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.

Mark Sullivan, the director of the Secret Service, is tall and trim, with deep-set eyes. He is ready with a smile even though he occupies a job that one predecessor, Stuart Knight, called a “living nightmare in a democracy.” When I met him last April, during a nuclear-security summit convened by President Obama, he was giving senior administration officials a tour of the Multi-Agency Command Center in downtown Washington. Before I was even able to ask the question directly, he stressed to me that the service was only a consumer, not a collector, of foreign intelligence.

What Sullivan did not tell me, but I knew from other sources, was that over the past 10 years, the CIA had asked the service on at least two occasions to help develop intelligence on a visiting foreign leader—that is, essentially, to spy on the very person it was assigned to protect. Both times, the service refused.

While not confirming these details, W. Ralph Basham, who was the director of the service from 2003 to 2006, told me, “It can’t work any other way. Once you lose the confidence of those individuals you protect, once they don’t want you near them—and many of them already think we’re spying on them anyway—it would never be a workable situation.”

Recently, Sullivan had fought, and won, yet another internal battle to avoid having his agents designated as intelligence collectors, which would have led to a kind of agency schizophrenia. “Mark is absolutely right to be fighting those battles,” Basham said. Though the service and the FBI cooperate closely on terrorism threats, they’ve created an informal firewall between the FBI’s intelligence-gathering operations and the service’s protective operations.

Although no one working for the Secret Service would discuss the subject with me, other sources told me that these sometimes contradictory priorities within the intelligence community can create Spy vs. Spy–style scenarios—but with American agents on both sides. When Ahmadinejad visits the United States, for instance, the FBI’s National Security Division dispatches teams of undercover agents to keep tabs on everyone with whom he travels or meets. As a result, the Secret Service’s security detail and counter-surveillance teams not only have to look out for suspicious figures who might pose a threat to Ahmadinejad’s life; they also have to determine which of those figures might in fact be “friendly” agents conducting surveillance on behalf of the U.S. government. (Comparable situations arise during visits by the leaders of any of a number of nations with whom the United States has a fraught or hostile relationship.)

Such conflicts help explain the wariness with which some protectees view their security details. For instance, after the Secret Service’s Technical Security Division carefully swept Ahmadinejad’s limousine and hotel room for listening devices— standard practice for all protectees—Ahmadinejad’s own bodyguards swept them as well. Trust extends only so far.

Active bodyguard duty makes up just a fraction of the work performed by Secret Service agents on protective missions; they are also, as the situation demands, hotel bookers, personal schedulers, and protocol experts. And these latter roles are often as demanding as the ones that make for good Hollywood screenplays. Being assigned to “housing,” for instance, might not seem glamorous compared with serving on one of the counter-assault teams. But the truth is that CAT team members spend much of their time standing around in stairwells, watching and waiting for extreme scenarios that are very unlikely to occur. Agents working on housing, by contrast, must constantly solve problems, though some might seem mundane.

Indeed, the Secret Service is an elite travel agency of sorts, maintaining relationships with hotels across the country and negotiating rates throughout the year. Large events such as the General Assembly pose particular hurdles, as many of the better hotels sell out years in advance.

Every venue to be used must be cleared by the Technical Security Division. First, 130 dog teams, many borrowed from other agencies, sniff for explosives. Then agents conduct fire-safety surveys; coordinate the placement of chemical, biological, and radiological sensors; and, for some rooms, add bulletproof glass and blast webbing to the windows. This year, housing agents faced an additional threat to national security: bedbugs. It would have been an obvious embarrassment if any of the General Assembly protectees had been bitten by the pests that have of late plagued New York City. None were, but one agent wasn’t so lucky. As a gag, fellow agents posted his injured-in-the-line-of-duty portrait on a wall in one of the temporary offices leased by the service.

Scheduling is a still-more-complex duty at an event such as the assembly—especially, as is often the case, when foreign dignitaries prove impulsive or uncooperative. One African nation, for instance, was particularly reticent about sharing its president’s U.S. itinerary with the service. One of the agents charged with scheduling his protective detail actually resorted to sleuthing his planned movements on Google. There, he found a reference to a speech the president intended to give in Utah. The agent then called the chief of police in Salt Lake City, who was vaguely aware of the dignitary’s impending visit and managed to supply the name of the hotel where he would be staying. A call to the hotel management provided the president’s arrival and departure dates. Only then could the agent alert his colleagues in Salt Lake City to supply protective personnel—and, just as important, determine how many agents in New York could be reassigned to other duties during those dates.

Even when protectees are more forthcoming with their schedules, those schedules are prone to change at the last minute. The service has “jump teams” available to handle sudden itinerary changes—as, for example, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy opted for an unplanned jog through the lovely (but entirely unsecured) grounds of Central Park. Last year, the Afghanistan delegation belatedly canceled its General Assembly appearance altogether. One might think that the service would appreciate the manpower this would free up. But consider the number of countries whose leaders had already scheduled events with President Hamid Karzai. Those events had to be canceled, and new events planned—and it was up to the agents in the scheduling office to make sure all the new pieces fit together. One scheduling change can create a cascade of others.

On Monday morning, September 20—the day world leaders began to arrive in force for the General Assembly—all 24 copies of the New York Post sold by the gift shop of the Embassy Suites hotel in Lower Manhattan were snatched up by 8 a.m. The Secret Service had set up a special coordinating center on the 15th floor, and agents there were passing around copies of page seven, which featured a heroic photo of one of their own in action.

The day before, in the late afternoon, the motorcade belonging to Israeli President Shimon Peres had arrived near the Carlyle hotel on the Upper East Side. French President Sarkozy and his glamorous wife, Carla Bruni, were staying at the hotel and, as a result, French and American paparazzi were staked out across the street. As Peres’s limo arrived, a photographer bearing a black backpack hopped over a barricade fence and began walking quickly toward it. Agents described the subsequent events as if they happened in slow motion.

Perimeter agents and officers immediately called on the photographer to halt: Stop stop stop! But he continued crossing the street, readying his camera for a picture and, in the process, swinging his backpack forward. Under the circumstances, both items had to be viewed as potential weapons.

Two things happened at almost the same instant: an NYPD intelligence officer leapt from the lead car of the motorcade and drew his Glock, and a bulky man in a polo shirt and shorts pulled his own weapon, a SIG-Sauer P229, shouting, “Get to the ground! Get to the ground!” The latter agent was a member of a Secret Service counter-surveillance team, breaking cover to intercept the potential threat.

Facing the business ends of two pistols, the photographer had a moment of sudden insight and dropped to the ground. He was cuffed by NYPD officers, interviewed by the Secret Service, and ordered to stay the hell away from motorcades in the future. The bad news, from the service’s point of view, was that any potential assassin would now know that the service had undercover counter-surveillance teams in place. The good news: the perceived threat was shut down quickly and smoothly. And a lucky New York Post photographer had taken a stunning photograph of the incident: agent and policeman, weapons drawn, standing over the prone photographer.

The situation also served as a reminder of the importance of the service’s cooperation with local law enforcement. For the General Assembly, the Secret Service coordinates with at least 17 different federal, state, and local agencies. In particular, the service cannot do its job unless the New York police and other local agencies have done theirs. Every year brings disagreements—often the same ones, year after year. Sometimes, the Port Authority balks at providing foreign leaders with enough vehicle escorts; the service usually wins that one. The service often requests more “setback”—that is, space between motorcades and other traffic—on certain streets; the NYPD will give it just one lane. The service prefers intersection control for all high-level protectees; last year, the NYPD decided to reserve that perk for President Obama alone. The give-and-take is perennial, and frustrating, and absolutely unavoidable.

In an advance briefing, Brian Parr had reminded his agents that maintaining mutual respect with the police was crucial. “Be humble,” he said. “The NYPD is going to be valuable to you.” The photographer incident, however inconsequential, had fulfilled his prediction.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is the White House correspondent for National Journal.

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