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.

During the 2010 assembly, a command center, code-named “Broadside,” was set up at the heart of the field office. Here, agents followed the movements of the many dignitaries and their security details in real time, in part by monitoring 16 distinct radio channels set aside for the summit. (This was considered a luxury: radio bandwidth is a precious commodity, and only 12 channels had been available the prior year.) Encryption keys for each channel are supplied by the National Security Agency, and the agents protect their radios as scrupulously as they protect their guns. “If only one radio is lost, we have to rekey every radio,” the agent in charge of this process told me.

In addition to establishing Broadside, the Secret Service also set up a tactical command post, code-named “North Star,” at a secret location in the city. North Star coordinated the counter-assault teams, the counter-sniper teams, and the hazardous-material teams—or “Hammer” squads—assigned to high-threat protectees. Run by the service’s Special Operations Division, North Star was responsible for arguably the most sensitive part of the assembly preparations. “One of the things we know,” Parr told me, “is that when things go wrong, we’ve got to get 150 world leaders and their spouses off the island”—that is, Manhattan—“in a hurry.” For weeks, the Special Operations Division scouted evacuation routes, hardened safe houses throughout the city, and secured Coast Guard assets. If a situation arose in which protectees needed to be moved to safety, counter-assault (or CAT) teams would “crash” the event and secure an evacuation pathway.

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Listening In: Secret Service radio chatter
Marc Ambinder is the first journalist allowed to listen in on a secret service radio encrypted transmission.

As a last resort in the event a leader is shot or otherwise injured, the service has what Parr calls its “secret weapon” on 24/7 standby. Dr. Maurizio Miglietta, a former chief of trauma at Bellevue who has been working these summits for years, provides the agency with a team of doctors and nurses, and sets up a mobile trauma unit at major venues. He can perform surgery on the spot, if necessary.

The primary goal, of course, is preventing any such incident. The mission begins with an extensive intelligence assessment. Agents and analysts at the Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division in Washington, D.C., prepare a detailed profile of each protectee—including information on who might wish him or her harm and why—for delivery to the New York field office. The Secret Service has access to virtually every bit of data produced by the American intelligence community; as Charlie Allen, a former top CIA officer who served as the Department of Homeland Security’s first intelligence chief, explains, “They are voracious consumers of intelligence.”

That intelligence often includes sensitive information developed by counterparts in other countries: for obvious reasons, the service has some of the closest liaison relationships with foreign intelligence agencies of any U.S. entity. Chinese and Russian protective-security teams regularly spend time with Secret Service agents to help them prepare for large events. China even invited the service to Beijing to observe its agencies’ security arrangements for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Indeed, it is an irony of the service that some of its dealings with foreign security agencies are less fraught than those with the rest of the American intelligence community.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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