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.

The Secret Service likes to say that its high-level protectees are given every asset that is used to protect the president of the United States. This isn’t true, of course. The Presidential Protective Detail is the holiest of holies. Everything stops for the presidential motorcade—including, during the 2009 General Assembly, the motorcade carrying a prominent world leader accustomed to near-royal treatment in his own country. He was returning to the Waldorf from the UN, but found his route unexpectedly blocked.

He tapped the agent who was driving his car. “Why are we stopped?”

“It’s President Obama,” the agent replied. “He’s departing the hotel.” The leader was silent for a moment, before shrugging and leaning back in his seat. In his country, after all, everything stopped for him.

The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was not so understanding. His motorcade was arriving at the Sheraton Hotel while a “POTUS Freeze” was in place. The Secret Service agent in charge of Erdogan’s detail asked him to wait until Obama’s motorcade had departed, but the Turkish prime minister did not heed the advice. He opened the door to his car, and armed Turkish agents began exiting the other vehicles in the motorcade. “Don’t do that!” the American detail leader shouted. But Erdogan’s entourage nonetheless approached Obama’s departure tent. An agent in the Presidential Protective Detail, having no idea who these foreign guys with guns were, yelled into his handheld mike, “Crash it! Crash the tent!” Within moments, a dozen agents were out of their cars in full sprint, guns drawn, and the Turks were forcibly detained.

The incident was over within 20 seconds, but the Turkish delegation was mightily offended. It canceled several events in New York, while the Secret Service and the State Department apologized and tried to smooth hurt egos. Although agents had done exactly what they were supposed to do, the service initiated a full review, and procedures were altered to ensure that presidential motorcades didn’t intersect with waiting dignitaries in the future.

The Presidential Protective Detail always walks a fine line. On the one hand, the safety of the president is sacrosanct; on the other, the detail is extremely wary of being perceived as a kind of Praetorian Guard. Still, its security footprint is, inevitably, enormous. In his 2010 book, The Kennedy Detail, former agent Gerald Blaine said he was aghast at the scope of the protective detail at a 2008 event for a presidential candidate he declined to identify: close to 60 agents and law-enforcement officers—for someone who was only campaigning to be president.

Since the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and following each subsequent attempt on a president’s life, the “package,” as the protective detail is called, has grown larger and more menacing. In 2005, as President Bush and Vice President Cheney celebrated their inauguration with a slow motorcade back to the White House, the conservative commentator George Will told the ABC News anchor Peter Jennings that the package, with its rings of hulking vehicles and heavily armed agents, brought to mind less Washington, D.C., than wartime Sarajevo. Sensitive to such perceptions, Obama’s inaugural procession in 2009 changed the security configuration somewhat—so that, for example, photographs of the president would feature the Capitol dome in the background, rather than a black, ambulance-style hazmat truck.

It is a sorely underappreciated fact that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were the subjects of relatively close-call assassination attempts. During a speech Bush gave at Tbilisi’s Freedom Square in Georgia on May 10, 2005, an assailant threw a live grenade at the president. The would-be assassin, who was later caught, had been among the throng of Georgians who had burst through the perimeter fencing when it was compromised an hour before the event. (Luckily, the grenade fell more than 30 yards away from Bush, outside of its effective range, and it did not explode.) The Secret Service had warned the president and his staff that it was not able to screen everyone within the standard range, and that as a result, he was potentially in danger. According to former administration officials, Bush insisted on giving the speech anyway.

Clinton’s brush with death was closer still, and his life may have been saved by a gut decision made by his detail leader. The incident was disclosed only recently by the historian Ken Gormley in his book The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr. The context was Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s effort to force members of the Presidential Protective Detail to disclose particulars of Clinton’s movements and any conversation they might have heard that was germane to his case. Then–Secret Service Director Lewis C. Merletti argued to Starr that a president needed to have complete trust in his protective detail, offering the following example: in 1996, President Clinton was in Manila for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, and had on his agenda a visit with a local official. He was running late, in a surly mood, and eager to get going. According to Gormley, just moments before the motorcade was about to move, agents using a special intelligence-gathering capacity—one that remains classified—picked up radio chatter mentioning the words wedding and bridge. Knowing well that wedding was often a code word for a terrorist hit, Merletti changed the route, which happened to include a bridge. Clinton was angry at the decision, which would cause further delay, but he did not override it. When agents arrived at the bridge, they indeed found explosives: had Clinton taken the prescribed route, he very likely would have been killed. (Within the past decade, the service has added an electronic-countermeasures vehicle— theoretically capable of jamming remotely controlled explosives—to the presidential protection package.)

After the September 11 attacks, the Secret Service found itself in the middle of a bureaucratic turf war. Under pressure from congressional Democrats, the Bush administration had reluctantly agreed to consolidate domestic security functions into a huge new department with the faintly Teutonic appellation of Homeland Security. The Secret Service was to be moved from its comfortable—if seemingly outdated—perch in the Treasury Department to the new entity. (The service’s placement within Treasury was a consequence of its having been initially formed, under President Abraham Lincoln, as an anti-counterfeiting unit; it officially assumed its better-known protective function only after the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley.)

Negotiations regarding the integration of the service into Homeland Security were fraught from the start. Joseph W. Hagin, President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, told me that the White House debated folding the service’s protective duties into Homeland Security, but handing over its responsibility to investigate counterfeiting and other financial crimes to the Justice Department. Though the debate was settled in the service’s favor, the threat of having its investigative functions taken away still lingers: in late 2009, rumors flared within the service that a secret White House working group was making plans to limit the service to its protective functions and divvy up its financial-fraud mission between Treasury and Justice. Though the rumors were subsequently debunked, their persistence speaks to the service’s institutional fears.

“We can’t have agents standing post all year,” says Robert Sica, the deputy special agent in charge of the New York field office. “The investigations are what keep the agents’ minds sharp, which reinforces their effectiveness on protective details. The best protective agents are often the smartest ones, because they know how to read people. That comes from investigations.” It may be true that if you designed the entire national-security apparatus from scratch, investigating financial crimes would fall outside the purview of the Secret Service. But from the agency’s point of view, its hybrid nature is a feature, not a bug.

Tension between the Secret Service and its new DHS overseers is still evident on both sides. When I approached a top DHS official with a question about a “good story” I was working on about the service, his curt response was, “There are no good stories about the service.” Yet for all the bureaucratic wrangles and miscommunications, integration into DHS has helped the service in innumerable ways. The service now has a much easier time borrowing personnel to staff major national-security events: on the 2008 presidential campaign trail, hundreds of federal agents from other DHS agencies assisted the service with protective duties. The service can also borrow surveillance assets very easily, and its Technical Security Division works closely with DHS scientists on explosive-detection technology. As DHS claims more of a role in securing cyberspace, it has also helped protect the service’s ability to initiate financial cyber-crime investigations— an area where, again, the Justice Department would prefer to take the lead.

On September 23, as the General Assembly drew to a close, three senior Secret Service agents sat down to a breakfast of eggs and pancakes at the Embassy Suites. All were veterans of numerous large security events.

“The Pittsburgh summit was harder than this,” one of them said, referring to the 2009 G-20 gathering. Protecting 20 world leaders in an unfamiliar location, in other words, had been a greater challenge than taking care of 150 in a city where the infrastructure was in place, the local relationships were built, and the public was conditioned to accept the hassles. It had been particularly difficult in Pittsburgh, for example, to find agents hotel rooms near those of their protectees.

Talk then turned to an upcoming National Special Security Event: the APEC summit in Hawaii in November 2011. Two agents had been dispatched from Washington more than a year in advance of the event to scout out locations for command centers; establish contact with hotels, police departments, and businesses; and prepare a pre-advance packet, listing everything from hospital locations to potential motorcade choke points. “The government of Hawaii is very anxious,” one of the agents noted. “We still haven’t figured out the hotel rooms.”

Overall, though, the agents didn’t have a lot of sympathy for their colleagues’ travails. A year in Hawaii is, after all, a year in Hawaii—about as far a cry from Pittsburgh as could be imagined. “Not a bad gig,” one of the agents commented, to nods all around. There was no need to add: as long as nothing goes wrong.

*This quote was altered to better reflect Brian Parr's meaning.

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Marc Ambinder is the White House correspondent for National Journal.

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