Secret Service's point of view. I'm not sure I feel better having read it, as it is just another indication that government agencies fall far short of doing the efficient job we expect of them. And, lives hang in the balance.
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There is no detail about the role of agents or how they worked with their principle, just chapter after chapter of tabloidy stories.