Q&A: Inside the Secret Service

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Marc Ambinder hosted a live chat with readers Thursday about his story in the March issue via Cover it Live. The transcript of that chat follows:

Marc Ambinder
Hello everyone. I'll start answering your questions about the Secret Service in about 15 minutes.
Thursday February 17, 2011 11:42 Marc Ambinder
11:52
Marc Ambinder
We can get started early if anyone is out there in the great beyond.
Thursday February 17, 2011 11:52 Marc Ambinder
11:59
MarcAmbinder
Hello live readers. I'll answer first a question someone posed to be on Twitter. WHo was behind the attempted assassination of Bill Clinton in 1995? The USSS has a good idea, but it doesn't want to say much publicly. It's a good bet though that indigenous Islamic terror networks probably played a role.
Thursday February 17, 2011 11:59 Marc Ambinder
12:01
Marc Ambinder
Reader comments have been turned on.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:01 Marc Ambinder
12:01
Twitter
terry136: 
@marcambinder How much resistance from the Secret Service did you have to overcome to get the info for your story? [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:01 terry136
12:01
Twitter
billiegirltoo: 
RT @nationaljournal: STARTING NOW: Chat with @MarcAmbinder on the secret world of the Secret Service: http://theatln.tc/gFGruo Have a qu ... [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:01 billiegirltoo
12:02
Twitter
tpaleyfilm: 
"This one's different; this one's got <3" RT @furiouscinema: 7 Days of 007: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) http://bit.ly/eyZbaz [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:02 tpaleyfilm
12:02
Twitter
insanecitizen: 
RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:02 insanecitizen
12:03
MarcAmbinder
It took me more than a year to convince them to let me behind the scenes. I could have written a story without their cooperation, but I wanted to try this approach because they had never let a reporter observer them manage a major protective event like this. I only promised that I would avoid writing anything that would make it harder for them to protect people... and I had to have final say on all the content. Eventually, and maybe it was because I wore down their resistance, they agreed. @terry126
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:03 Marc Ambinder
12:03
Twitter
JulienMcEvoy: 
"Inside the Secret Service", long papier écrit grâce à un «unprecedented access» dans ce monde http://bit.ly/hr35cg sur @TheAtlantic [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:03 JulienMcEvoy
12:04
[Comment From JWJW: ] 
What was the most unique thing you learned during your time with the USSS?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:04 JW
12:05
Marc Ambinder
JW: How these men and women balance the cognitive demands of protecting someone like Ahmadinejad...while simultaneously being American citizens...and knowing that the FBI or CIA is spying on them as they do it. Getting into that mindset gets you into THE mindset of an agent on a protective detail.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:05 Marc Ambinder
12:05
Twitter
timkmak: 
The Atlantic's @marcambinder now taking live questions about his very cool U.S. Secret Service piece: http://bit.ly/dQm9x2 [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:05 timkmak
12:05
[Comment From TerryTerry: ] 
How much resistance from the Secret Service did you have to overcome to get the info for your story?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:05 Terry
12:06
Twitter
MarkKornblau: 
@MarcAmbinder: Wow. Nice work. I'm exhausted just reading it. Inside the secret service http://bit.ly/gaIxBT [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:06 MarkKornblau
12:07
JW: 
Did you witness any comical or scary disagreements or arguments between a protectee and USSS?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:07 JW
12:08
Marc Ambinder: 
@markkornblau -- thanks! Your boss, of course, is protected by the men and women of the Diplomatic Security Service, who handle 70 or so details during the United Nations General Assembly, including some high-threat ones. They do an incredible job too.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:08 Marc Ambinder
12:08
Twitter
nofrills: 
RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:08 nofrills
12:08
Twitter
santhoshkg: 
The Secret Service Plays Video Games to Prepare for Trouble http://bit.ly/dGaa5l [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:08 santhoshkg
12:08
Twitter
rhabayeb: 
RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:08 rhabayeb
12:10
Twitter
Jeffrey__Scott: 
@melgotserved Better be careful what you say about him. He used to be in the secret service. LOL Kristina tried to be competitive to early. [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:10 Jeffrey__Scott
12:10
Marc Ambinder
JW: There's plenty of war stories. One story I was told, but did not myself witness, concerned a protectee who took aside a detail leader and told him in all confidence that HIS chief bodyguard was going to mount a coup against him and needed to be watched. (This happened a few years ago.) I also witnessed an amusing protocol disagreement between the El Salvador delegation and the State Department at JFK Airport.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:10 Marc Ambinder
12:10
Twitter
MannyThinks: 
I like safety #gamification RT @fastcompany: The Secret Service Plays Video Games to Prepare for Trouble http://bit.ly/dGaa5l [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:10 MannyThinks
12:10
Twitter
joshrogin: 
RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:10 joshrogin
12:11
Twitter
BrandonWark: 
RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:11 BrandonWark
12:12
JW: 
When the USSS is protecting a foreign dignitary how often does the USSS assume they are being spied upon by CIA or NSA, and does the USSS ever try to interfere... or have there been any security breaches as a result of CIA, NSA conflict?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:12 JW
12:13
Twitter
arawnsley: 
RT @joshrogin: RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:13 arawnsley
12:13
JW: 
Do visiting dignitaries have the ability to refuse USSS detail, and just stick with their own countries security team?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:13 JW
12:14
Marc Ambinder
JW: I assume that they assume such things for virtually every delegation that does not see eye to eye with the US on every issue. The NSA can't legally collect on delegations inside NYC...so the FBI counter-intelligence folks would do it. As for security breaches, I don't know of any, but that doesn't mean they don't occur. Obviously, this is a sensitive topic for the USSS, and one I think they'd rather I hadn't written about.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:14 Marc Ambinder
12:15
Marc Ambinder
Yes, dignitaries can refuse USSS protection, but this happens very rarely. What's more likely is that a dignitary will ask for a bigger car ... and they're told they can rent any car they'd like if they don't find what the Service offers them to be acceptable.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:15 Marc Ambinder
12:17
Marc Ambinder
One important detail that was left out of the piece because of an edit was the name of the division within the Service that puts on these events. The Dignitary Protection Division, or DPD... is responsible not only for all foreign presidents and their spouses...but also for the political campaigns...and the National Special Security Events. Getting a prime DPD position carries cachet inside the Service...almost as much as becoming a member of the Presidential Protective Detail (PPD).
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:17 Marc Ambinder
12:21
[Comment From SmittySmitty: ] 
Whats the majority of the educational backgrounds for an agent. Are most from the academy's?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:21 Smitty
12:22
JW: 
How did Agents balance eating and sleeping when on PPD, or DPD?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:22 JW
12:23
Marc Ambinder
Virtually every agent has a BA or BS. A good number have Master's degrees or law degrees. A large number -- I'd say a majority -- are either ex-military or were recruited from local police agencies. But they're recruiting agents from all walks of life now. So long as you can physically qualify, pass a background check and put one word in front of the other, you can use your life experiences any way you wish.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:23 Marc Ambinder
12:25
Twitter
kmingis: 
RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:25 kmingis
12:25
Twitter
shean702: 
RT @joshrogin: RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:25 shean702
12:25
Twitter
superdirtyleft: 
RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:25 superdirtyleft
12:26
JW: 
How often is USSS expense considered when POTUS campaigns or does more personal oriented activities?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:26 JW
12:26
Marc Ambinder
Basically: they know they;re not going to be sleeping much, so agents are told to watch out for their colleagues...to make sure they're OK and not sick or flagging... but most agents work 12 hour shifts for events like this. As for eating (and peeing), the rule of thumb is, eat whenever you see food, and use the bathroom when you can (provided you don't have an immediate assignment.) WHen agents are standing post, they rotate (or "push") assignments so that each can take a small break and use the facilities/grab some water. The PPD is a little different. When POTUS is in DC, the shifts are normal. When he;s outside DC, the shifts are looong.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:26 Marc Ambinder
12:26
[Comment From BobBob: ] 
Did any agents talk to you about what it's like to know they might have to take a bullet as part of the job?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:26 Bob
12:27
Marc Ambinder: 
Yes, but they were cautious about it. It's a very personal thing...the feeling of knowing that if someone tries to shoot an enemy of the United States, it's your job to snap your back up, spread your arms wide and take a bullet. So most don't really ruminate about it.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:27 Marc Ambinder
12:27
[Comment From NRNR: ] 
Did you notice any particular police agencies or police jobs that led to work with the USSS?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:27 NR
12:27
Marc Ambinder
NR, see below for your answer.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:27 Marc Ambinder
12:29
Marc Ambinder
Expensing is very complicated, but whenever Obama does a political event, he has to pay the equivalent of first class airfare...although AF1 is not part of the USSS. The SErvice budgets in advance for major events and presidential trips, so, for example, it does not really cost the taxpayer more if the President does more political events because the money is budgeted in advance. The most significant constraint on the president's travel is actually the military assets....which are prioritized obviously for POTUS but during times of war, it's not always easy to find four C-130s at a moment;s notice to transport gear across the country.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:29 Marc Ambinder
12:29
[Comment From TerryTerry: ] 
Is there one that sticks in your mind after doing the story?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:29 Terry
12:30
[Comment From NRNR: ] 
I meant more specifically, like DC MPD, PGPD, APD, Capitol Police etc
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:30 NR
12:30
Marc Ambinder
Nah. They recruit from everywhere... and prize investigative experience more than shooting experience.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:30 Marc Ambinder
12:30
[Comment From KlugKlug: ] 
Has the body armor technology available to USSS advanced in line with military body armor?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:30 Klug
12:31
Marc Ambinder
The USSS is part of various DoD task forces on armor and counter-measures, so it's safe to assume that they get the technology at the same time the military does. That said, the DoD has certain types of counter-measure technology that isn't legal to use inside the U.S. so the USSS has its hands tied. (I won't give examples for obvious reasons.) In terms of armor, yes.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:31 Marc Ambinder
12:31
[Comment From DUDU: ] 
How much would you say USSS assignments affect the personal lives of agents? Do most of these guys have families?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:31 DU
12:32
JW: 
Any good stories from USSS protecting young adult children or dignitaries, at bars/ clubs, or getting great treatment/access for prime restaurants/events?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:32 JW
12:33
JW: 
Does the person who carries the "football" on presidential detail receive his own protection?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:33 JW
12:33
Marc Ambinder
Being an agent is extremely hard... harder than working for some other federal LE agencies. The travel because of all the protective work is intense, and agents don't tend to settle in a city until they've been at their jobs for a while. This is not a job to take if you don't find it easy to balance work and life. The agency tries to manage this as best as it can, but the extreme demands are part of the job. They try to make sure that agents know what they're in for.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:33 Marc Ambinder
12:35
Marc Ambinder
Some agents gossip about stuff like that (young adults etc.) but most don't and most refuse to say a word about anything bizarre or humorous they see in the presence of a protectee. Maybe they were reticent to talk to me because I'm a journalist, and I know that plenty of agents talked to Ron Kessler about it, but I got the sense that a lot of agents think it's their duty to be silent sentinels of sorts.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:35 Marc Ambinder
12:36
Marc Ambinder
Re: the Football... I know the answer but I think it's probably not the type of thing I should reveal. Suffice it to say, the apparatus of the National Command Authority is well protected and there are contingency plans in place. (I sound like a flack!)
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:36 Marc Ambinder
12:36
[Comment From KlugKlug: ] 
I keep hearing stories about college students, various party volunteers, etc. getting to drive vehicles in the presidential motorcades. Fact or fiction? (BTW, this was a great article. Thanks.)
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:36 Klug
12:37
JW: 
Good answer. Who is Ron Kessler?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:37 JW
12:38
Marc Ambinder
Fact! Obviously, they're not going to drive the counter-assault team car or the presidential limo, but they DO get to drive the staff cars and vehicles carrying journalists and local dignitaries. All this is handled by the White House advance staff working in conjunction with the USSS. And all the drivers, obviously, must pass a NAC check and get wanded / searched for explosives before they start their assignments.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:38 Marc Ambinder
12:39
Marc Ambinder
Ron Kessler wrote a book about the Service. I just tried to find a link on Amazon but couldn't, for some reason.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:39 Marc Ambinder
12:40
JW: 
Rumor that AF1 can fly for about two weeks and has enough food/water supplies on board, and only needs to do mid-air refuel. Truth?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:40 JW
12:41
JW: 
Seems like I have dominated the Q/A, but thanks for the insight and answers. Interesting stuff.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:41 JW
12:41
Marc Ambinder
The same type of detail that I probably shouldn't go into... though I don't think that's plausible.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:41 Marc Ambinder
12:42
Marc Ambinder
My editors noticed that I failed to link to my article itself, so here it is: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/03/inside-the-secret-service/8390/
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:42 Marc Ambinder
12:46
Marc Ambinder
So what's the next agency that I should try to write about? Any ideas?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:46 Marc Ambinder
12:47
JW: 
Something secretive...
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:47 JW
12:48
JW: 
How close do some PPD agents become with POTUS and Family?
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:48 JW
12:48
Twitter
englabenny: 
RT @jeremyscahill: MUST READ: @marcambinder's article "Inside the Secret Service:" http://bit.ly/gs9dMa [via Twitter]
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:48 englabenny
12:49
Marc Ambinder
Very close... but it depends on the president. If you read the recent book about the Kennedy detail, it was clear that the agents were quite close to JFK and his family. Clint Hill developed almost a father-like relationship with his protectee, Jackie Kennedy. Clinton wasn't so close with his detail... Reagan was very close to his, especially after the attempt on his life.
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:49 Marc Ambinder
12:53
Marc Ambinder
Thanks everyone for the chat! Until next time, folks. Here's a link to the article once more: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/03/inside-the-secret-service/8390/
Thursday February 17, 2011 12:53 Marc Ambinder
12:53
 

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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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