Inside the Secret Service

When President Obama and two-thirds of the world’s leaders gather in New York City, it is up to the U.S. Secret Service to keep them all safe. Granted unprecedented access, our author tells the story of how the agency pulls off the most complicated security event of the year, from counter-surveillance to counter-assault, hotel booking to event scheduling.
Brooks Kraft

On a warm September evening in New York City, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad slowly walked down the staircase of his official plane, idling in a remote corner of John F. Kennedy International Airport. Waiting to greet him were a gaggle of invited (and carefully screened) journalists, U.S. consular officials, and the like. But there was at least one face in the small crowd that Ahmadinejad recognized immediately, that of a U.S. Secret Service agent whom I’ll call Jack. (For security reasons, the service prefers not to publicize the names of its agents working on protective details.) A lean, compact man in his late 40s, Jack wore what passes for a uniform in the Secret Service: dark suit with a slight, artificial paunch around the middle (the result of gun, radio, handcuffs, and badge), light-blue shirt, and red tie. This was Jack’s third stint as a senior agent on the Iran detail, but his first as detail leader. He was the man charged by the U.S. government with ensuring the safety of arguably the nation’s most public enemy.

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Jack does not consider Ahmadinejad a friend, and he is somewhat uncomfortable being one of the few Americans the Iranian leader has gotten to know firsthand. (Ahmadinejad had grown so fond of Jack’s predecessor as detail leader— an agent since promoted to a more senior position—that he’d called him by his first name, asked after his children, and even, upon arriving and departing the country, given him formal kisses on each cheek.) But Jack was nonetheless proud of the job with which he had been entrusted: protecting the life of a man with a bull’s-eye on his back, and getting him door-to-door for six days, from limo to hotel to high-level meeting, as safely and expeditiously as possible.

Ahmadinejad was in New York for the 65th United Nations General Assembly—or UNGA, typically pronounced just the way it looks. While the Iranian leader’s visit was particularly high-profile and politically fraught, it was by no means unique. In 2010, the annual event required more than 200 Secret Service details for foreign leaders, American officials, and spouses, along with another 60 or so State Department security details for lower-level protectees. (This is in addition to the thousands of New York City police officers called upon to help secure buildings and traffic routes, and lead motorcades.) Over the course of the event, 900 aircraft would fly in and out of JFK bearing dignitaries; hundreds of events across the city would need to be scouted and secured.

Yet, remarkably, the General Assembly has become an almost unremarkable event, at least by Secret Service standards. There have been 38 “National Special Security Events” since President Clinton first coined the term in a classified 1998 national-security directive. Most of these NSSEs have occurred since September 11, 2001, and 14 of them since 2007, including the two presidential conventions, President-elect Obama’s pre-inauguration whistle-stop train tour, the inauguration itself, and the 2008 and 2009 G-20 summits. The General Assembly poses greater security and logistical challenges than many, if not most, of these events. This is due in part to its size, and in part to the fact that habit is the worst enemy of protective security, and the assembly offers an extremely attractive, recurring target: many foreign leaders stay in the same hotels and attend the same events at the same times each year. But despite all this, the General Assembly has not been categorized as an NSSE since 2001. The Secret Service has it down to a science.

This is the story of a dog that didn’t bark, and of the men and women who kept it muzzled. The Secret Service receives dozens of requests each year from reporters who want a peek inside the agency; most are quickly turned down. Typically, the service provides context for media coverage of its major security events by opening its training facility in Beltsville, Maryland. There, it can put on a show—complete with motorcades and simulated attacks—in a tightly controlled environment. It took me more than 18 months to persuade the service to let me be the first reporter to see the process from the inside in a real-world, real-time situation. I was allowed access to command posts, operation centers, and other secure areas. I agreed only to withhold some details about protective methodology that would imperil the service’s ability to do its job.

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Marc Ambinder answers readers questions about his story.

In exchange, I was able to witness how a smallish, secretive federal agency under some bureaucratic duress assures security at the General Assembly, an event for which two-thirds of the world’s leaders, many of whom have been subject to past assassination attempts, gather in one of the most crowded, open cities in the world. It is the job of the Secret Service, in concert with a host of local, state, and federal agencies, to make sure nothing goes wrong.

For Jack and the rest of the Iranian detail, that meant “keeping things simple,” as he explained to me. For the week, Ahmadinejad was just another “high”—that is, someone who receives the highest level of Secret Service protection. During his stay, the Iranian president was ensconced in the smallish, 20-floor Hilton Manhattan East. The hotel remained open to regular guests, and tourists wandered freely through the lobby. No demonstrators were outside when I visited (a somewhat surprising absence, given that the day’s newspapers had disclosed the location of the hotel), but a couple dozen plainclothes police officers were stationed around the building just in case.

Ahmadinejad was in his private suite, preparing for a series of interviews with American television hosts. In the corridors outside, the Secret Service agents and Ahmadinejad’s own Iranian security detail—immediately recognizable by their open-necked collars—generally kept apart, though they were mutually respectful. The Secret Service “command post” was a hotel room with the bed removed and replaced with the tools of the trade: semiautomatic weapons, first-aid equipment, one desk with a computer and another with a radio tuned to the detail’s coded frequency, nicknamed “Mike.”

But arguably the clearest signal that Ahmadinejad was no ordinary VIP was the fact that his media appearances throughout the day all took place within the hotel itself. When the time came, he rode a dedicated elevator down to a small, makeshift studio in the basement to be interviewed—under the watchful eye of his security detail—by the likes of Larry King and Charlie Rose. The mountain, in other words, came to Mahmoud.

Paint is peeling off the clapboard sides of what looks like an abandoned warehouse on the edge of the East River in Brooklyn. During the General Assembly, the Secret Service used the building as a secure location to house at least 100 armored limousines and SUVs, as well as numbered crates containing hundreds of MP5 assault weapons and thousands of secure radios. Over the course of the event, advance agents would arrive as needed to pick up their keys, their guns, and their radios.

The warehouse is a short drive from the Secret Service’s New York field office, which occupies the (again, highly secure) top floors of an otherwise anonymous Brooklyn office building. The field office had been located in Tower 7 of the World Trade Center—along with an important CIA station and the New York emergency command center authorized by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani—until its destruction in the September 11 attacks. For months afterward, until the money came through for a new permanent office, the Secret Service worked out of three temporary locations, leasing space from, among others, John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Midtown.

The New York field office is the service’s largest, averaging six protective assignments a week under normal circumstances as well as dozens of counterfeiting cases—responsibility for which the service, until recently a part of the Treasury Department, has fought zealously to retain. Among the James Bondian features of the facility are a state-of-the-art wire room, where the service conducts phone tracking; a locked vault full of disguises and fake-grass tarps for agents to hide beneath when on undercover assignments; and a warren of interview rooms where the service regularly conducts polygraphs, both for criminal investigations and for security-clearance applications. (The agency’s polygraphs are considered the gold standard in U.S. government.)

When I visited in June, Brian Parr, the special agent in charge of the field office, pointed out that terrorists had twice attempted to attack New York City within the past year, failing only because they’d made mistakes, not because they had been detected by law enforcement. He cited the case of Najibullah Zazi, a bus driver who was intercepted by the NYPD and the FBI as he prepared to bomb the New York City subway system in September 2009. “A year ago,” Parr told me, “We discovered 9 backpacks and a recipe for TATP, an explosive.* And that next week”—that is, when the UN would convene its 2009 General Assembly—“I had two-thirds of the world’s leaders coming to my district.”

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Marc Ambinder is the White House correspondent for National Journal.

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