Authors: Ronald Kessler
Also by Ronald Kessler
The Terrorist Watch:Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack
Laura Bush:An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady
A Matter of Character:Inside the White House of George W. Bush
The CIA at War:Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror
The Bureau:The Secret History of the FBI
The Season:The Secret Life of Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society
Inside Congress:The Shocking Scandals, Corruption, and Abuse of Power Behind the Scenes on Capitol Hill
The Sins of the Father:Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded
Inside the White House:The Hidden Lives of the Modern Presidents and the Secrets of the World’s Most Powerful Institution
The FBI:Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency
Inside the CIA:Revealing the Secrets of the World’s Most Powerful Spy Agency
Escape from the CIA:How the CIA Won and Lost the Most Important KGB Spy Ever to Defect to the U.S.
The Spy in the Russian Club:How Glenn Souther Stole America’s Nuclear War Plans and Escaped to Moscow
Moscow Station:How the KGB Penetrated the American Embassy
Spy vs. Spy:Stalking Soviet Spies in America
The Richest Man in the World:The Story of Adnan Khashoggi
The Life Insurance Game
For Pam,Greg, and Rachel KesslerContents
15“I Forgot to Duck”
16The Big Show
18A Psychic’s Vision
22Shutting Down Magnetometers
24Living on Borrowed Time
25Turquoise and Twinkle
30Dereliction of Duty
Secret Service Dates
ALL EYES IN THE crowd were on the new president and first lady as they smiled and waved and held hands, celebrating the moment. But the men and women who walked along Pennsylvania Avenue with them never looked at the couple, only into the crowd.
The temperature was twenty-eight degrees, but the Secret Service agents’ suit jackets were open, hands held free in front of the chest, just in case they had to reach for their SIG Sauer P229 pistols. On television as the motorcade proceeded, the world could sometimes catch a glimpse of a man’s silhouette on top of a building, a countersniper poised and watching. But that was just a hint of the massive security precautions that had been planned in secret for months.
The Secret Service scripted where Barack and Michelle Obama could step out of “the Beast,” as the presidential limousine is called. At those points, counterassault teams stood ready, armed with fully automatic Stoner SR-16 rifles and flash bang grenades for diversionary tactics.
If they spotted any hint of a threat, the grim-faced agents never betrayed it. It is the same when they see what goes on behind the scenes. Because Secret Service agents are sworn to secrecy, votersrarely know what their presidents, vice presidents, presidential candidates, and Cabinet officers are really like. If they did, says a former Secret Service agent, “They would scream.”
Pledged to take a bullet for the president, agents are at constant risk. Yet the Secret Service’s own practices magnify the dangers to its agents, the president, the vice president, and others they protect. These lapses could lead to an assassination.1Supervise
EVEN BEFORE HE took the oath of office, Abraham Lincoln was the object of plots to kidnap or kill him. Throughout the Civil War, he received threatening letters. Yet, like most presidents before and after him, Lincoln had little use for personal protection. He resisted the efforts of his friends, the police, and the military to safeguard him. Finally, late in the war, he agreed to allow four Washington police officers to act as his bodyguards.
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, a fanatical Confederate sympathizer, learned that Lincoln would be attending a play at Ford’s Theatre that evening. The president’s bodyguard on duty was Patrolman John F. Parker of the Washington police. Instead of remaining on guard outside the president’s box, Parker wandered off to watch the play, then went to a nearby saloon for a drink. As a result of Parker’s negligence, Lincoln was as unprotected as any private citizen.
Just after tenP.M., Booth made his way to Lincoln’s box, snuck in, and shot him in the back of the head. The president died the next morning.
Despite that lesson, protection of the president remained spotty at best. For a short time after the Civil War, the War Departmentassigned soldiers to protect the White House and its grounds. On special occasions, Washington police officers helped maintain order and prevented crowds from assembling. But the permanent detail of four police officers that was assigned to guard the president during Lincoln’s term was reduced to three. These officers protected only the White House and did not receive any special training.
Thus, President James A. Garfield was unguarded as he walked through a waiting room toward a train in the Baltimore and Potomac Railway station in Washington on the morning of July 2, 1881. Charles J. Guiteau emerged from the crowd and shot the president in the arm and then fatally in the back. Guiteau was said to be bitterly disappointed that Garfield had ignored his pleas to be appointed a consul in Europe.
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried to find the bullet in the president’s back with an induction-balance electrical device he had invented. While the device worked in tests, it failed to find the bullet. All other efforts failed as well. On September 19, 1881, Garfield died of his wounds.
While the assassination shocked the nation, no steps were taken to protect the next president, Chester A. Arthur. The resistance came down to the perennial question of how to reconcile the need to protect the country’s leaders with their need to mingle with citizens and remain connected to the people.
In fact, after Garfield’s assassination, theNew York Tribunewarned against improving security. The paper said that the country did not want the president to become “the slave of his office, the prisoner of forms and restrictions.”
The tension between openness and protection went back to the design of the White House itself. As originally proposed by Pierre L’Enfant and approved in principle by George Washington, the White House was to be a “presidential palace.” As envisioned, it would havebeen five times larger than the structure actually built. But Republican opposition, led by Thomas Jefferson, discredited the Federalist plan as unbefitting a democracy. The critics decried what was known as “royalism”—surrounding the president with courtiers and guards, the trappings of the English monarchy.
To resolve the impasse, Jefferson proposed to President Washington that the executive residence be constructed according to the best plan submitted in a national competition. Washington endorsed the idea and eventually accepted a design by architect James Hoban. Workers laid the cornerstone for the White House on October 13, 1792. When the building received a coat of whitewash in 1797, people began referring to it as the White House.
Given the competing aims of openness and security, it’s not surprising that the Secret Service stumbled into protecting the president as an afterthought. The agency began operating as a division of the Department of the Treasury on July 5, 1865, to track down and arrest counterfeiters. At the time, an estimated one third of the nation’s currency was counterfeit. States issued their own currency printed by sixteen hundred state banks. Nobody knew what their money was supposed to look like.
Ironically, Abraham Lincoln’s last official act was to sign into law the legislation creating the agency. Its first chief was William P. Wood, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, a friend of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and the superintendent of the Old Capitol Prison.
One of the Secret Service’s first targets, William E. Brockway was doing such a good job creating bogus thousand-dollar treasury bonds that the treasury itself redeemed seventy-five of them. Chief Wood personally tracked Brockway to New York, where he was living under a pseudonym. Known as the King of Counterfeiters, he was convicted and sent to jail.
By 1867, the Secret Service had brought counterfeiting largely under control and had won acclaim in the press.
“The professional criminal never willingly falls in the way of the Secret Service,” thePhiladelphia Telegramdeclared. “The chase is as relentless as death, and only death or capture ends it.”
With the agency’s success, Congress gave the Secret Service broader authority to investigate other crimes, including fraud against the government. In 1894, the Secret Service was investigating a plot to assassinate President Grover Cleveland by a group of “western gamblers, anarchists, or cranks” in Colorado. Exceeding its mandate, the agency detailed two men who had been conducting the investigation to protect Cleveland from the suspects. For a time, the two agents rode in a buggy behind his carriage. But after political opponents criticized him for it, Cleveland told the agents he did not want their help.
As the number of threatening letters addressed to the president increased, Cleveland’s wife persuaded him to increase protection at the White House. The number of police assigned there rose from three to twenty-seven. In 1894, the Secret Service began to supplement that protection by providing agents on an informal basis, including when the president traveled.
It did not help the next president, William McKinley. Unlike Lincoln and Garfield, McKinley was being guarded when Leon F. Czolgosz shot him on September 6, 1901. McKinley was at a reception that day in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Long lines of citizens passed between two rows of policemen and soldiers to shake his hand. Two Secret Service agents were within three feet of him when the twenty-eight-year-old self-styled anarchist joined the line and shot the president twice with a pistol concealed in a handkerchief. Bullets slammed into McKinley’s chest and stomach. Eight days later, he died of blood poisoning.
Still, it was not until the next year—1902—that the Secret Service officially assumed responsibility for protecting the president. Even then it lacked statutory authority to do so. While Congress began allocating funds expressly for the purpose in 1906, it did so only annually, as part of the Sundry Civil Expenses Act.
As protective measures increased, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that he considered the Secret Service to be a “very small but very necessary thorn in the flesh. Of course,” he wrote, “they would not be the least use in preventing any assault upon my life. I do not believe there is any danger of such an assault, and if there were, as Lincoln said, ‘Though it would be safer for a president to live in a cage, it would interfere with his business.’”
Unsuccessful assassination attempts were made on President Andrew Jackson on January 30, 1835; President Theodore Roosevelt on October 14, 1912; and Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 15, 1933, before he had been sworn in. Even though Congress kept considering bills to make it a federal crime to assassinate the president, the legislative branch took no action. Members of the public continued to be free to roam the White House during daylight hours. In fact, back when the White House was first opened, a deranged man wandered in and threatened to kill President John Adams. Never calling for help, Adams invited the man into his office and calmed him down.
Finally, at the Secret Service’s insistence, public access to the White House grounds was ended for the first time during World War II. To be let in, visitors had to report to gates around the perimeter. By then, Congress had formally established the White House Police in 1922 to guard the complex and secure the grounds. In 1930, the White House Police became part of the Secret Service. That unit within the Secret Service is now called the Secret Service’s Uniformed Division. As its name implies, the division consists of officers in uniform.
In contrast to the Uniformed Division, Secret Service agents wear suits. They are responsible for the security of the first family and the vice president and his family as opposed to the security of their surroundings. They also are responsible for protecting former presidents, presidential candidates, and visiting heads of state, and for security at special events of national significance such as presidential inaugurations, the Olympics, and presidential nominating conventions.
By the end of World War II, the number of Secret Service agents assigned to protect the president had been increased to thirty-seven. The stepped-up security paid off. At two-twentyP.M.on November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to force their way into Blair House to kill President Harry S. Truman. The would-be assassins, Oscar Collazo, thirty-six, and Griselio Torresola, twenty-five, hoped to draw attention to the cause of separating the island from the United States.
The two men picked up a couple of German pistols and took a train from New York to Washington. According toAmerican Gunfightby Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr., they took a cab to the White House. It turned out that the White House was being renovated, and their target was not staying there. The building was in such poor condition that Margaret Truman’s piano had begun to break through the second floor. From the cab driver, Collazo and Torresola learned that during the renovation, Truman—code-named Supervise—was staying at Blair House across the street. They decided to shoot their way in.
Getting out on Pennsylvania Avenue, Torresola walked toward the west side of Blair House, while Collazo approached from the east. They planned to arrive at the mansion simultaneously with guns blazing, take down the security, and then find the president. As marksmen, Torresola was by far the better shot; Collazo was engaged in on-the-job training. But for the two men, fate would have its own plans.
Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring and White House Police Officer Joseph Davidson were manning the east security booth. In the west security booth was White House Police Officer Leslie Coffelt. White House Police Officer Donald Birdzell was standing on the front steps under the mansion’s canopy his back to the street, when Collazo came up behind him.
Unfamiliar with the automatic pistol he carried, Collazo tried to fire. The gun clicked, but nothing happened. Birdzell turned at the sound, to see the gunman struggling. Then the pistol cracked. A round tore into Birdzell’s right knee.
Leaving the east security booth, Agent Boring and Officer Davidson drew their pistols and opened fire on Collazo. Hearing the shots, Secret Service Agent Stewart Stout, who was inside Blair House, retrieved a Thompson submachine gun from a gun cabinet. He had been standing post in a hallway, guarding the stairs and elevator leading to the second floor, where Truman was napping in his underwear. Bess Truman—code-named Sunnyside—as usual was out of town. She hated Washington.
Standing in front of the west security booth, Torresola whipped out his Luger and pumped rounds into Officer Coffelt’s abdomen. Coffelt slumped to the floor. Torresola came around from the guardhouse and encountered another target—White House Police Officer Joseph Downs, who was in civilian clothes. Torresola hit him three times—in the hip, the shoulder, and the left side of his neck.
Then Torresola jumped a hedge and headed toward the entrance where wounded officer Birdzell was aiming his third or fourth shot at Collazo. Spotting Torresola, Birdzell squeezed off a round at him and missed. Torresola fired back, and the shot tore into the officer’s other knee.
In a last heroic act, Coffelt leaped to his feet and propped himself against his security booth. He pointed his revolver at Torresola’s headand fired. The bullet ripped through Torresola’s ear. The would-be assassin pitched forward, dead on the street.
The other officers and agents blasted away at Collazo. He finally crumpled up as a shot slammed into his chest. Meanwhile, Secret Service Agent Vincent Mroz fired at him from a second-floor window.
The biggest gunfight in Secret Service history was over in forty seconds. A total of twenty-seven shots had been fired.
Having killed Torresola, officer Coffelt died in surgery less than four hours later. He earned a place on the Secret Service’s honor roll of personnel killed in the line of duty. Collazo and two White House policemen recovered from their wounds. Truman was unharmed. If the assassins had made it inside, Stout and other agents would have mowed them down.
Looking back, agent Floyd Boring recalled, “It was a beautiful day, about eighty degrees outside.” He remembered teasing Coffelt. “I was kidding him about getting a new set of glasses. I wanted to find out if he had gotten the glasses to look at the girls.”
When the shooting stopped, Boring went up to see Truman. As Boring recalled it, Truman said, “What the hell is going on down there?”
The next morning, “Truman wanted to go for a walk,” says Charles “Chuck” Taylor, an agent on his detail. “We said we thought it was not a good idea. The group might still be in the area.”
The following year, Congress finally passed legislation to permanently authorize the Secret Service to protect the president, his immediate family, the president-elect, and the vice president if he requested it.
“Well, it is wonderful to know that the work of protecting me has at last become legal,” Truman joked as he signed the bill on July 16, 1951.
But it would remain up to the president how much protection he would receive. By their very nature, presidents want more exposure,while Secret Service agents want more security. As President Kennedy’s aide Kenneth O’Donnell said, “The president’s views of his responsibilities as president of the United States were that he meet the people, that he go out to their homes and see them, and allow them to see him, and discuss, if possible, the views of the world as he sees it, the problems of the country as he sees them.”
Yet there was a fine line between those worthwhile goals and recklessness.2Lancer
AT SEVEN AGENTS per shift, John F. Kennedy’s Secret Service detail consisted of about twenty-four agents, including supervisors. Before being hired, they were taken to a range for target practice with a pistol and handed a manual. There was no other initial training.
“On my second day on the job as an agent, they put me in the rear seat of the president’s limousine,” says former agent Larry D. Newman. “A supervisor on the detail placed a Thompson submachine gun on my lap. I had never seen a Thompson, much less used one.”
Over the next several years, Newman received a total of ten weeks of training, consisting of four weeks on law enforcement procedures at the Treasury Department and six weeks of Secret Service training. But he never could figure out why locked boxes of shotguns were kept in the White House for the Secret Service, yet only the White House police had the keys.
Newman was told to take a bullet for the president and keep his mouth shut about the president’s personal life. Human surveillance cameras, Secret Service agents observe everything that goes on behind the scenes. To this day, Secret Service directors periodically remindagents that they must not reveal to anyone—let alone the press—what they see behind the scenes. Usually the directors cite a phrase about trust from the commission book that agents carry with their credentials. The book says the agent is a “duly commissioned special agent of the United States Secret Service, authorized to carry firearms, execute warrants, make arrests for offenses against the United States, provide protection to the president and others eligible by law, perform other such duties as are authorized by law, and is commended as being worthy of trust and confidence.”
Newman and other agents assigned to guard Kennedy soon learned that he led a double life. He was the charismatic leader of the free world. But in his other life, he was the cheating, reckless husband whose aides snuck women into the White House to appease his sexual appetite.
Former agent Robert Lutz remembers a gorgeous Swedish Pan Am flight attendant who was on the press plane that was following Kennedy on Air Force One. She seemed to take a liking to Lutz, and he planned to invite her out to dinner. The detail leader noticed that they were getting chummy and told the agent to stay away.
“She’s part of the president’s private stock,” he warned Lutz.
Besides one-night stands, Kennedy had several consorts within the White House. One was Pamela Turnure, who had been his secretary when he was a senator, then Jackie’s press secretary in the White House. Two others, Priscilla Wear and Jill Cowen, were secretaries who were known as Fiddle and Faddle, respectively. Wear already had the nickname Fiddle when she joined the White House staff, so Kennedy aides applied the name Faddle to Cowen.
“Neither did much work,” says former agent Larry Newman, who was on the Kennedy detail.
They would have threesomes with Kennedy.
“When Jackie was away, Pam Turnure would see JFK at night at the residence,” says former Secret Service agent Chuck Taylor.“Fiddle and Faddle were well-endowed and would swim with JFK in the pool. They wore only white T-shirts that came to their waists. You could see their nipples. We had radio contact with Jackie’s detail in case she came back.”
One afternoon, Kennedy was cavorting in the pool with young women when Secret Service agents on Jackie’s detail radioed that she was returning to the White House unexpectedly.
“Jackie was expected back in ten minutes, and JFK came charging out of the pool,” says agent Anthony Sherman, who was on his detail at the time. “He had a bathing suit on and a Bloody Mary in his hand.”
Kennedy looked around and gave the drink to Sherman.
“Enjoy it; it’s quite good,” the president said.
According to Secret Service agents, Kennedy had sex with Marilyn Monroe at New York hotels and in a loft above the Justice Department office of then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother. Between the fifth and sixth floors, the loft contains a double bed that is used when the attorney general needs to stay overnight to handle crises. Its proximity to a private elevator made it easy for Kennedy and Monroe to enter from the Justice Department basement without being noticed.
“He [Kennedy] had liaisons with Marilyn Monroe there,” a Secret Service agent says. “The Secret Service knew about it.”
If Kennedy was reckless in his personal life, he was also rash when it came to security. Before his trip to Dallas on November 22, 1963, he received warnings about possible violence there. United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson called Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and urged him to tell the president not to go to Dallas. He said he had just given a speech in Dallas and had been confronted by demonstrators who’d cursed at him and spat on him. Stevenson said Senator J. William Fulbright also warned Kennedy.
“Dallas is a very dangerous place,” Fulbright told him. “I wouldn’t go there. Don’t you go.”
Nonetheless, Kennedy aide O’Donnell told the Secret Service that unless it was raining, the president wanted to ride in an open convertible, according to the Warren Commission Report, which was largely based on the FBI’s investigation. If it had rained, Kennedy would have used a plastic top that was not bulletproof. Kennedy—code-named Lancer—himself told agents he did not want them to ride on the small running boards at the rear of the car.
Shortly after eleven-fiftyA.M., Kennedy’s limousine proceeded from Love Field toward a scheduled luncheon at the Trade Mart. The car made a gradual descent on Elm Street toward a railroad overpass before reaching the Stemmons Freeway at Dealey Plaza. The Texas School Book Depository was on Kennedy’s right.
Only two Secret Service agents had gone ahead to Dallas to make advance preparations for the trip. As is true today, the agency relied a great deal on local police and local offices of other federal agencies. At the time, the advance protocol did not include an inspection of buildings along the motorcade route, which was publicized in advance.
At twelve-thirtyP.M., the president’s limousine was traveling at about eleven miles per hour. Shots resounded in rapid succession from the Texas School Book Depository. A bullet entered the base of the back of the president’s neck. Another bullet then struck him in the back of the head, causing a massive, fatal wound. He fell to the left onto his wife Jackie’s lap.
Agent William R. Greer was driving the limo, and Agent Roy H. Kellerman was sitting to his right. But neither could immediately leap to Kennedy’s assistance, as would have been the case if agents had been allowed to ride at the rear of the car. Making things more difficult, the president’s limousine had a second row of seats between thefront and rear seats, where Kennedy sat. The “kill shot” to the president’s head came 4.9 seconds after the first shot that hit him.
Greer had no special training in evasive driving. After the first shot, he did not immediately accelerate or take evasive action. In fact, he momentarily slowed the car and waited for a command from Agent Kellerman.
“Let’s get out of here! We are hit,” Kellerman yelled.
Agent Clinton J. Hill, riding on the left running board of the follow-up car, raced toward Kennedy’s limousine. He pulled himself onto the back of the car as it gained speed. He pushed Jackie—code-named Lace—back into the rear seat as he shielded both her and the president.
“If agents had been allowed on the rear running boards, they would have pushed the president down and jumped on him to protect him before the fatal shot,” Chuck Taylor, who was an agent on the Kennedy detail, tells me.
Confirming that, Secret Service Director Lewis Merletti later said, “An analysis of the ensuing assassination—including the trajectory of the bullets which struck the president—indicates that it might have been thwarted had agents been stationed on the car’s running boards.”
Taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital four miles away, Kennedy was pronounced dead at oneP.M.Agents throughout the Secret Service were devastated.
Once again, an assassin had changed the course of history. For the Secret Service, the question was how well it would learn lessons from the assassination in order to prevent another one.3Volunteer
IF SECRET SERVICE agents found Kennedy to be reckless, Lyndon B. Johnson was uncouth, nasty, and often drunk. Agent Taylor recalls driving Johnson, who was then vice president, with another agent from the U.S. Capitol to the White House for a fourP.M.appointment with Kennedy. Johnson—code-named Volunteer—was not ready to leave until three forty-fiveP.M.Because of traffic along Pennsylvania Avenue, they were going to be late.
“Johnson said to jump the curb and drive on the sidewalk,” Taylor says. “There were people on the sidewalk getting out of work. I told him, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I told you to jump the curb.’ He took a newspaper and hit the other agent, who was driving, on the head. He said, ‘You’re both fired.’”
When they arrived at the White House, Taylor told Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, “I’ve been fired.”
Lincoln shook her head in exasperation. Taylor was not fired.
After becoming president on November 22, 1963, Johnson had affairs with several of his young, fetching secretaries. When his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, was away, the Secret Service would take him to thehome of one secretary. He would insist that the agents depart while he spent time with her.
“We took him to the house, and then he dismissed us,” Taylor says.
At one point, Lady Bird Johnson—code-named Victoria—caught him having sex on a sofa in the Oval Office with one of his secretaries. Johnson became furious at the Secret Service for not warning him.
“He said, ‘You should have done something,’” recalls a supervisory Secret Service agent.
After the incident, which occurred just months after he took office, Johnson ordered the Secret Service to install a buzzer system so that agents stationed in the residence part of the White House could warn him when his wife was approaching.
“The alarm system was put in because Lady Bird had caught him screwing a secretary in the Oval Office,” a former Secret Service agent says. “He got so goddamned mad. A buzzer was put in from the quarters upstairs at the elevator to the Oval Office. If we saw Lady Bird heading for the elevator or stairs, we were to ring the bell.”
Johnson did not limit himself to the women he hired for his personal staff. He had “a stable” of women with whom he had sex, including some who stayed at the ranch when Lady Bird was home, another former agent says.
“He and Lady Bird would be in their bedroom, and he’d get up in the middle of the night and go to the other room,” the former agent says. “Lady Bird knew what he was doing. One woman was a well-endowed blonde. Another was the wife of a friend of his. He had permission from her husband to have sex with her. It was amazing.”
“We had gals on my staff he screwed,” says Bill Gulley who headed Johnson’s military office. “One … showed up [for work] when she wanted to show up. I couldn’t tell her to do anything.”
Johnson “would screw anything that would crawl, basically,” says William F. Cuff, Gulley’s executive assistant in the military office. “Hewas a horny old man. But he had a totally loyal White House staff. There was one common enemy everyone in the White House had, and that was him [Johnson]. Therefore, everyone got along fine because they were afraid of him.”
Asked in a 1987 TV interview about her husband’s rumored infidelities, Lady Bird Johnson said, “You have to understand, my husband loved people. All people. And half the people in the world were women.”
Air Force One crew members say Johnson often closed the door to his stateroom and spent hours alone locked up with pretty secretaries, even when his wife was on board.
“Johnson would come on the plane [Air Force One], and the minute he got out of sight of the crowds, he would stand in the doorway and grin from ear to ear, and say, ‘You dumb sons of bitches. I piss on all of you,’” recalls Robert M. MacMillan, an Air Force One steward. “Then he stepped out of sight and began taking off his clothes. By the time he was in the stateroom, he was down to his shorts and socks. It was not uncommon for him to peel off his shorts, regardless of who was in the stateroom.”
Johnson did not care if women were around.
“He was totally naked with his daughters, Lady Bird, and female secretaries,” MacMillan says. “He was quite well endowed in his testicles. So everyone started calling him bull nuts. He found out about it. He was really upset.”
Johnson was often inebriated. He kept bottles of whiskey in his car at the ranch. One evening when Johnson was president, he came back to the White House drunk, screaming that the lights were on, wasting electricity.
“He is the only person [president] I have seen who was drunk,” says Frederick H. Walzel, a former chief of the White House branch of the Secret Service Uniformed Division.
“He had episodes of getting drunk,” George Reedy, his press secretary, told me. “There were times where he would drink day after day. You would think, ‘This guy is an alcoholic’ Then all of a sudden, it would stop. We could always see the signs when he called for a Scotch and a soda, and he would belt it down and call for another one, instead of sipping it.”
Johnson’s drinking only fueled his outbursts.
“We were serving roast beef one time,” says MacMillan. “He [Johnson] came back in the cabin. Jack Valenti [Johnson’s aide] was sitting there. He had just gotten his dinner tray. On it was a beautiful slice of rare roast beef.”
Johnson grabbed the tray and said, “You dumb son of a bitch. You are eating raw meat.”
Johnson then brought the food back to the galley and said, “You two sons of bitches, look at this. This is raw. You gotta cook the meat on my airplane. Don’t you serve my people raw meat. Goddamn, if you two boys serve raw meat on my airplane again, you’ll both end up in Vietnam.”
Johnson threw the tray upside down onto the floor and stormed off.
A few minutes later, Valenti went back to the galley.
“Sorry about your dinner, Mr. Valenti,” MacMillan said.
“Do we have any more rare?” Valenti asked.
“We have plenty of rare,” MacMillan said.
“Well, he won’t be back. He’s done his thing. Don’t serve me any fully cooked meat.”
Gerald F. Pisha, another Air Force One steward, says that on one occasion when Johnson didn’t like the way a steward had mixed a drink for him, he threw it onto the floor.
“Get somebody who knows how to make a drink for me,” Johnson said.
At his ranch in Texas, Johnson was even more raunchy than at theWhite House. At a press conference at his ranch, Johnson “whips his thing out and takes a leak, facing them [the reporters] sideways,” says D. Patrick O’Donnell, an Air Force One flight engineer. “You could see the stream. It was embarrassing. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a man who is the president of the U.S., and he is taking a whiz out on the front lawn in front of a bunch of people.”
A Secret Service agent posted to his ranch recalls that Johnson would take celebrities on a tour of the ranch in a car that—unknown to them—was amphibious. As he approached the Pedernales River, he would drive the vehicle into the river, terrifying his guests.
At six one morning, the agent was posted outside a door that led directly to Johnson’s bedroom.
“I’m looking at the sun coming up and listening to the birds, and I hear this noise,” the former agent says. “I turn around, and here’s the most powerful man in the world taking a leak off the back porch. And I remembered a saying down in Texas that I heard when I first got on that detail: When LBJ goes to the ranch, the bulls hang their heads in shame. This guy had a tool you wouldn’t believe.”
The former agent was present when LBJ held a press conference with White House pool reporters as he sat on a toilet, moving his bowels. He had discarded his girdle, which he wore to hide his girth.
“I just couldn’t believe that this stuff was going on,” the former agent says. “But this was an everyday thing to the guys that were with him all the time.”
After Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, an agent was told to wake Johnson in the morning so he could meet with his press secretary.
“I tapped on his bedroom door,” the former agent says. “Lady Bird said to come in.”
“He’s in the bathroom,” she said.
“I tapped on the bathroom door,” the former agent says. “Johnson was sitting on the can. Toilet paper was everywhere. It was bizarre.”
“If Johnson weren’t president, he’d be in an insane asylum,” former agent Richard Roth says he thought to himself when he was occasionally on Johnson’s detail.
Johnson kept dozens of peacocks at his ranch.
“One night at midnight, one of these peacocks was walking around,” says David Curtis, who was temporarily assigned to Johnson’s Secret Service detail at his ranch. “It was a moonlit night, and an agent picked up a rock just intending to scare the darn thing. He lobbed it over in the direction of the peacock and hit him right in the head. The peacock went down like a ton of bricks.”
After an agent relieved him at his post, the agent told other agents, “Oh, my God, I’ve killed a peacock. What do you think we should do?”
“The consensus was, there were so damn many of them around, no one would miss one,” Curtis says. “Just drag him down to the Pedernales River and throw him in. So that’s what they did.”
At the break of dawn, the day shift relieved the midnight people. One of the day shift agents called the command post on the radio.
“My God, you’ve got to get out here!” the agent said. “Looks like a drunken peacock. He’s all wet. He’s staggering from one foot to the other, feathers askew. He’s walking back up toward the house.”
Somehow, the peacock had recovered and managed to drag itself out of the river. Johnson never found out about the incident.
“Johnson was the grand thief,” Gulley his White House military aide, says. “He knew where the money was. He had us set up a fund code-named Green Ball. It was a Defense Department fund supposedly to assist the Secret Service to purchase weapons. They used it for whatever Johnson wanted to use it for. Fancy hunting guns were bought. Johnson and his friends kept them.”
All the while, Johnson fostered the image of a penny-pincher who was saving taxpayer money. As part of an economy drive, Johnsonannounced he had ordered the lights turned off inside the ladies’ room in the press area.
When Johnson left office, Gulley says he arranged for at least ten flights to fly government property to Johnson’s ranch. O’Donnell, the Air Force One flight engineer, says he flew three of the missions, shipping what he understood were White House items back to the Johnson ranch.
“We flew White House furniture back,” O’Donnell says. “I was on some of the missions. The flights back were at seven-fifty or eight-fiftyP.M.and early in the morning. … I think he even took the electric bed out of Walter Reed army hospital. That was a disgrace.”
Johnson’s greatest achievement was overcoming Southern resistance to passage of civil rights legislation, yet in private, he regularly referred to blacks as “niggers.”
After Johnson died, Secret Service agents guarding Lady Bird were amazed to find that even though their home was crammed with photos of Johnson with famous people, not one photo pictured him with JFK.4Threats
EVERY DAY, THE Secret Service receives an average of ten threats against any of its protectees, usually the president. Ironically, until after the Kennedy assassination, murdering the president was not a federal crime. Yet in 1917, Congress made “knowingly and willfully” threatening the president—as opposed to killing him—a federal violation. As later amended, the law carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or both. The same penalty applies to threatening the president-elect, the vice president, the vice-president-elect, or any officer next in the line of succession.
To ensure that an attack on a protectee—called an AOP—does not take place, the Secret Service uses a range of secret techniques, tools, strategies, and procedures. One of those tools is the extensive files the Secret Service Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division keeps on people who are potential threats to the president.
To most potential assassins, killing the president would be like hitting the jackpot.
“We want to know about those individuals,” a former agent who worked intelligence says. “Sooner or later, they will direct theirattention to the president if they can’t get satisfaction with a senator or governor.”
The Secret Service may detect threats anywhere, but those directed at the White House come in by email, regular mail, and telephone. Upon hearing a threatening call, White House operators are instructed to patch in a Secret Service agent at headquarters. Built in 1997, Secret Service headquarters is an anonymous nine-story tan brick building on H Street at Ninth Street NW in Washington. For security reasons, there are no trash cans in front of the building. An all-seeing security camera is attached below the overhang of the entrance.
Just inside is a single metal detector. On the wall in big silver letters are the words “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.” No mention of the Secret Service, not even on the visitor’s badge that the security officer issues. It is just when you get into the inner sanctum that you see a wall announcing the United States Secret Service Memorial Building, a reference to the thirty-five agents, officers, and other personnel who have died in the line of duty.
Inside, around a central atrium, catwalks link the rows of offices behind glass walls. For agents too pressed to wait for an elevator, open staircases within the atrium offer vertiginous looks down during the climb to another floor. The hallways are lined with candid photos of presidents being protected. A display commemorates those who have died in the line of duty, with spaces left for more.
An exhibit hall features first chief William P. Wood’s 1865 letter of appointment from the solicitor of the treasury, a copy of Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun, and examples of counterfeit bills alongside real bills.
The nerve center of the Secret Service is on the ninth floor. Here, in the Joint Operations Center, a handful of agents monitor the movements of protectees, whose code names and locations are displayed on light panels on the walls. When a protectee arrives at a new location,the agent who is assigned to intelligence and is traveling with him informs the Joint Operations Center. When protectees make unexpected trips, agents refer to the new assignment as a pop-up. Next to the Joint Ops Center, as agents refer to it, the Director’s Crisis Center is used to direct operations in emergencies such as the 9/11 attack.
When a suspicious call comes in to the White House and an agent at headquarters listens in, the agent may pretend to be another operator helping out.
“He is waiting for the magic word [that signifies a threat to the president],” a Secret Service agent explains. “He is tracing it.”
The Forensic Services Division matches a recording of the call with voices in a database of other threat calls. No threat is ignored. If it can locate the individual, the Secret Service interviews him and evaluates how serious a threat he may be. Agents try to differentiate between real threats and speech that is a legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.
“If you don’t like the policies of the president, you can say it. That’s your right,” a Secret Service agent assigned to the vice president’s detail says. “We’re looking for those that cross the line and are threatening: ‘I’m going to get you. I’m going to kill you. You deserve to die. I know who can help kill you.’ Then his name is entered into the computer system.”
Arrests for such threats are routine. For example, the Secret Service arrested Barry Clinton Eckstrom, fifty-one, who lives in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, after a Secret Service agent, alerted that the man was sending threatening emails, saw him type the following into an email he was sending from a Pittsburgh area public library: “I hate and despise the scum President Bush! I am going to kill him in June on his father’s birthday.” Eckstrom was sentenced to two years in prison and two years of supervised release.
If there is a problem at the White House, the Joint Ops Center canview the scene by remotely controlling surveillance cameras located outside and inside the complex. Any threatening letter or phone call to the White House is referred to the Secret Service. Most threats are in the form of letters addressed to the president, rather than emails or calls. Potential assassins get a great sense of satisfaction by mailing a letter. They think that if they mail it, the president will personally read it.
If a letter is anonymous, the Secret Service’s Forensic Services Division checks for fingerprints and analyzes the handwriting and the ink, matching it against the ninety-five hundred samples of ink in what is called the International Ink Library. To make the job easier, most ink manufacturers now add tags so the Secret Service can trace the ink. The characteristics of each specimen are in a digital database. Technicians try to match the ink with other threatening letters in an effort to trace its origin. They may scan the letter for DNA.
The Secret Service’s Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division categorizes individuals according to how serious a threat they may pose.
“There’s a formula that we go by,” says an agent. “It’s based on whether this person had prior military training, firearms training; a prior history of mental illness; and how effective he would be in carrying out a plan. You have to judge these things based on your interview with the subject, and then evaluate the seriousness of the threat.”
Class III threats are the most serious. Close to a hundred people are on the list. These individuals are constantly checked on. Courts have given the Secret Service wide latitude in dealing with immediate threats to the president.
“We will interview serious threats every three months and interview neighbors,” an agent says. “If we feel he is really dangerous, we monitor his movements almost on a daily basis. We monitor the mail. If he is in an institution, we put in stops so we will be notified if he is released.” If an individual is in an institution and has a home visit, “Weare notified,” the agent says. “I guarantee there will be a car in his neighborhood to make sure he shows up at his house.”
“If a call comes here, if you get a piece of correspondence, any form of communication, even a veiled threat, we run everything to the ground until we are certain that we either have to discontinue the investigation or we have to keep monitoring a subject for a prolonged period of time,” says Paula Reid, the special agent in charge of the Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division.
If the president is traveling to a city where a Class III threat not confined to an institution lives, the Secret Service will show up at his door at some point before the visit. Intelligence advance agents will ask if the individual plans to go out and, if so, his destination. They will then conduct surveillance of the house and follow him if he leaves.
Even if a Class III threat is locked up, an intelligence advance agent will visit him. Nothing is left to chance.
“If they aren’t locked up, we go out and sit on them,” former agent William Albracht says. “You usually have a rapport with these guys because you’re interviewing them every quarter just to see how they’re doing, what they’re doing, if they are staying on their meds, or whatever. We knock on their door. We say, ‘How’re you doing, Freddy? President’s coming to town; what are your plans?’ What we always want to hear is, ‘I’m going to stay away’”
“Well, guess what,” an agent will say. “We’re going to be sitting on you, so keep that in mind. Don’t even think about going to the event that the president will be at, because we’re going to be on you like a hip pocket. Where you go, we go. We’re going to be in constant contact with you and know where you are the entire time. Just be advised.”
John W. Hinckley Jr., is still considered a Class III threat. In March 1981, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shootings of President Reagan, Reagan press secretary James Brady, Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy, and D.C. police officerThomas Delahanty. Since then, he has been confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. But Hinckley is periodically allowed to leave the psychiatric hospital to visit his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia. If he visits Washington, his family notifies the Secret Service, and agents may conduct surveillance of him.
In contrast to a Class III threat, a Class II individual has made a threat but does not appear to have the ability to carry it out.
“He may be missing an element, like a guy who honestly thinks he can kill a president and has made the threat, but he’s a quadriplegic or can’t formulate a plan well enough to carry it out,” says an agent.
Class II threats usually include people who are confined to a prison or mental hospital. According to a virulent rumor in state prisons, if a prisoner threatens the president and is convicted of the federal crime, he will be moved to a federal prison, where conditions are generally more favorable than in state prisons. For that reason, the Secret Service often encounters threats from prisoners. For example, in November 2008, Gordon L. Chadwick, age twenty-seven, threatened to kill President George W. Bush while serving a four-year state prison term in Houston for threatening a jail official. As happened in Chadwick’s case, a federal prison term for threatening the president is tacked on to the state prison term.
After another state prisoner wrote a threatening letter to Bush, an agent arranged to meet with him. After driving three hours to the prison, the agent asked him if he knew why the agent was there.
“Yep. When do I go to federal prison?” the man said.
The prisoner added that he hoped to “see the country” and, since he was serving a life term, this would be his best opportunity. When the agent explained that he would be serving his state term first, the man said he had heard that threatening the president was the way to be transferred to a federal prison.
“I could have strangled him,” the agent says.
A Class I individual—the least serious threat—may have blurted out at a bar that he wants to kill the president.
“You interview him, and he has absolutely no intention of carrying this threat out,” an agent says. “Agents will assess him and conclude, ‘Yeah, he said something stupid; yeah, he committed a federal crime. But we’re not going to charge him or pursue that guy’ You just have to use your discretion and your best judgment.”
In most cases, a visit from Secret Service agents is enough to make anyone think twice about carrying out a plot. When Pope John Paul II visited Saint Louis in January 1999, the Secret Service, which was protecting him, received a report about a man seen driving a camper in the city. On the sides of the camper were inscriptions such as “The Pope Should Die” and “The Pope Is the Devil.”
Through the reported license plate number, the Secret Service tracked the man to an address, which turned out to be his mother’s home not far from Saint Louis. When interviewed by Secret Service agents, the man’s mother said her son was driving to the mountains in western Montana near Kalispell to see his brother.
Norm Jarvis, the resident agent in charge, drove to the Kalispell area where the brother was supposed to be living. The forested area is vast. Like many who live in the area, the brother did not have an address. Jarvis hoped local law enforcement would know where he could start looking.
“I was driving down the road, and lo and behold, coming the other way down the street, is this camper,” Jarvis says. “The Pope Should Die” and “The Pope Is the Devil” were written on the sides of the vehicle. The man driving the camper fit the description of the suspect. Jarvis could not believe his luck.
“I spun my car around and turned on my lights and siren,” Jarvis says. “I got up alongside him and waved him over.”
With the man’s wife sitting beside him, Jarvis interviewed theman, who said he had been in mental institutions and was off his medication. The man had no firearms, and Jarvis decided he was not capable of harming the Pope. Thus, he was a Class II threat. Jarvis took his fingerprints and photographed him. He warned him to stay away from Saint Louis during the Pope’s visit, and he suggested the man get some help.
Jarvis called headquarters to report his contact with the suspect and the results of his initial findings. Within a few days, he finished writing a report and called the duty desk to say he was going to be sending it.
“They told me the guy had killed himself with his brother’s pistol,” Jarvis says. “His brother reported that he was so shook up after talking to me that he decided to end his life. He felt that he couldn’t escape the devil; the devil was going to find him. And then he shot himself.”5Searchlight
IF LYNDON JOHNSON was out of control, the Secret Service found Richard Nixon and his family to be the strangest protectees. Like Johnson, Nixon—code-named Searchlight—did not sleep in the same bedroom with his wife. But unlike Johnson, who consulted Lady Bird on issues he faced, Nixon seemed to have no relationship with his wife, Pat.
“He [Nixon] never held hands with his wife,” a Secret Service agent says.
An agent remembers accompanying Nixon, Pat, and their two daughters during a nine-hole golf game near their home at San Clemente, California. During the hour and a half, “He never said a word,” the former agent says. “Nixon could not make conversation unless it was to discuss an issue…. Nixon was always calculating, seeing what effect it would have.”
Unknown to the public, Pat Nixon—code-named Starlight—was an alcoholic who tippled martinis. By the time Nixon left the White House to live at San Clemente, Pat “was in a pretty good stupor much of the time,” an agent on Nixon’s detail says. “She had trouble remembering things.”
“One day out in San Clemente when I was out there, a friend of mine was on post, and he hears this rustling in the bushes,” says another agent who was on Nixon’s detail. “You had a lot of immigrants coming up on the beach, trying to get to the promised land. You never knew if anybody’s going to be coming around the compound.”
At that point, the other agent “cranks one in the shotgun. He goes over to where the rustling is, and it’s Pat,” the former agent says. “She’s on her hands and knees. She’s trying to find the house.”
Pat, he says, “had a tough life. Nixon would hardly talk. The only time he enjoyed himself was when he was with his friends Bebe Rebozo and Bob Abplanalp, when they would drink together.”
Nixon often spent time with Abplanalp on his friend’s island, Grand Cay in the Bahamas.
“Just to give you an idea of his athletic prowess, or lack of it, he loved to fish,” a former agent says. “He’d be on the back of Abplanalp’s fifty-five-foot yacht, and he would sit in this swivel seat with his fishing pole. Abplanalp’s staff would hook Nixon’s hook and throw the hook out. And Nixon would be just sitting there, with both hands on the pole, and he’d catch something, and the staff would reel it in for him, take the fish off, put it in the bucket. Nixon wouldn’t do anything but watch.”
During Watergate, “Nixon was very depressed,” says another former agent. “He wasn’t functioning as president any longer. [Bob] Haldeman [Nixon’s chief of staff] ran the country.”
Milton Pitts, who ran several barbershops in Washington, would go to a tiny barbershop in the basement of the West Wing to cut Nixon’s hair.
“Nixon talked very little,” Pitts told me. “He wanted to know what the public was saying. We had a TV there. But he never watched TV. All the other presidents did.”
During Watergate, Nixon would ask Pitts, “Well, what are they saying about us today?”
Pitts would say he hadn’t heard much news that day.
“I didn’t want to get into what people were saying,” Pitts said. “I’m not going to give him anything unpleasant. He was my boss.”
One afternoon, Alexander Butterfield, who would later reveal the existence of the Nixon tapes, came in for a haircut just before Nixon did. Motioning to the television set, Butterfield said to Pitts, “Leave that on. I want him [Nixon] to see what they are doing to us.”
But as soon as Nixon walked into the barbershop, “He pushed the button, and the TV went off,” Pitts says. “He said, ‘Well, what are they saying about us today?’ I said, ‘Mr. President, I haven’t heard much news today, sir.’”
As the Watergate scandal progressed, “Nixon got very paranoid,” a Secret Service agent says. “He didn’t know what to believe or whom to trust. He did think people were lying to him. He thought at the end everyone was lying.”
While Nixon rarely drank before the Watergate scandal, he began drinking more heavily as the pressure took its toll. He would down a martini or a manhattan.
“All he could handle was one or two,” a Secret Service agent says. “He wouldn’t be flying high, but you could tell he wasn’t in total control of himself. He would loosen up, start talking more, and smile. It was completely out of character. But he had two, and that was that. He had them every other night. But always at the end of business and in the residence. You never saw him drunk in public.”
In contrast to the blustering in his taped conversations, Nixon in private seemed passive and often out of it, although he did have a sense of humor. After spending a weekend at Camp David, Nixon stepped out of his cabin with Pat to get into a Secret Service limousine that would take them to Marine One, the president’s helicopter.
“Secret Service agents were at the ready to move,” says one of Nixon’s agents. “The agent who was driving was checking everythingout, making sure the heater was properly adjusted. Nixon paused to talk to Pat. The driver accidentally honked his horn, and Nixon, thinking he was being impatient, said, ‘I’ll be right there.’”
At his San Clemente home, Nixon was watching television one afternoon while feeding dog biscuits to one of his dogs.
“Nixon took a dog biscuit and was looking at it and then takes a bite out of it,” says Richard Repasky who was on his detail.
Nixon would walk on the beach wearing a suit—all his suits were navy blue—and dress shoes. Even in summer, he would insist on having a fire burning in the fireplace. One evening, Nixon built a fire in the fireplace at San Clemente and forgot to open the flue damper.
“The smoke backed up in the house, and two agents came running,” says a former agent who was on the Nixon detail.
“Can you find him?” one of the agents asked the other.
“No, I can’t find the son of a bitch,” the other agent said.
From the bedroom, a voice piped up.
“Son of a bitch is here trying to find a matching pair of socks,” Nixon said, poking fun at himself.
One agent will never forget a reunion for Vietnam prisoners of war held outside Nixon’s San Clemente home.
“This POW did a series of paintings of Hanoi camp scenes,” the former agent says. “He was quite good. He presented Nixon with a big painting of POWs. Later that evening, after everyone had left, Nixon was going back to his home. It was a warm night. His assistant turned to Nixon and said, ‘What do you want me to do with the picture? Should I bring it in the house?’”
“Put that goddamned thing in the garage,” Nixon said. “I don’t want to see that.”
The former agent says he shook his head and thought, “You smiled and shook hands with these guys, and you couldn’t care less. It was all show.”
“Monday through Friday, Nixon would leave his home at twelve-fifty-fiveP.M.to play golf,” Dale Wunderlich, a former agent on his detail, says. “He would insist on golfing even in pouring rain.”
Occasionally, Nixon’s son-in-law David Eisenhower, grandson of former president Dwight Eisenhower, went with him. Agents considered the younger Eisenhower the most clueless person they had ever protected. One day, the Nixons gave him a barbecue grill as a Christmas present. With the Nixons inside his house, Eisenhower tried to start the grill to char some steaks. After a short time, he told Wunderlich it would not light.
“He had poured most of a bag of briquets into the pit of the grill and lit matches on top of them, but he had not used fire starter,” Wunderlich says.
“Do you know anything about garage door openers?” Eisenhower asked another Secret Service agent. “I need a little help. I’ve had it two years, and I don’t get a light. Shouldn’t the light come on?”
“Maybe the lightbulb is burnt out,” the agent said.
“Really?” David said.
The agent looked up. There was no bulb in the socket.
“We did a loose surveillance, or tail, on David Eisenhower when there were a lot of threats on the president, and he was going to George Washington University Law School in Washington,” a former agent says. “He was in a red Pinto. He comes out of classes and goes to a Safeway in Georgetown. He parks and buys some groceries. A woman parks in a red Pinto nearby. He comes out in forty-five minutes and puts the groceries in the other Pinto. He spent a minute and a half to two minutes trying to start it. Meanwhile, she comes out, screams, and says, ‘What are you doing in my car?’”
“This is my car,” he insisted. “I just can’t get it started right now.”
The woman threatened to call the police. He finally got out, and she drove off.
“He was still dumbfounded,” the former agent says. “He looked at us. We pointed at his car. He got in and drove off like nothing had happened.”
Subsequently, Eisenhower bought a new Oldsmobile and planned to drive it from California to Pennsylvania to see his grandmother Mamie Eisenhower, who was code-named Springtime. In Phoenix, the car gave out. Eisenhower called a local dealership, which said it would fix the car the next morning. After staying overnight in a motel, Eisenhower went to the dealership where the car had been towed. The dealership told him the problem had been fixed: The car had run out of gas and needed a fill-up.
Near the end of Nixon’s presidency, his vice president Spiro Agnew was charged with accepting one hundred thousand dollars in cash bribes. Agnew had taken the payoffs when he was a Maryland state official and later when he was vice president. Agnew pleaded nolo contendere and agreed to resign, leaving office on October 10, 1973.
What never came out was that the married Agnew, a champion of family values who made no secret of his disdain for the liberal press, was having affairs while in office. One morning in late 1969, Agnew asked his Secret Service detail of five agents to take him to what is now Washington’s elegant St. Regis hotel at 923 Sixteenth Street NW.
“We took him in the back door and brought him to a room on the fourth floor,” says one of the agents. “He asked us to leave him alone for three hours. The detail leader understood he was having an affair with a woman.”
The agents waited in Lafayette Park, two blocks from the hotel and across the street from the entrance to the White House. They then returned to the hotel to pick up the vice president.
“He looked embarrassed,” the former agent says. “Leaving him in an unsecured location was a breach of security. As agents, it wasembarrassing because we were facilitating his adultery. We felt like pimps. We couldn’t look her [his wife] in the eye after that.”
In addition to that incident, Agnew was having an affair with a dark-haired, well-endowed female member of his staff. Agnew would not stay in hotels overnight unless the Secret Service arranged for her to be given an adjoining room, a former agent says. The woman was the age of one of Agnew’s daughters.
Ironically, Agnew—who had a good relationship with his agents—expressed concern to them early on about whether they would be telling stories about him to others. In fact, while agents love to exchange stories about protectees among themselves, as a rule, Secret Service agents are more tight-lipped with outsiders than CIA officers or FBI agents. The reason the Secret Service insists that agents not reveal information about personal lives of protectees is that those under protection may not let agents close if they think their privacy will be violated.
While that is a legitimate concern, those who run for high office should expect a high degree of scrutiny and to be held accountable for personal indiscretions that conflict with their public image and that shed light on their character. Rather than expecting the Secret Service to cover up for them, they should not enter public life if they want to lead double lives. That is particularly true when one considers that a president or vice president having an affair opens himself to possible blackmail. If a lower-level federal employee was having an affair, he would be denied a security clearance.
“If you want the job, then you need to lead the kind of life and be the kind of person that can stand up to the scrutiny that comes with that job,” says former Secret Service agent Clark Larsen.
“You just shake your head when you think of all the things you’ve heard and seen and the faith that people have in these celebrity-type people,” a former Secret Service agent says. “They are probably worsethan most average individuals.” He adds, “Americans have such an idealized notion of the presidency and the virtues that go with it, honesty and so forth. In most cases, that’s the furthest thing from the truth…. If we would pay attention to their track records, it’s all there. We seem to put blinders on ourselves and overlook these frailties.”
The poor personal character of presidents like Nixon and Johnson translated into the kind of flawed judgment that led to the Watergate scandal and the continuing fruitless prosecution of the Vietnam War when American security interests were not at stake. Voters tend to forget that presidents are, first and foremost, people. If they are unbalanced, nasty, and hypocritical, that will be reflected in their judgment and job performance.
If a friend, an electrician, a plumber, or a job applicant had a track record of acting unethically, lying, or displaying the kind of unbalanced personality of a Johnson or a Nixon, few would want to deal with him. Yet in the case of presidents and other politicians, voters often overlook the signs of poor character and focus instead on their acting ability on TV.
No one can imagine the kind of pressure that being president of the United States imposes on an individual and how easily power corrupts. To be in command of the most powerful country on earth, to be able to fly anywhere at a moment’s notice on Air Force One, to be able to grant almost any wish, to take action that affects the lives of millions, is such a heady, intoxicating experience that only people with the most stable personalities and well-developed values can handle it. Simply inviting a friend to a White House party or having a secretary place a call and announce that “the White House is calling” has such a profound effect on people that presidents and White House aides must constantly remind themselves that they are mortal.
Of all the perks, none is more seductive than living in the one-hundred-thirty-two-room White House. Servants are always on callto take care of the slightest whim. Laundry, cleaning, and shopping are provided for. From three kitchens, White House chefs prepare meals that are exquisitely presented and of the quality of the finest restaurants.
If members of the first family want breakfast in bed every day—as Lyndon Johnson did—they can have it. A pastry chef makes everything from Christmas cookies to chocolate éclairs. If the first family wants, it can entertain every night. Invitations—hand-lettered by five calligraphers—are rarely turned down. In choosing what chinaware to eat from, the first family has its choice of nineteen-piece place settings ordered by other first families. They may choose, for example, the Reagans’ pattern of a gold band around a red border, or the Johnsons’ pattern, which features delicate wildflowers and the presidential seal.
Fresh flowers decorate every room, and lovely landscaping—including the Rose Garden and the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden—adorns the grounds.
“The White House is a character crucible,” says Bertram S. Brown, M.D., a psychiatrist who formerly headed the National Institute of Mental Health and was an aide to President John F. Kennedy. “It either creates or distorts character. Few decent people want to subject themselves to the kind of grueling abuse candidates take when they run in the first place,” says Dr. Brown, who has seen in his practice many top Washington politicians and White House aides. “Many of those who run crave superficial celebrity. They are hollow people who have no principles and simply want to be elected. Even if an individual is balanced, once someone becomes president, how does one solve the conundrum of staying real and somewhat humble when one is surrounded by the most powerful office in the land, and from becoming overwhelmed by an at times pathological environment that treats you every day as an emperor? Here is where the true strength of the characterof the person, not his past accomplishments, will determine whether his presidency ends in accomplishment or failure.”
Thus, unless a president comes to the office with good character, the crushing force of the office and the adulation the chief executive receives will inevitably lead to disaster. For those reasons, the electorate has a right to know about the true character of its leaders.6Daro
ALMOST DAILY, SOMEONE comes to the White House gates and demands to see the president or causes a disturbance requiring the Secret Service’s Uniformed Division to intervene. Each year, twenty-five to thirty people try to ram the White House gates in cars, scale the eight-foot-high reinforced steel fence, shoot their way in, set themselves on fire at the gates, or cause other disruptions. Most of the people who cause disturbances around the White House are mentally ill.
“For the same reason that people stalk the president, the White House is a magnet for the psychotic,” says former agent Pete Dowling. “The president is an authority figure, and many people who have psychoses or have paranoid schizophrenia think that the government is transmitting rays at them or interrupting their thought processes. And what is the ultimate symbol of the government? It’s the White House. So, many of these people come to the gate at the White House and say they want to have an appointment to see the president or they want to see the president.”
“The White House is a mecca for what we call M.O.s—mental observation nuts,” says a former Uniformed Division officer. “Sometimesalmost every day there was what we call a White House collar. You’d have people that show up and say ‘Listen, I demand to talk to the president now. My son’s in Iraq, and it’s his fault.’”
Unlike Secret Service agents, uniformed officers are required to have only high school diplomas. Nor do they have the background and training of Secret Service agents. To apply, they must be U.S. citizens. At the time of their appointment, they must be at least twenty-one years of age and younger than forty. They also must have excellent health, be in excellent physical condition, and have uncorrected vision no worse than 20/60. Besides a background check, they are given drug and polygraph tests before being hired. In addition to their White House duties, the Uniformed Division protects foreign embassies.
In protecting the White House and providing security at events, the Uniformed Division employs canine units. Mainly Belgian Malinois, most of the dogs are cross-trained to sniff out explosives and to attack an intruder. Much like German shepherds in appearance, the breed is believed to be higher energy and more agile. The dogs are prey driven, and ball play is their reward after they locate their “prey.” The Secret Service pays forty-five hundred dollars for each trained canine unit. In all, the agency has seventy-five of them.
While waiting to check cleared vehicles that arrive at the White House’s southwest gate, the dogs stand on a white concrete pad that is refrigerated in summer so their paws don’t get hot. Each dog eagerly checks about a hundred cars a day.
Demonstrating how a canine unit operates, a technician in the underground garage at Secret Service headquarters proudly introduces Daro, a brawny eighty-seven-pound Czech shepherd. The dog is presented with a real-world scenario: Hidden from view, a metal canister holding real dynamite has been planted behind a dryer, which is used in laundering the rags that polish the president’s limos. Becausethe dynamite is not connected to a blasting cap or fuse, it is considered safe to bring it into headquarters.
Daro races around the parked cars, sniffing. Then he walks up to the dryer, stops, and sits. At this point, some explosives-sniffing dogs are trained to bark, but Daro sits down, as he has been trained to do. After his success, his reward is not the usual doggie treat but a hard red rubber ball, which he ravages, chewing off bits of red rubber.
The dogs are certified once a month. For new recruits, there’s a seventeen-week canine school at the Secret Service training facility in Laurel, Maryland, where the dogs are paired up with their handlers. The dogs come with a lot of training already, but the Secret Service gives them more—in explosives detection and in emergency response to incidents such as a fence jumper at the White House.
“You know right away if there’s a fence jumper,” a Secret Service agent says. “There are electronic eyes and ground sensors six feet back [from the sidewalk] that are monitored twenty-four hours a day. They sense movement and weight. Infrared detectors are installed closer to the house. You have audio detectors. Every angle is covered by cameras and recorded.”
Uniformed Division officers and the Uniformed Division’s Emergency Response Team, armed with P90 submachine guns, are the first line of defense.
“If somebody jumps that fence, ERT is going to get them right away, either with a dog or just themselves,” an agent says. “They’ll give the dog a command, and that dog will knock over a two-hundred-fifty-pound man. It will hit him dead center and take him down. The countersniper guys within the Uniformed Division are always watching their backs.”
A suspect who is armed and has jumped the fence may get a warning to drop the weapon. If he does not immediately obey the command,the Secret Service is under orders to take the person out quickly rather than risk any kind of hostage-taking situation.
As part of their work in developing criminal profiling, FBI agents under the direction of Dr. Roger Depue interviewed assassins and would-be assassins in prison, including Sirhan B. Sirhan, who killed Bobby Kennedy, and Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, both of whom tried to kill President Ford.
The FBI profilers found that in recent years, assassins generally have been unstable individuals looking for attention and notoriety. In many cases, assassins keep diaries as a way of enhancing the importance of their acts. Like most celebrity stalkers, assassins tend to be paranoid and lack trust in other people.
“Usually loners, they are not relaxed in the presence of others and not practiced or skilled in social interaction,” John Douglas, one of the profilers who did the interviews, wrote in his bookObsession. Often detailing their thoughts and fantasies in a diary, assassins “keep a running dialogue with themselves,” Douglas said. Before an assassination attempt, the perpetrator fantasizes that “this one big event will prove once and for all that he has worth, that he can do and be something. It provides an identity and purpose,” Douglas said. As a result, assassins rarely have an escape plan. Often, they want to be arrested.
When interviewed in prison, Sirhan told profiler Robert Ressler that he had heard voices telling him to assassinate Senator Kennedy. Once, when looking in a mirror, he said he felt his face cracking and falling in pieces to the floor. Both are manifestations of paranoid schizophrenia, Ressler wrote in his bookWhoever Fights Monsters.
Sirhan would refer to himself in the third person. An Arab born in Jerusalem of Christian parents, Sirhan asked Ressler if FBI official Mark Felt—later identified as Deep Throat—was a Jew. He said he had heard that Kennedy supported the sale of more fighter jets toIsrael. By assassinating him, he believed he would snuff out a potential president who would be a friend of Israel, Sirhan told Ressler.
When John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Reagan, the FBI’s Washington field office called on the FBI profilers for help. While the Secret Service is in charge of protecting the president, the FBI is in charge of investigating assassinations and assassination attempts.
Douglas and Ressler had identified typical characteristics of the assassin. Based on that research, Ressler told the FBI that Hinckley would have had a fantasy about being an important assassin and would have photographs of himself for the history books, records of his activities kept in a journal or a scrapbook, materials about assassinations, and audio tapes of his exploits. The agents were able to use the tips in drawing up search warrants for Hinckley’s home. They found all of the items Ressler had described.
Sometimes if would-be assassins decide security at the White House looks too tight, they try the Capitol instead. That was the path taken by Russell E. Weston, who shot up the Capitol on July 24, 1998. Weston walked into the Capitol through a doorway on the east side and shot and killed Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut, who manned a security post there. Then Weston burst through a side door leading into the offices of Republican Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the majority whip. Weston then shot Capitol Police Detective John M. Gibson, who returned fire and wounded the assailant.
The two Capitol Police officers died. Republican Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, a medical doctor, raced across the Capitol and helped save Weston’s life.
Weeks earlier, Weston had called the Secret Service in Montana, where he lived. He spoke with agent Norm Jarvis, claiming he was John F. Kennedy’s illegitimate son and was entitled to share in the Kennedy family trusts. Jarvis let him ramble on.
“I asked if he was being threatened by anybody in the government,” Jarvis recalls. “Did he have any feelings towards the president? What was getting him upset at this time? Because psychotics have these episodes. Suddenly something sparks them, and they get wound up.”
Weston did not express any anger toward the president, who at the time was Bill Clinton. But years earlier, he had penned a non-threatening but disturbing letter to the president, and as a result, Jarvis’s predecessor in Montana interviewed him. While that agent, Leroy Scott, concluded then that Weston did not represent a threat to the president, he established a relationship with the man, as good agents do.
“Weston would call and speak to Leroy now and then whenever he was upset about something,” Jarvis says. “He was an on-call counselor, if you will. We acquire pet psychos along the way during a career. You’d get a call from another agent from somewhere in the country once in a while looking for background information. It was not uncommon for repeat psych cases to carry an agent’s business card with them. They would usually produce those cards at some point during an interview if they had a repeat episode.”
After the shooting at the Capitol, Secret Service agents discovered a tape Weston had made of his conversation with Jarvis, and the agent eerily got to review his own performance. In retrospect, he wouldn’t have done anything differently. After the shooting, Weston was committed to a federal mental health facility near Raleigh, North Carolina.
If an individual causes a disruption at the White House, Secret Service agents detain the person and interview him at the field office at Thirteenth and L Streets NW in Washington or at a Metropolitan Police station. Agents would never bring them anywhere near the White House. Yet in his book,The Way of the World: A Story of Truthand Hope in an Age of Extremism, Ron Suskind relates a story about Usman Khosa, a Pakistani national who graduated from Connecticut College.
As Suskind tells it, on July 27, 2006, Khosa was leisurely strolling by the White House as he was “fiddling” with his iPod, which was playing tunes in Arabic. Suddenly, Khosa found himself confronted by a “large uniformed officer” who lunged at him.
“The backpack!” the officer yelled as he pushed Khosa against the gates in front of the nearby treasury building and ripped off the man’s backpack. Other Secret Service uniformed officers swarmed him. “Another officer on a bicycle arrives from somewhere and tears the backpack open, dumping its contents on the sidewalk,” Suskind writes breathlessly in his first chapter.
The Secret Service then allegedly escorted Khosa, who now works for the International Monetary Fund, through one of the perimeter gates and onto the grounds of the White House.
“No one speaks as the agents walk him behind the gate’s security station, down a stairwell, along an underground passage, and into a room—cement-walled box with a table, two chairs, a hanging light with a bare bulb, and a mounted video camera,” Suskind writes. “Even after all the astonishing turns of the past hour, Khosa can’t quite believe there’s actually an interrogation room beneath the White House, dark and dank and horrific.”
There, the frightened Khosa is asked if he is in league with “Mr. Zawahiri and his types,” referring to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy. Meanwhile, Suskind claims, President George W. Bush is receiving an intelligence briefing one floor above.
It was, Suskind said in interviews, a “day literally in hell,” but Khosa apparently never noted the names of the officers, which were displayed on tags pinned to their shirts.
As anyone familiar with security and law enforcement knows, if a person is acting suspiciously in front of the White House, the last place the Secret Service would want to take him is inside the tightly guarded White House grounds. Such individuals may have explosive devices strapped to their bodies. Even if they were thoroughly searched, they could have deadly pathogens in their clothing. If Khosa’s tale was not implausible enough, Suskind claims that Khosa agreed to go with the Secret Service officers initially only if he could make a few calls.
“Then, I promise, I’ll go with you,” Suskind quotes him as saying.
Khosa then called the Pakistani embassy and friends and family, according to Suskind. No doubt the Secret Service trusted Khosa not to call possible co-conspirators or remotely controlled bombs to detonate them.
Rather than being “dark and dank” and illuminated with a bare lightbulb, the room under the Oval Office—W-16—is brightly lit with fluorescent lights. It’s where Secret Service agents spend their downtime. Agents use computers in the room to fill out reports. In the room, they also store formal wear they may need for an event that evening. So they can check their appearance, the room is outfitted with full-length mirrors.
Khosa declined to comment. Suskind told me that in researching the book, he spoke with a Secret Service spokeswoman, who searched records but found nothing on Khosa. Suskind quoted her as saying it is not uncommon if the individual was “in and out that we don’t find a permanent record.”
As for the question of whether the Secret Service would ever take a suspicious person into the White House, Suskind told me, “It seems like that was just a matter of convenience. It was a block from where they were questioning him for a half hour on the street.” What about explosives and pathogens? “They patted him down,” Suskind said.
When asked why he did not include in the book the fact that the Secret Service has no record of questioning and detaining Khosa, Suskind said he did not consider it “pertinent.”
Asked for comment on Suskind’s account, Edwin Donovan, assistant special agent in charge of government and public affairs at the Secret Service, told me, “We have no record of the incident or the individual referenced [Khosa].” He added, “Bringing an individual inside the White House for questioning defies standard security and protocols and safety procedures. We would not bring a ‘suspicious person,’ potential prisoner, prisoner, or any person who has not been properly vetted, onto the White House grounds.”7Passkey
IN CONTRAST TO Richard Nixon, Secret Service agents found Gerald Ford—code-named Passkey—to be a decent man who valued their service. But agents were amazed at how cheap Ford was. After he left the White House, “He would want his newspaper in the morning at hotels, and he’d walk to the counter,” says an agent on his detail. “Lo and behold, he would not have any money on him. If his staff wasn’t with him, he would ask agents for money.”
The agent remembers Ford checking in at the chic Pierre hotel in New York. A bellboy loaded his cart with the Fords’ bags and took them into their room.
“After the bellboy was through, he came out holding this one-dollar bill in front of him, swearing in Spanish,” the former agent says.
At Rancho Mirage, where Ford lived after leaving the White House, “You’d go to a golf course, and it’s an exclusive country club, and the normal tip for a caddy is twenty-five dollars to fifty dollars,” another agent says. “Ford tipped a dollar, if at all.”
On September 5, 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, twenty-six, drew a Colt .45 automatic pistol and squeezed the trigger as PresidentFord shook hands with a smiling crowd outside the Senator Hotel in Sacramento, California. Bystanders said Ford was shaking hands with everyone and smiling when suddenly he turned ashen and froze as he saw a gun being raised only a few feet away.
“I saw a hand coming up behind several others in the front row, and obviously there was a pistol in that hand,” Ford said later.
Secret Service Agent Larry Buendorf had already noticed the woman moving along with the president. As Fromme pulled the trigger, Buendorf jumped in front of Ford to shield him. He then grabbed the gun and wrestled her to the ground. It was later determined that she had cocked the hammer of the gun. Fortunately, there was no bullet in the firing chamber. There were four in the gun’s magazine. Fromme later claimed she had deliberately ejected the cartridge from the weapon’s chamber, and she showed agents the cartridge at her home.
Fromme was a disciple of Charles M. Manson, who had been convicted of the ritualistic murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others. Two months before the assassination attempt, Fromme had issued a statement saying she had received letters from Manson blaming Nixon for his imprisonment.
Just seventeen days after this incident, Ford was leaving the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when Sara Jane Moore, a forty-five-year-old political activist, fired a .38 revolver at him from forty feet away. At the report of the shot, Ford looked stunned. Color drained from his face, and his knees appeared to buckle.
Oliver Sipple, a disabled former U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran, was standing next to the assailant. He pushed up her arm as the gun discharged. Although Ford doubled over, the bullet flew several feet over the president’s head. It ricocheted off the side of the hotel and slightly wounded a cab driver in the crowd.
Secret Service agents Ron Pontius and Jack Merchant quickly pushed Moore to the sidewalk and arrested her. As bystandersscreamed, the agents pushed the uninjured Ford into his limousine and onto the floor, covering his body with theirs.
For more than three hours, Moore had waited for Ford outside the hotel. Wearing baggy pants and a blue raincoat, she had stood with her hands in her pockets the entire time. Agents will sometimes ask people to remove their hands from their pockets, but this time, as people milled around her, agents did not notice her.
Moore is the only presidential assailant who was listed as a possible threat in the Secret Service data bank before the assassination attempt. Two days before the attempt, Moore had called the San Francisco police and said she had a gun and was considering a “test” of the presidential security system. The next morning, police interviewed her and confiscated her gun.
The police reported her to the Secret Service, and the night before Ford’s visit, Secret Service agents interviewed her. They concluded she did not pose a threat that would justify surveillance during Ford’s visit. By definition, evaluating anyone’s intentions is an inexact science. Indeed, the next morning, she purchased another weapon.
Agents ask themselves, “Did that interview trigger it?” a Secret Service agent says. “By giving them a feeling of importance, we may prompt them to think, ‘I better follow through.’ The rational person would say, ‘Holy s—. I almost got arrested.’”
The following month, another incident convinced Ford he was jinxed. His motorcade was returning to the airport on October 14, 1975, after he gave a speech at a GOP fund-raiser in Hartford, Connecticut. Motorcycle policemen were supposed to block side streets, the teams leapfrogging each other from block to block. By the time the motorcade passed a narrow street, the police officers had left. James Salamites, nineteen, barreled through the intersection on a green light in a Buick sedan and crashed into the president’s limousine.
Andrew Hutch, the Secret Service driver, swerved sharply left. The maneuver blunted the impact of the collision, but Ford was still knocked to the floor. When Ford’s car halted with a dented right front fender, Secret Service agents with guns drawn surrounded the Buick and hauled out its shaken driver.
“I looked at the other car, and looking at me is President Ford. I recognized him right away. I just couldn’t believe it,” Salamites recalls.
At first, agents were sure the crash was an attempt on Ford’s life. But after Salamites was questioned for a few hours, he was released, and Hartford police said he was not to blame for the accident.
The press portrayed Ford as a dullard and a klutz, but agents say he was neither. A University of Michigan football player who was voted most valuable player, Ford was an expert skier who taunted agents who could not keep up with him. Finally, the Secret Service assigned a world-class skier to his detail. The agent would ski backward and wave as the president tried to catch up with him.
“Ford was a very athletic guy” says Dennis Chomicki, who was on his detail. “He used to swim every day, he was a good golfer, and he was an outstanding skier.”
But one day after he left office, Ford was driving an electric golf cart in Palm Springs, California, when he accidentally crashed into an electric panel hanging on the wall of a shack for golf carts.
“The whole panel came off its fasteners and fell down on top of the carts,” Chomicki says. “He was mad as hell, and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, after all those years, they were all right. All the reporters used to say I was awkward. Well, they’re right. I’m just one big clumsy sonofabitch.’ And he walked away.”
Unlike many other presidents, Ford never engaged in any dalliances. UntilThe Miami Heraldrevealed Gary Hart’s fling with Donna Rice in May 1987, the media had not exposed extramarital affairs of presidentsand presidential candidates. Indeed, throughout American history, the press had been aware of presidential affairs and covered up for occupants of the White House. Yet the hypocrisy and lack of judgment exhibited by a politician engaging in extramarital relations is a clue to character that the electorate needs to consider.
Ironically, the press’s record was broken only becauseThe Miami Herald’spolitical editor Tom Fiedler wrote a column defending Hart, the Democratic Party’s leading contender, against unsubstantiated rumors of being a womanizer. A woman who refused to identify herself called Fiedler to say she disagreed with his column. In fact, she said a friend of hers who was a part-time model in Miami was flying to Washington that Friday evening to spend the weekend with Hart. The caller described the woman as quite attractive and blond.
Fiedler, reporter Jim McGee, and investigations editor Jim Savage looked at airline schedules and picked out the most likely nonstop flight to Washington that Friday evening, May 1. McGee took the flight and spotted several women who matched the description. One was carrying a distinctive shiny purse. When they touched down in Washington, she disappeared into the crowd.
After taking a cab to Hart’s townhouse, McGee saw the same young woman with the shiny purse walking arm in arm with Hart out the front door of his Washington home. Joined by Savage and Fiedler on Saturday, McGee watched their comings and goings at the town-house for the next twenty-four hours. When Hart came outside and seemed to have spotted them, they confronted him and asked about the beautiful young woman sitting inside his home.
Hart denied that anyone was staying with him.
“I have no personal relationship with the individual you are following,” Hart said. He described the woman as “a friend of a friend of mine” who had come to Washington to visit her friends.
That night, after the story had been filed with Rice still unidentified,Savage, Fiedler, and McGee met with a Washington friend of Hart’s who had introduced the candidate to Rice. Savage pointed out that the effort to identify the woman would create a media feeding frenzy, and it would be in Hart’s interest to name her. The story ran inThe Miami Heraldon Sunday, May3. That morning, a spokesman for Hart told the Associated Press that the unidentified woman was Donna Rice.
On the same Sunday,The New York Timesran a story quoting Hart as denying the allegations of affairs. He challenged the reporters to “follow me around … it will be boring.” Hart continued to deny he had been having an affair with Rice, but CBS ran an amateur video of them together aboard the luxury yachtMonkey Businessin Bimini. CBS noted that Rice, who was not identified, later disembarked from the yacht to compete in a “Hot Bod” contest at a local bar. TheNational Enquirerfollowed with a photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s knee on the boat. Hart was forced to withdraw as a presidential contender, a victim of his own arrogance and deceit.
In fact, there was more to the story. According to a former Secret Service agent who was on Hart’s detail, well before his encounter with Rice, Hart routinely cavorted with stunning models and actresses in Los Angeles, courtesy of one of his political advisers, actor Warren Beatty.
“Warren Beatty gave him a key to his house on Mulholland Drive,” the agent says. “It was near Jack Nicholson’s house.” Beatty would arrange to have twenty-year-old women—“tens,” as the agent described them—meet Hart at Beatty’s house.
“Hart would say, ‘We’re expecting a guest,’” the former agent says. “When it was warm, they would wear bikinis and jump in the hot tub in the back. Once in the tub, their tops would often come off. Then they would go into the house. The ‘guests’ stayed well into the night and often left just before sunrise. Beatty was a bachelor, but Hart was a senator running for president and was married.”
Sometimes, the agent says, “There were two or three girls with him at a time. We would say, ‘There goes a ten. There’s a nine. Did you see that? Can you believe that?’ Hart did not care. He was like a kid in a candy store.”
Asked for comment, Gayle Samek, his spokesperson, said, “Senator Hart tends to focus on the present rather than the past, so there’s no comment.”8Crown
TO ENTER THE West Wing, a visitor presses a white button on an intercom mounted at the northwest gate and announces himself. If the visitor appears legitimate, a uniformed Secret Service officer electronically unlocks the gate, allowing the visitor to enter. He then passes his driver’s license or other government photo identification through a slot in a bulletproof booth to one of four uniformed Secret Service officers.
Before being allowed into the White House, a visitor with an appointment must provide his Social Security number and birth date in advance. The Uniformed Division checks to see if the individual is listed by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) maintained by the FBI or by the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications Systems (NLETS) as having been arrested or as having violated laws.
Besides the threat list compiled by the Secret Service, the Uniformed Division maintains a Do Not Admit list of about a hundred people who are barred from the White House because they have caused embarrassment. For example, the White House press office may place a journalist on the list because he or she made it a practice of disobeying rules about where reporters may wander in the White House.
If a visitor is on the appointment list and has been cleared, he is given a pass and allowed into the security booth. The visitor swipes the pass and goes through a metal detector before being allowed to walk outside again toward the West Wing. For years, when most people thought of the White House, they thought of the main building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which serves as the president’s home and once served as his office. Abraham Lincoln had his office in what is now known as the Lincoln bedroom on the second floor of the White House. Only with the recent TV series has the public come to understand that the West Wing now houses the presidential offices.
The West Wing was added onto the White House in 1902. In 1909, the president’s Oval Office was constructed in the center of the south side of the West Wing. In 1934, it was moved to its current location on the southeast corner, overlooking the Rose Garden. Finally, in 1942, the East Wing was built to house the offices of the first lady as well as the White House military office.
A visitor to the West Wing passes more than a dozen TV cameras on tripods sprouting along the driveway that leads to the entrance to the West Wing lobby. This strip, where correspondents broadcast from the White House, was once known as Pebble Beach. Now, because flagstone has replaced the pebbles, wags in the press corps call it Stonehenge. A separate entrance to the left of the lobby entrance goes directly to the James S. Brady press briefing room. White House correspondents must pass a Secret Service background check before being issued press credentials that let them go through the security booth when the pass is swiped.
Even with appointments, the Secret Service will not admit visitors if they have violations involving assaults or fraud. If an individual had a conviction for marijuana use ten years earlier, for example, officers will inform the White House employee who is expecting the guest.Then the decision to admit the person falls to the aide, who may invent an excuse to cancel the appointment.
Occasionally, a wanted fugitive makes the mistake of setting up an appointment at the White House, which is code-named Crown. During the administration of George H. W. Bush, a man who was wanted for grand larceny planned to enter the White House with a friend of Bush’s. He submitted his Social Security number in advance of the appointment. The Secret Service arrested him on arrival.
“If there is a warrant, the [computer] screen says, ‘There is a warrant for this man’s arrest. Call an agent,’” a Secret Service agent says.
Richard C. Weaver, a self-proclaimed Christian minister, made it through all the security layers and walked right up to President George W. Bush during his inauguration in 2001. He proceeded to shake his hand and hand him an inaugural coin and a message from God. Known to the Secret Service as the Handshake Man, Weaver had pulled the same stunt when Bill Clinton was inaugurated. Apparently, he was on the inaugural committee’s access list. After the Bush inaugural, he tried a few other times to gain access to presidents and senators.
“His picture is plastered in every security booth we have,” a Secret Service agent says.
As with the question of how much protection a president should have, the amount of security around the White House has always been an issue of contention. For decades, the District of Columbia government resisted closing off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. When a threat arose or a demonstration took place, the Secret Service would close off the street or encircle the White House with buses. During the Reagan administration, Jersey barriers were installed around the perimeter of the White House complex. In 1990, they were replaced with bollards. The gates were reinforced with steel beams that rise from the ground after the gates are closed. After 9/11,the Bush administration turned Pennsylvania Avenue into a pedestrian plaza.
“One reason we reinforced the gates is people have tried to drive their cars through the gates to see the president,” a longtime agent says. “An iron beam comes out of the ground behind those gates when the gates close. A two-ton truck could slam them at forty miles per hour, and they will withstand it.”
The Secret Service’s Technical Security Division (TSD) installs devices at White House entrances to detect radiation and explosives. Populated with real-life versions of Q, James Bond’s fictional gadget master, TSD sweeps the White House and hotel rooms for electronic bugs. While electronic bugs have never been found in the White House, they are occasionally found in hotel rooms because they were planted to pick up conversations of previous guests. When Ronald Reagan was to stay at a hotel in Los Angeles, for example, the Technical Security Division found a bug in the suite he was to occupy. It turned out the previous occupant was Elton John.
TSD samples the air and water in the White House for contaminants, radioactivity, and deadly bacteria. It keeps air in the White House at high pressure to expel possible contaminants. It provides agents with special hoods called expedient hoods to be placed over the president’s head in the event of a chemical attack. Each year, TSD screens nearly a million pieces of mail sent to the White House for pathogens and other biological threats. In conjunction with Los Alamos National Laboratory or Sandia National Laboratories, it runs top secret risk assessments to find any holes in physical or cyber security measures.
In case an assassin manages to penetrate all the security to see the president, TSD installs panic buttons and alarms in the Oval Office and the residence part of the White House. They can be used if there is a medical emergency or physical threat. Many of the alarm triggersare small presidential seals that sit on tables or desks and are activated if knocked over.
The panic alarms bring Secret Service agents running, guns drawn. Besides agents and uniformed officers stationed around the Oval Office, the agents deployed to W-16 under the Oval Office can leap up the stairway in a few seconds.
As a last resort, the White House has emergency escape routes, including a tunnel that is ten feet wide and seven feet high. It extends from a subbasement of the White House under the East Wing to the basement of the Treasury Department adjacent to the White House grounds.
One of the more dramatic attacks took place on October 29, 1994, at two fifty-fiveP.M., when Francisco Martin Duran stood on the south sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue and began firing at the White House with a Chinese SKS semiautomatic rifle. As he ran toward Fifteenth Street, he paused to reload, and a tourist tackled him. Uniformed officers drew their weapons but held fire as more tourists grappled with Duran.
“I wish you had shot me,” Duran said as the officers arrested him.
Since a white-haired man was coming out of the White House when Duran began firing, Secret Service agents concluded that Duran likely thought he was firing at President Clinton. He was convicted of attempting to assassinate the president and sentenced to forty years in prison. He was also ordered to pay the government thirty-two hundred dollars to repair damage to the White House, including replacing pressroom windows riddled with bullets.
In December 1994, four more such attacks—perhaps inspired by previous ones—occurred within a few days of one another. On December 20, Marcelino Corniel dashed across Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House brandishing a knife. Uniformed Division officers and Park Police ordered him to drop it. When he refused and lungedtoward a Park Police officer, another Park Police officer shot and killed him.
What was not included in news reports was that the man had a “seven-inch knife taped to his arm, so when the officer told him to drop the knife, he couldn’t,” says former Secret Service agent Pete Dowling. “This was what they call ‘suicide by cop.’ The guy wanted to be killed. And unfortunately the police officer felt that his life was being threatened, and he shot and killed the man.”
A day after that incident, Uniformed Division officers opened the southwest gate to admit an authorized vehicle. Just then, a man burst past them and ran toward the mansion. The officers tackled and arrested him. The man was a disturbed individual who had an obsession with the White House.
Two days later, a man fired at the mansion with a nine-millimeter pistol from the perimeter of the south lawn. While two shots fell short of the White House, one landed on the State Floor balcony, and another penetrated a window of the State Floor dining room. After a Uniformed Division officer scanning the south Executive Avenue sidewalk noticed a fidgety man, a Park Police officer ran after him, searched him, and confiscated the pistol.
A previous incident on September 11, 1994, demonstrated the White House’s vulnerability. That evening, after drinking and smoking crack cocaine, Frank E. Corder found the keys to a Cessna P150 airplane that had been rented and returned to the Aldino Airport in Churchville, Maryland. Although the thirty-eight-year-old truck driver was not a licensed pilot, he had taken some lessons and had flown that particular aircraft several times.
Corder stole the plane and flew to the White House. He then dove directly toward it at a steep angle. While aircraft are not supposed to fly over the White House, airplanes periodically do so by mistake. As a result, the military must exercise judgment when deciding whetherto shoot down aircraft that stray into White House airspace. Given that after 9/11, cockpits of commercial airliners were hardened, air marshals were added to most flights, and many pilots are now armed, it is unlikely that such a plane would again be commandeered. But after 9/11, any general aviation aircraft that violated restrictions on flights near the White House and did not respond to military commands would be shot down by missiles or fighter aircraft. Each year, about four hundred general aviation aircraft are intercepted across the country and forced to land on threat of being shot down.
The Joint Operations Center at Secret Service headquarters now interfaces twenty-four hours a day with the Federal Aviation Administration and the control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Headquarters also views on radar any planes flying in the area.
Corder’s plane crashed onto the White House lawn just south of the Executive Mansion at one forty-nineA.M.and skidded across the ground. What Corder did not plan for was the Sony JumboTron that had been set up on the south lawn in front of the White House for an event. It was a giant television screen measuring thirty-three feet by one hundred ten feet.
“There’s no way he could have flown the plane into the White House,” says Pete Dowling, who was on the president’s protective detail at the time. “He couldn’t have navigated the plane without hitting the JumboTron. So he had to land a little bit early, and what he did was, he just came to rest against one of the magnolias that was right in front of the south part of the White House.”
Corder died of multiple, massive blunt-force injuries from the crash. At the time, the White House was undergoing renovations, and President Clinton and his family were staying at Blair House.
While Corder had expressed dissatisfaction with Clinton’s policies, and his third marriage had just gone on the rocks, the Secret Serviceconcluded that—like most assassins—his purpose had been to gain notoriety. He had told friends he wanted to “kill himself in a big way” by flying into the White House or the Capitol.
Corder’s brother John said the pilot had expressed interest in Mathias Rust, a German teenager who flew a Cessna plane through five hundred fifty miles of heavily guarded Soviet airspace and landed in Red Square in 1987. John Corder quoted his brother as saying of the German: “The guy made a name for himself.”
The greatest embarrassment to the Uniformed Division took place on February 17, 1974, when U.S. Army Private First Class Robert K. Preston stole an army helicopter from Fort Meade, Maryland, and landed on the south lawn at nine-thirtyP.M.
Instead of firing at the helicopter, uniformed officers called a Secret Service official at home, asking him what they should do. He told them to shoot at the helicopter. By then, the helicopter had flown away. It returned fifty minutes later. This time, Uniformed Division officers and Secret Service agents fired at it with shotguns and submachine guns.
“They riddled it with bullets,” a Secret Service agent says. “When he landed [the second time], he opened the door and rolled under the helicopter. It probably saved his life. They put seventy rounds through that. There were twenty rounds in the seat. He would have been shot to death [if he had not rolled under the chopper]. It was not going to take off this time.”
Preston, twenty, had flunked out of flight school and perhaps wanted to show them all that he did have some flying skills. He was treated for a superficial gunshot wound. He was sentenced to a year at hard labor and fined twenty-four hundred dollars.
Neither President Nixon nor his wife, Pat, was at the White House at the time.9Jackal
IN THEIR IN-HOUSE jargon, agents refer to any possible assassin as “the jackal.” Were a jackal to strike, it would most likely be when the president has left the cocoon of the White House. Every assassin has pounced when a president is most vulnerable—outside the White House, usually when arriving or departing from an event. That window of vulnerability opens several times a week when the president leaves the White House for an event in Washington or goes on a domestic or overseas trip.
Even a visit to a friend’s home requires elaborate preparation. When George W. Bush was president, he and Laura had dinner at the home of Anne and Clay Johnson, a close friend from high school. Guests included Bush’s Yale friend Roland W. Betts and FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, and his wife, Ann. Checking out the Spring Valley home in Washington beforehand, the Secret Service set up a command post in the basement.
“They asked that drapes be put up in the dining room and suggested a chair in which the president should be seated,” Anne Johnson recalls. “Agents were posted around the yard, and no-parking cones were put up in front of the house.”
The Secret Service asked the Johnsons to clear a closet that was big enough for at least two people.
“In case of an emergency, an agent was going to grab the president, and the two of them were going to dive in,” Anne Johnson says. “That would have been an interesting dive, because GWB would have had Laura by the hair, at the very least.”
Anne Johnson asked an agent, “What should everyone else do in case of an emergency?”
“I only have one client: the president,” the agent replied.
Ten days before a presidential trip, at least eight to twelve agents fly to the intended destination. That is in contrast to the two-man advance team sent for President Kennedy’s trip to Dallas. Back then, the Secret Service had about 300 special agents, compared with 3,404 today.
Now an advance team includes a lead agent, a transportation agent, airport agent, agents assigned to each event site, a hotel advance agent, one or two logistics agents, a technical security agent, and an intelligence agent. As part of advance preparations, a team of military communications personnel from the White House Communications Agency is sent to handle radios, phones, and faxes. They ship their equipment and additional personnel on Air Force C-130 cargo planes. The Uniformed Division’s countersniper team and the counterassault team from the Secret Service’s Special Operations division may also send agents on an advance.
The counterassault team, or CAT, as it is referred to, is critical to providing protection outside the White House. A heavily armed tactical unit, it is assigned to the president, vice president, foreign heads of state, or any other protectee, such as a presidential candidate, deemed to require extra coverage. In the event of an attack, CAT’s mission is to divert the attack away from a protectee, allowing the working shift of agents to shield and evacuate the individual. Once the “problem,” asSecret Service agents put it, is dealt with, CAT members regroup, and the shift leader directs them to their next position.
The Secret Service first started using the teams on a limited basis in 1979. They were formed after several agents involved in training were having lunch and began asking themselves how the Secret Service would deal with a terrorist attack, according to Taylor Rudd, one of the agents. After President Reagan was shot in 1981, the teams were expanded and eventually centralized at headquarters in 1983. CAT differs from a special weapons and tactics team (SWAT), which the police or Secret Service may deploy once an attack occurs. Code-named Hawkeye, CAT takes action as the attack occurs.
“Depending on the circumstances, before 1979, besides agents riding with the president, we had five or six agents in a muscle car with Uzi submachine guns,” says William Albracht, a founding member of the counterassault teams. “If something happened, they were supposed to lay down a base of fire or have firepower available. They added another layer of protection to the principal. If they came under attack, they would have returned fire. The job of the agents with the protectee is always to cover and evacuate. Get him the hell out of there. So they would try to cover a withdrawal, or if they’re in a kill zone, try in some way to get him out with extra firepower.”
The muscle car concept was “very loose, and the criteria for engaging hostile fire was somewhat unclear,” Albracht says. “The CAT program, which replaced it, was designed to codify and standardize the Secret Service’s response to terrorist-type attacks.”
Clad in black battle-dress uniform, known as BDU, CAT members travel with the president. They are trained in close-quarter battle—when small units engage the enemy with weapons at very close range. They are also trained in motorcade ambush tactics and building defense tactics.
Each CAT team member is equipped with a fully automatic SR-16rifle, a SIG Sauer P229 pistol, flash bang grenades for diversionary tactics, and smoke grenades. CAT agents also may be armed with Remington breaching shotguns, a weapon that has been modified with a short barrel. The shotgun may be loaded with nonlethal Hatton rounds to blow the lock off a door.
One time a CAT team had to deploy was January 12, 1992, when a protest rally got out of hand during a visit by President George H. W. Bush to Panama City, Panama. Agents rushed Bush and his wife back into their limousine, and they sped away unharmed. No shots were fired by the Secret Service.
In August 1995, CAT deployed again when President Clinton was playing golf at the Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club in Wyoming. Secret Service agents spotted a worker aiming a rifle at Clinton from the rooftop of a home under construction on the edge of the golf course. It turned out that the man was using the rifle’s telescopic site to watch the presidential party up close. Agents held him for questioning and then released him.
In contrast to the CAT team, the countersniper team, also dressed in BDUs, does not travel in the motorcade. Instead, the counter-snipers—code-named Hercules and long used by the Secret Service—take positions at key exit and entrance points. For instance, when the president is leaving or entering the White House, they position themselves on the roof and on balconies across the street.
Thus, the countersnipers are observers and can respond to a distant threat with their .300 Winchester Magnum—known as Win Mag—rifles. The rifle is customized for the shooter who is assigned the weapon. Each team is also equipped with one Stoner SR-25 rifle. Counter-snipers are required to qualify shooting out to a thousand yards each month. If they don’t qualify, they don’t travel or work.
The countersnipers work hand in hand with the counterassault team. If CAT is in a building and wants to leave for the motorcade, theCAT team leader calls out to the countersniper unit to ask if the area is clear.
In contrast to the cursory look given to Kennedy’s planned Dallas parade route, the Secret Service’s Forensic Services Division now creates virtual three-dimensional models of buildings along a motorcade route so that agents will know what to expect and can plan what to do at spots where the motorcade may be more vulnerable to attack. The division also produces slide shows of the floor plans of buildings where the president will speak.
As part of advance work, the Secret Service designates safe houses, such as fire stations, to be used in case of a threat. It also plots the best routes to local hospitals and alerts them to an impending presidential visit.
If the president plans to stay in a hotel, the Secret Service takes over the entire floor where his room will be, as well as the floors above and below. Agents examine carpeting to check for concealed objects. They check picture frames that might be hollow and conceal explosives. They plan escape routes from every room that the president will enter.
“In the hotel, if the president will stay overnight, we secure the suite and floor he will stay on and make it as safe as the White House,” an agent says. “We seal it off. No other guests can be on the floor. If the floor is huge, we will separate it. But no outside people will be on the floor, guaranteed.”
Before the president walks into a hotel room, a Secret Service countermeasures team sweeps it for radioactivity and electronic bugging and video devices. Permanent hotel residents pose a special problem. Agents ask them to move temporarily to other rooms in the same hotel. Hotels usually offer their residents better accommodations free of charge. But some refuse to take them.
“If they say, ‘We are absolutely not going,’ then we will not bring the president,” an agent says.
Like the rest of us, presidents hate the thought of getting stuck in elevators, so the Secret Service pays a local elevator repair company a daily fee to station a service person in a hotel where the president is staying.
The Secret Service checks on the backgrounds of employees preparing food for the president. If they have been convicted of an assault or drug violation, agents will ask the establishment to give the employees a day off. To ensure that no one slips any poison into food served the president at a hotel or restaurant, an agent watches the preparation, randomly selects a prepared dish, and watches as the dish is served. Employees who have been cleared are given color-coded pins to wear. On overseas trips, navy stewards might prepare dishes for the president. With food prepared at the White House, the Secret Service does not get directly involved.
“You can’t watch everything,” a Secret Service agent says. “But the majority of stuff is checked. We have lists of the suppliers. We check the employees once and go back randomly and check them again to see if anyone has been added.”10Deacon
IF THE SECRET Service considered Richard Nixon the strangest modern president, Jimmy Carter was known as the least likeable. If the true measure of a man is how he treats the little people, Carter flunked the test. Inside the White House, Carter treated with contempt the little people who helped and protected him.
“When Carter first came there, he didn’t want the police officers and agents looking at him or speaking to him when he went to the office,” says Nelson Pierce, an assistant White House usher. “He didn’t want them to pay attention to him going by. I never could understand why. He was not going to the Oval Office without shoes or a robe.”
“We never spoke unless spoken to,” says Fred Walzel, who was chief of the White House branch of the Secret Service Uniformed Division. “Carter complained that he didn’t want them [the officers] to say hello.”
For three and a half years, agent John Piasecky was on Carter’s detail—including seven months of driving him in the presidential limousine—and Carter never spoke to him, he says. At the sametime, Carter tried to project an image of himself as man of the people by carrying his own luggage when traveling. But that was often for show. When he was a candidate in 1976, Carter would carry his own bags when the press was around but ask the Secret Service to carry them the rest of the time.
“Carter would have us carry his luggage from the trunk to the airport,” says former Secret Service agent John F. Collins. “But that is not our job, and we finally stopped doing it.” On one occasion, says Collins, “We opened the trunk and shut it, leaving his luggage in the trunk. He was without clothes for two days.”
As president, Carter engaged in more ruses involving his luggage.
“When he was traveling, he would get on the helicopter and fly to Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base,” says former Secret Service agent Clifford R. Baranowski. “He would roll up his sleeves and carry his bag over his shoulder, but it was empty. He wanted people to think he was carrying his own bag.”
“Carter made a big show about taking a hang-up carry-on out of the trunk of the limo when he’d go someplace, and there was nothing in it,” says another agent who was on his detail. “It was empty; it was just all show.”
On the first Christmas morning after his election, Carter strode out of the front door of his home in Plains, Georgia, to get the newspaper. Instead of saying “Merry Christmas” to the Secret Service agent standing post, he ignored him. After church and a Christmas brunch, Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, put some leftovers out for their Siamese cat. According to agent John Collins, the detail had befriended a stray Jack Russell terrier and given him the code name Dolphin. “Dolphin” conformed with the Secret Service code names beginning withDassigned to the Carters.
Seeing the food, Dolphin began gobbling it up, pushing away the cat. According to another agent who was there, Carter got a bowsaw—the kind that is used to saw down trees—and actually tried to attack the dog with the saw.
“Carter got the bow saw off a woodpile near the family room patio and in full view of his family—including his mother, Miss Lillian—tried to kill the dog,” says the agent who was there. “Dolphin, who was much faster than Carter, playfully dodged the president-elect’s efforts. Carter then called the detail leader and demanded that the dog be removed from Plains. The Secret Service gave the dog to the press corps covering Carter.”
Incredibly, Carter refused to carry out the biggest responsibility a president has—to be available to take action in case of nuclear attack. When he went on vacation, “Carter did not want the nuclear football at Plains,” a Secret Service agent says. “There was no place to stay in Plains. The military wanted a trailer there. He didn’t want that. So the military aide who carries the football had to stay in Americus,” a fifteen minute drive from Carter’s home.
Because of the agreed-upon protocols, in the event of a nuclear attack, Carter could not have launched a counterattack by calling the aide in Americus. By the time the military aide drove to Carter’s home, the United States would have been within five minutes of being wiped out by nuclear-tipped missiles.
“He would have had to drive ten miles,” an agent says. “Carter didn’t want anyone bothering him on his property. He wanted his privacy. He was really different.”
Through his lawyer, Terrence B. Adamson, Carter denied that he refused to keep the nuclear football near him in Plains and that he instructed uniformed officers not to say hello to him in the White House. But Bill Gulley who, as director of the White House Military Office, was in charge of the operation, confirmed that Carter refused to let the military aide stay near his residence. “We tried to put a trailer in Plains near the residence for the doctor [who travels with thepresident] and the aide with the football,” Gulley says. “But Carter wouldn’t permit that. Carter didn’t care at all.”
Carter—code-named Deacon—was moody and mistrustful.
“When he was in a bad mood, you didn’t want to bring him anything,” a former Secret Service agent says. “It was this hunkered-down attitude: ‘I’m running the show’ It was as if he didn’t trust anyone around him. He had that big smile, but when he was in the White House, it was a different story.”
“The only time I saw a smile on Carter’s face was when the cameras were going,” says former agent George Schmalhofer, who was periodically on his detail.
“Carter said, ‘I’m in charge,’” a former Secret Service agent says. “‘Everything is my way’ He tried to micromanage everything. You had to go to him about playing on the tennis court. It was ridiculous.”
One day, Carter noticed water gushing out of a grate outside the White House.
“It was the emergency generating system,” says William Cuff, the assistant chief of the White House Military Office. “Carter got interested in that and micromanaged it. He would zoom in on an area and manage the hell out of it. He asked questions of the chief usher every day: ‘How much does this cost? Which part is needed? When is it coming? Which bolt ties to which flange?’”
At a press conference, Carter denied reports that White House aides had to ask him for permission to use the tennis courts. But that was more dissembling. In fact, even when he was traveling on Air Force One, Carter insisted that aides ask him for permission to play on the courts.
“It is a true story about the tennis courts,” says Charles Palmer, who was chief of the Air Force One stewards. Because other aides were afraid to give Carter the messages asking for permission, Palmer often wound up doing it.
“He [Carter] approved who played from on the plane,” Palmer says. “Mostly people used them when he was out of town. If the president was in a bad mood, the aides said, ‘You carry the message in.’ On the bad days when we were having problems, no one wanted to talk to the president. It was always, ‘I have a note to deliver to the president. I don’t want him hollering at me.’”
Palmer says Carter seemed to relish the power. At times, Carter would delay his response, smugly saying, “I’ll let them know,” Palmer says. “Other times, he would look at me and smile and say, ‘Tell them yes.’ I felt he felt it was a big deal. I didn’t understand why that had to happen.”
Early in his presidency, Carter proclaimed that the White House would be “dry.” Each time a state dinner was held, the White House made a point of telling reporters that no liquor—only wine—would be served.
“The Carters were the biggest liars in the world,” Gulley says. “The word was passed to get rid of all the booze. There can’t be any on Air Force One, in Camp David, or in the White House. This was coming from close associates of the Carter family.”
Gulley told White House military aides, “Hide the booze, and let’s find out what happens.”
According to Gulley, “The first Sunday they are in the White House, I get a call from the mess saying, ‘They want Bloody Marys before going to church. What should I do?’ I said, ‘Find some booze and take it up to them.’”
“We never cut out liquor under Carter,” Palmer says. “Occasionally Carter had a martini,” Palmer adds. He also had a Michelob Light. Rosalynn—code-named Dancer—would have a screwdriver.
Lillian Carter, Carter’s own mother, contradicted her son’s claim. In a 1977 interview withThe New York Times, she said that, eventhough the White House was officially “dry,” she managed to have a nip of bourbon every afternoon when she stayed there.
“She said one evening to one of the butlers, ‘I’m kind of used to having a little nip before going to bed. Do you think you could arrange to give me a little brandy each night?’” says Shirley Bender, the White House executive housekeeper.
When Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale visited Carter at Plains for the first time, Miss Lillian knocked on the door of a Winnebago the Secret Service was using as a command post.
“I opened the door, and there’s Miss Lillian standing there with a paper bag with two six-packs of beer in it,” says David Curtis, an agent on the Mondale detail.
“I’ve got something for the boys,” Lillian Carter said. “Don’t tell Jimmy.”
“I appreciate that, Miss Lillian, but we can’t accept that,” Curtis said.
When he was in the White House, Carter would regularly make a show of going to the Oval Office at fiveA.M.or sixA.M.to call attention to how hard he was working for the American people.
“He would walk into the Oval Office at sixA.M., do a little work for half an hour, then close the curtains and take a nap,” says Robert B. Sulliman, Jr., who was on Carter’s detail. “His staff would tell the press he was working.”
Another agent says that at other times, he could see Carter through the Oval Office windows dozing off in his desk chair while pretending he was working.
Carter claimed to the press that he was saving energy by having solar panels installed on the roof of the White House to heat hot water. “It would not generate enough hot water to run the dishwasher in the staff mess,” Cuff says. “It was a fiasco. The staff mess had to go out andbuy new equipment to keep the water hot enough. That blew any savings.”
Carter even tried to cut back the crew on Air Force One.
“Air Force One is an airplane, and you need a minimum number of people to fly it,” Cuff notes. “You have to have a pilot, copilot, and others. They never understood that. The presidential pilot and the vice chief of staff of the air force had to argue with them.”
Carter found out that after a catering company put on parties at Blair House for foreign dignitaries, instead of throwing away any leftovers as it normally would, the company would offer the food to Secret Service agents standing post.
“The guys were working shifts of twelve to fourteen hours a day,” a former agent says. “Sometimes you could not break away to get food.”
Carter insisted that the catering firm figure out the cost of the extra food and charge agents for the leftovers they ate in the future, the former agent says.
Gulley the head of the military office, says Carter became so involved in micromanaging the White House that he would veto the replacement of carpets.
“He wouldn’t allow them to change the carpeting where the public went through the White House,” Gulley says. “The White House looked like a peanut warehouse when I left,” referring to Carter’s business enterprise. “Thousands of people pass through there, and it requires a high degree of maintenance. Carter himself got involved in that. It [the carpeting] was worn and dirty.”
Carter thought of himself as a better runner than his Secret Service agents and would challenge them to races. The Secret Service began assigning its best runners to his detail. One day at Camp David, Carter collapsed into the arms of an agent as he was trying to outrun them.
“He wasn’t in bad shape, but he never warmed up,” agent Dennis Chomicki says. “It was an exceptionally hot day, and he took off real fast and kind of burned himself out. He basically lost it.”
On another occasion, agents warned Carter that cross-country skiing at Camp David would be dangerous because there was not enough snow on the ground and there were a lot of bare spots. Carter ignored the advice.
“Yeah, okay, I’ll decide on that,” Carter said, according to agent Chomicki.
“He went out, and sure enough, he fell on his face and broke his collarbone,” Chomicki says.
In Washington, the Secret Service tried to find secluded routes so Carter could run. One beautiful fall morning, Carter went running on the towpath along the C&O Canal. He planned to run from Key Bridge to Chain Bridge, then back to Fletcher’s Boat House, where Secret Service agents had been instructed to wait in their vehicles to pick him up. Because of a miscommunication, when Carter and his detail got to the boathouse, agents were nowhere to be seen.
Stephen Garmon, the detail leader, and other agents had been following Carter on bicycles. Garmon, who later became deputy director of the Secret Service, tried to radio to the Secret Service vehicles, but his transmission was not getting through.
“The president said he was getting cold,” Garmon recalls. “I asked if he would mind running back to Key Bridge, and we could flag a cab if necessary. Then I saw a pay phone, but I didn’t have any change.” Garmon decided to try calling the 911 emergency number. Identifying himself as a Secret Service agent, he asked to be connected to the White House Communications Agency switchboard.
“The 911 operator connected me, and I was able to communicate to the vehicles so agents would pick us up,” Garmon says.
Besides seeing what presidents and first families are really like,Secret Service agents get to see the real face of the White House political staff. When Carter was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat at Camp David, former agent Cliff Baranowski heard a strange noise in the woods around midnight.
“Then Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, came out of the woods with a pretty intern,” Baranowski says. “They were parked in the woods, and his car got stuck. The noise was the spinning of wheels.”
As a micromanager, Carter gave his vice president, Walter Mondale, few duties. So Mondale was able to spend much of his time playing tennis and traveling.
Toward the end of his term, Carter became suspicious that people were stealing things and eavesdropping on his conversations in the Oval Office.
Carter and his staff were becoming “very paranoid,” says a General Services Administration (GSA) building manager in charge of maintenance of the West Wing. “They thought GSA or the Secret Service were listening in.”
One afternoon, Susan Clough, Carter’s secretary, insisted that someone had stolen a vial of crude oil from the Oval Office. The vial was a gift to Carter from an Arab leader.
“Susan Clough swore up and down that someone poured some of it out,” a GSA manager says. Even though the vial was sealed, “There was a big fuss over it. The Secret Service photographs everything in the president’s suite. They photographed it [again], and it hadn’t been touched. It shows the paranoia.”
Before going on a fishing trip in Georgia one morning, Carter accused a Secret Service agent of stealing fried chicken that stewards had prepared. In fact, White House aides Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan had eaten it.
After Reagan was inaugurated, GSA discovered that the Carter staff had left garbage in the White House and had trashed furniture in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
GSA saw “furniture, desks, and file cabinets turned over,” a GSA building manager says. “They shoved over desks. We had to straighten it out. It was fifteen or twenty desks in one area. It was enough to look like a cyclone had hit.”
After he was voted out of office, Carter occasionally stayed in the townhouse GSA maintains for former presidents at 1716 Jackson Place. On the walls of the townhouse are photos of former presidents.
Checking the premises, GSA managers found that when Carter was visiting, he would take down the photos of Republican presidents Ford and Nixon and decorate the townhouse with another half dozen sixteen-inch by twenty-four-inch photos of himself. Each time, Charles B. “Buddy” Respass, then the GSA manager in charge of the White House, became irate because GSA had to find the old photos and hang them again.
Through his lawyer Adamson, Carter denied this. He also denied that he thought people were listening to his conversations in the Oval Office.
But Lucille Price, the GSA manager who then reported to Respass, says, “Carter changed the photos…. He didn’t like them [Ford and Nixon] looking down at him. We would find out he would put photos of himself up.” Then, she says, Carter “would take the photos of himself back with him.”
For all his bizarre behavior and shams, Carter was genuinely religious, did not swear, and had a loving relationship with his wife, Rosalynn, who acted as an adviser.
Says Richard Repasky who was on Carter’s detail, “Rosalynn really was the brains of the outfit.”11Stagecoach
AS PART OF an advance, the Secret Service reviews reports from the intelligence community about possible threats. In 1996, former president George H. W. Bush was planning to fly to Beirut, Lebanon. The itinerary called for him to land on Cyprus, then helicopter over to Lebanon.
“The CIA informed us there was a threat on the former president’s life,” says Lou Morales, an agent who was with Bush 41, as he is called, on the trip. “The informant knew the itinerary of the helicopter flight and the time it was to take off. In fact, he was part of the plot, which had been hatched by Hezbollah. They were going to shoot missiles to take the helicopter down.”
The Secret Service informed Bush, who insisted he wanted to go to Beirut regardless of the risk. The Secret Service scrubbed the helicopter flight and instead drove him in a motorcade at ninety miles per hour from Damascus to Beirut. As with most thwarted plots against protectees, this one never appeared in the press.
Once agents have completed an advance, they recommend how many additional agents will be needed to cover the president. The normal working shift consists of a shift leader or whip and four shiftagents. These are the “body men” around the protectee. Other agents include three to four transportation agents, along with counter-surveillance agents and a complete counterassault team of five to six agents.
Besides agents from the local field office, the additional agents for a presidential visit come from the rest of the Secret Service’s 139 domestic offices. They include forty-two field offices in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; fifty-eight resident offices; sixteen resident agency offices; and twenty-three one-agent domiciles. These offices are in addition to twenty overseas offices.
Prior to a presidential visit, agents are flown to the location on air force transports, along with the president’s limo—code-named Stagecoach—and Secret Service vehicles. The countersniper and counter -assault teams and bomb techs fly in the same aircraft. These agents are in addition to shift agents who accompany the president on Air Force One. Canada prohibits agents from carrying arms, but they sneak in their weapons in presidential limousines.
In contrast to the open car President Kennedy used, the presidential limousine now is a closed vehicle. Known affectionately as “the Beast,” the 2009 Cadillac now in use was put into service for Barack Obama’s inauguration. The Beast lives up to its moniker. Built on top of a GMC truck chassis, the vehicle is armor-plated, with bulletproof glass and its own supply of oxygen. It is equipped with state-of-the-art encrypted communications gear. It has a remote starting mechanism and a self-sealing gas tank. The vehicle can keep going even when the tires are shot out. It can take a direct hit from a bazooka or grenade. The car’s doors are eighteen inches thick, and its windows are five inches thick. The latest model has larger windows and greater visibility than the Cadillac first used by President Bush for his January 2005 inauguration.
Often the first limousine in the motorcade is a decoy. The second limousine is a backup. The president could actually be in a thirdlimousine or in any vehicle in the motorcade. The number of cars in the motorcade depends on the purpose of the trip. For an unannounced visit to a restaurant, seven or eight Secret Service cars, known as the informal package, make the trip. For an announced visit, the formal package of up to forty vehicles, including cars for White House personnel and the press, goes out. Agents refer to their Secret Service vehicles as G-rides.
Including the White House doctor and other administration personnel, a domestic trip entails two hundred to three hundred people. An overseas trip could involve as many as six hundred people, including military personnel. In 2008 alone, the Secret Service provided protection on 135 overseas trips. On such trips, the Secret Service relies on local police even more than it does in the United States. But when Richard Nixon was vice president, local police disappeared as an angry mob descended on Nixon and his wife, Pat, at the Caracas, Venezuela, airport on May 13, 1958.
“The police were supposed to provide protection at the airport,” recalls Chuck Taylor, one of the Secret Service agents on the detail. “We noticed the police started to leave the motorcade. They were afraid of the mob, and so the police deserted their security arrangements.”
As stones and bottles were being thrown at the couple, agents formed a tight ring around them and quickly escorted them into the president’s bulletproof limousine. Along the route to the American embassy, protestors had erected a roadblock. Wielding clubs and pipes, a crowd swarmed the car.
“They had firebombs, and they were bent on killing everybody in the party,” Taylor says. “In some cases they put small kids out in front of the car, so we’d run over the kids. We appraised that situation and decided to walk the car through.”
The crowd tried to pry open the doors and then began to rock the limo and try to set it on fire. But as long as the agents were facingdown the insurgents, they seemed afraid to approach too closely. The agents managed to get Nixon safely to the American embassy where more angry insurgents confronted them.
“They wanted to burn down the embassy” Taylor says. “We went ahead and put these sandbags around, and we jerry-rigged a radio system so that we were able to talk to Washington. I understand they had cut the transatlantic cable, and we weren’t able to communicate normally. We were able to radio the president and tell him what the story was. The president sent the Sixth Fleet out to evacuate everybody.”
Now on domestic trips, each motorcade includes a car for the Secret Service counterassault team armed with submachine guns. Another Secret Service car, known as the intelligence car, keeps track of people who have been assessed as threats and picks up local transmissions to evaluate them. If necessary, it jams the communications of anyone who presents a threat. Normally, a helicopter supplied by the Park Police or local law enforcement hovers overhead.
For a motorcade, local police on motorcycles block access from side streets and leapfrog from intersection to intersection. Agents check out offices along the route. Before President Ford visited Conroe, Texas, Agent Dave Saleeba was told that one office in a building along the motorcade route could not be opened. Checking further, he learned that the building was owned by the heirs of a local lawyer.
Back in 1915, the lawyer had become heartbroken when his son, who’d been riding to see him, fell off his horse, hit his head on a well, and died. The lawyer never entered his office again and directed that his heirs never open it. However, at Saleeba’s request, the lawyer’s granddaughter agreed to open the office. Saleeba found the man’s desk covered with dust. A brown bag on top of the desk looked as if it had contained his lunch, now disintegrated.
Secret Service agents believe that simply being there, scanning crowds with a ferocious look, often wearing sunglasses, deters would-beassassins. Agents are looking for signs of danger—people who don’t seem to fit in, have their hands in their pockets, are sweating or look nervous, or appear as if they have mental problems. Agents lock in on movements, objects, or situations that are out of place.
“We look for a guy wearing an overcoat on a warm day,” says former agent William Albracht, who was a senior instructor at the Secret Service’s James J. Rowley Training Center. “A guy not wearing an overcoat on a cold day. A guy with hands in his pockets. A guy carrying a bag. Anybody that is overenthusiastic, or not enthusiastic. Anybody that stands out, or is constantly looking around. You’re looking at the eyes and most importantly the hands. Because where those hands go is the key.”
If an agent sees a bystander at a rope line with his hands in his pockets, he will say, “Sir, take your hands out of your pockets, take your hands out of your pockets NOW.”
“If he doesn’t, you literally reach out and grab the individual’s hands and hold them there,” Albracht says. “You have agents in the crowd who will then see you’re having problems. They’ll come up to the crowd, and they’ll grab the guy and toss him. They will take him out of there, frisk him, pat him down, and see what his problem is. You are allowed to do that in exigent circumstances in protection because it’s so immediate. You don’t have time to say, ‘Hey would you mind removing your hands?’ I mean if this guy’s got a weapon, you need to know right then.”
An agent who sees a weapon screams to fellow agents: “Gun! Gun!”
To identify themselves to other agents and to police helping during events, Secret Service agents wear color-coded pins on their left lapels. The pins, which bear the five-pointed star of the Secret Service, come in four colors. Each week, agents change to one of the four prescribed colors so they can recognize one another in crowds. Onthe back of the pin is a four-digit number. If the pin is stolen, the number can be entered on the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the computerized database that police use when they stop cars to see if they are stolen or if the occupants are fugitives. If the pin is found, police return it to the Secret Service.
When on protection duty, Secret Service agents wear trademark radio earpieces tuned to one of the encrypted channels the Secret Service uses. Known as a surveillance kit, the device includes a radio transmitter and receiver that agents keep in their pockets.
As for the sunglasses, “In training, they would give us clear Ray-Ban glasses,” former agent Pete Dowling says. “The reason they did that was eye protection, in case somebody threw something at the protectee. Most of the guys had them shaded. But the stereotype is the Secret Service guy always has sunglasses on, even when he is indoors.”
In practice, some agents wear sunglasses so people do not see where they are looking. Others prefer not to wear them.
Agents wearing plain clothes and no earpieces infiltrate crowds and patrol around the White House. If they spot a problem or vulnerability, they use a cell phone to notify the Joint Ops Center at Secret Service headquarters.
“They’re the guys in the crowd,” an agent says. “You wouldn’t know they were there, and they’re on the outside looking in during an event and during an advance.”
These agents try to think like assassins: How can they breach the security?
“It’s their job to take apart our plan prior to game day,” the agent says. “It’s their job to basically say, here are the holes, here are your vulnerabilities, tell us how you’re going to plug these holes.”
Technicians take photos of the crowds at presidential events. The images are compared with photos taken at other events—sometimesusing facial recognition software—to see if a particular individual keeps showing up.
Since the attempts on Ford’s life, presidents have generally worn bulletproof vests at public events. They are currently Kevlar Type Three vests that will stop rounds from most handguns and rifles but not from more powerful weapons. Agents on the president’s and vice president’s details are now supposed to wear them at public events, but some agents prefer not to wear them. While the vests have been improved, they are uncomfortable and can make life unbearable on a hot day.
“You have to be hypervigilant,” says former agent Jerry Parr, who headed President Reagan’s detail when he was shot. In the twenty years before the attempt on Reagan’s life, “You had one president murdered, one shot and wounded, a governor shot and wounded and paralyzed, two attempts on Ford, and you had Martin Luther King killed. You know it’s out there. You just don’t know where.”12Rawhide
IN CONTRAST TO Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan treated Secret Service agents, the Air Force One crew, and the maids and butlers in the White House with respect.
“Carter came into the cockpit once in the two years I was on with him,” says James A. Buzzelli, an Air Force One flight engineer. “But [Ronald] Reagan never got on or off without sticking his head in the cockpit and saying, ‘Thanks, fellas,’ or ‘Have a nice day’ He [Reagan] was just as personable in person as he came across to the public.”
“One Christmas when we were at the ranch, he came up to me and apologized to me for having to be away from my family on a holiday,” former agent Cliff Baranowski says. “A lot of times they would give us food from a party. I certainly did not expect it, but sometimes they insisted.”
Former agent Thomas Blecha remembers that when Reagan was running for president the first time, he came out of his home in Bel Air to drive to Rancho del Cielo, the seven-hundred-acre Reagan ranch north of Santa Barbara. Another agent noticed that he was wearing a pistol and asked what that was for.
“Well, just in case you guys can’t do the job, I can help out,” Reagan—code-named Rawhide—replied. Reagan confided to one agent that on his first presidential trip to the Soviet Union in May 1988, he had carried a gun in his briefcase.
For a time, East Executive Avenue was closed, and when Reagan’s motorcade left the White House, it would go along E Street onto Fifteenth Street instead of using Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. As a result, unless he looked out a window of the White House, Reagan did not see demonstrators opposed to nuclear arms who camped out across Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Park. After East Executive Avenue reopened, Agent Patrick Sullivan was driving when Reagan looked out the window of his limo. Reagan saw a perennial demonstrator in Lafayette Park give him a “Heil Hitler” salute as the vehicle passed him.
“This one gentleman was there all the time, and he had posters,” Sullivan recalls. “He was a nonviolent protester. We pulled the president’s motorcade up East Exec and made the left turn on Pennsylvania. The demonstrator was so shocked, because he had been there for a year and had never seen the motorcade go that way.”
The demonstrator jumped up.
“He starts giving President Reagan the Nazi salute,” Sullivan says. “He starts yelling ‘Heil Reagan! Heil Reagan!’ The president sees him standing up giving him the Nazi salute. The president was so shocked and hurt, he said to us, ‘Did you see that man giving me the Nazi salute? Why would he do that?’”
While it seemed to be a rhetorical question, Reagan clearly wanted a response.
“Mr. President, he’s out there all the time. He’s a nut,” Sullivan said to Reagan. “That’s all he does. He camps out there; he’s there every day.”
“Oh, okay,” Reagan said.
“That’s just the way he was,” Sullivan says. “Once he realized he was a nut, he was okay with him. He just didn’t want this guy to be a regular citizen. Reagan was just a sincere, down-to-earth gentleman. And I think it hurt his feelings that this guy was giving him the Nazi salute.”
Quite often, Reagan quietly wrote personal checks to people who had written him with hard-luck stories.
“Reagan was famous for firing up air force jets on behalf of children who needed transport for kidney operations,” says Frank J. Kelly, who drafted presidential messages. “These are things you never knew about. He never bragged about it. I hand-carried checks for four thousand or five thousand dollars to people who had written him. He would say, ‘Don’t tell people. I was poor myself.’”
While Reagan liked to look for the best in people, he was not a Boy Scout. On one occasion, Reagan gave a speech at Georgetown University. As the motorcade drove down M Street toward the White House, Reagan noticed a man in a crowd.
“Fellows, look,” Reagan said to his agents. “A guy over there’s giving me the finger, can you believe that?”
Reagan started waving back, smiling.
“We’re going by, and he’s still waving and smiling, and he goes, ‘Hi there, you son of a bitch,’” agent Dennis Chomicki remembers, imitating Reagan’s buttery-smooth delivery.
One late Friday afternoon, Reagan had left the White House for Camp David. Agent Sullivan was working W-16, the Secret Service’s office under the Oval Office.
“A guy came up to the northwest gate carrying a live chicken, demanding to see the president,” Sullivan says. “He said he wanted to do a sacrifice for President Reagan. And he impaled the chicken on the fence of the White House. He took the chicken and stuck him on a point on top.”
Uniformed officers arrested the man, and he was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for observation.
When Reagan was to go to Spokane, Washington, in 1986, Pete Dowling was part of the advance team sent to scope things out. Besides reviewing all known threats, he met with the Spokane police department, the FBI, and other agencies that might have intelligence on possible threats.
One night, the police department called Dowling to report that an older couple staying at a Best Western downtown had found a large paper dinner napkin on the floor of an elevator. The napkin appeared to have writing on it, so they looked closer. The napkin apparently had a diagram of the Spokane Coliseum, where Reagan was going to speak in four days.
“I went to the police department, I got the napkin, and sure enough, it was a diagram of the coliseum,” Dowling recalls. “And it had a legend; it hadXsaround the exterior of the coliseum, and then in the legend it saidXequals security post. Then it had all of our license plates of the cars we were using. Clearly somebody was conducting surveillance of us.”
At the time, a neo-Nazi group called the Aryan Nations was headquartered at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a drive of about forty-five minutes from Spokane. Among other things, the group objected to the tax system and was threatening to assassinate public officials. Dowling thought the napkin could have originated from the group. He drove to the Best Western and asked the clerk to show him all the sign-in cards.
“He gave me a little wooden box that contained index cards,” Dowling says. “There were four hundred rooms in the hotel, so I started thumbing through the index cards, and when I got to the sixtieth one, bingo. It was the exact handwriting and hand printing that I saw on the napkin.”
Dowling noted the license plate listed on the card. He walked into the parking lot and saw a four-door sedan with the same license plate number. Looking inside, he saw blankets neatly piled in the back and two pillows on top of the blankets. Some books were piled on the floor. Obviously, someone was living in the car. Dowling thought it odd that someone living in a car would be so tidy. He called the police and asked for two backup cars.
“We went up to the room, and I knocked on the door, and the guy said, ‘Who is it?’” Dowling says.
“It’s me, open up,” Dowling replied.
“The idiot opened the door. He was just in his underpants. I grabbed him by his hair, and I pulled him out into the hallway,” Dowling says. “One of the officers grabbed him, and we all went in and did what we call a protective sweep of the room, just to ensure that nobody else was in there armed.”
Dowling noticed a bullet on top of the dresser. Attached to the bullet was a string, and attached to the string was a little white piece of paper.
“Reagan will die,” the paper said.
The suspect gave Dowling permission to search the room but not his car.
“I’m going to be up all night anyway, so to do an application for a search warrant and to bring it to a judge at his home at three o’clock in the morning, that’s no sweat for me,” Dowling said to the man. “Either way, it doesn’t matter.”
“You can search my car,” the man said. “The gun’s in the car.”
It turned out the man had just gotten out of prison after being convicted of bank robbery. While he was in jail, he had had a romantic relationship with another male inmate. The other inmate had just been transferred to another prison, and the suspect heard that his former lover was romantically involved with somebody else.
“He wanted to do something spectacular in the Spokane area so he could go back to jail and be reunited with the other man,” Dowling says.
As Reagan was running for reelection in 1984, a New York state trooper spotted an old Buick sedan going twenty-five miles an hour on the New York State Thruway where the speed limit was sixty-five. The trooper pulled the man over and immediately noticed an array of guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition on the floor and front passenger seat.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the officer asked.
“I’m going to kill the people running against Reagan,” the man replied.
The officer arrested the man, who was committed to a mental hospital north of New York City for observation. Because the man had threatened to kill presidential candidates, two Secret Service agents, at the direction of the Secret Service Intelligence Division, were dispatched to interview him. At first, the patient’s psychiatric manager balked at the idea of a law enforcement interview. He then relented as long as the agents removed their guns and handcuffs and did not bring radios or briefcases.
“The man said he was glad to see us,” one of the agents says. “He said he loves the Secret Service and was willing to tell us everything.”
But first, the man asked the agents to pray with him.
“We folded our hands and bowed our heads at the interview table and prayed with the man,” the agent says. “At that moment, the psychiatrist walked in. It’s a wonder he didn’t have us committed.”
When the news broke that Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart was having an affair with Donna Rice, Reagan was returning to the White House from an evening event.
“We were in the elevator going up to the residence on the second floor of the White House,” says former agent Ted Hresko. “The doorof the elevator was about to close, and one of the staffers blocked it. The staffer told Reagan the news about Donna Rice and Gary Hart.”
Reagan nodded his head and looked at the agent.
“Boys will be boys,” he said.
When the door of the elevator shut, Reagan said to Hresko, “But boys will not be president.”13Rainbow
IF NANCY REAGAN’S wealthy California friends reported getting their copies ofVogueandMademoisellebefore she did, she took it out on the White House staff. For that reason, Nelson Pierce, an assistant usher in the White House, always dreaded bringing Nancy her mail.
“She would get mad at me,” Pierce says. “If her subscription was late or one of her friends in California had gotten the magazine and she hadn’t, she would ask why she hadn’t gotten hers.”
White House ushers would then have to search for the errant magazine at Washington newsstands, which invariably had not received their copies.
One sunny afternoon Pierce brought some mail to Nancy in the first family’s west sitting room on the second floor of the White House. Nancy’s dog Rex, a King Charles spaniel, was lying on the floor at her feet.
Pierce was old friends with Rex, Ronald Reagan’s Christmas gift to his wife, or so he thought. During the day, the usher’s office—just inside the front entrance on the first floor of the mansion—is often a napping place for White House pets. But for some reason, Rex was nothappy to see Pierce this time. As Pierce turned to leave, Rex bit his ankle and held on. Pierce pointed his finger at the dog, a gesture to tell the dog to let go.
Nancy turned on Pierce.
“Don’t you ever point a finger at my dog,” she said.
From the start of his political life, Reagan was stage-managed by Nancy.
“Did I ever give Ronnie advice? You bet I did,” Nancy Reagan wrote inMy Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan. “I’m the one who knows him best, and I was the only person in the White House who had absolutely no agenda of her own—except helping him.”
“Mrs. Reagan was a precise and demanding woman,” recalls John F. W. Rogers, the Reagan aide over administration of the White House. “Her sole interest was the advancement of her husband’s agenda.”
It turned out that most of Nancy’s advice was sound. As she explained it, “As much as I love Ronnie, I’ll admit he does have at least one fault: He can be naive about the people around him. Ronnie only tends to think well of people. While that’s a fine quality in a friend, it can get you into trouble in politics.”
Code-named Rainbow, Nancy was “very cold,” a Secret Service agent in the Reagan White House says. “She had her circle of four friends in Los Angeles, and that was it. Nothing changed when she was with her kids. She made it clear to her kids that if they wanted to see their father, they had to check with her first. It was a standing rule. Not that they could not see him. ‘I will let you know if it is advisable and when you can see him.’ She was something else.”
Like Nancy, the Reagans’ daughter Patti Davis was difficult. When agents were with her in New York, she would attempt to ditch them by jumping out of the official vehicle while it was stopped in traffic. She viewed her detail as a nuisance.
“On one visit to New York City, she was with movie actor Peter Strauss, whom she was dating at the time,” Albracht says. “Ms. Davis started to engage in the same tricks as on her previous visits and in general treated the assigned agent with disrespect. Strauss became incensed at her actions and told her, ‘You’d better start treating these agents with respect or I’m going back to L.A.’”
“Guess what,” Albracht says. “She started treating us better.”
Another agent says Nancy Reagan was so controlling that she objected when her husband kibitzed with Secret Service agents.
“Reagan was such a down-to-earth individual, easy to talk to,” the agent says. “He was the great communicator. He wanted to be on friendly terms. He accepted people for what they were. His wife was just the opposite. If she saw that he was having a conversation with the agents, and it looked like they were good ol’ boys, and he was laughing, she would call him away. She called the shots.”
“There was a dog out the ranch, and the agents used to play with the dog, and the dog barked,” says Albracht, relaying what an agent on the scene told him. “One night the dog was barking and Nancy got mad, and she told the president, ‘You go out there and you tell the agents to leave that dog alone.’”
Apparently, the barking was interrupting her sleep. Nancy was as persistent as the dog’s barking, so Reagan said he would take care of it and left the bedroom.
“He went to the kitchen, and he just stood there,” Albracht says. “He got a glass of water, went back to bedroom, and said, ‘All right, I took care of it.’ He just didn’t want to bother the agents. He was a true gentleman.”
On the day Reagan left office, he flew to Los Angeles on Air Force One. Bleachers had been set up near a hangar, and a cheering crowd welcomed him while the University of Southern California band played.
“As he was standing there, one of the USC guys took his Trojan helmet off,” a Secret Service agent says. “He said, ‘Mr. President!’ and threw his helmet to him. He saw it and caught it and put it on. The crowd went wild.”
But Nancy Reagan leaned over to him and said, “Take that helmet off right now. You look like a fool.”
“You saw a mood change,” the agent says. “And he took it off. That went on all the time.”
While Reagan and Nancy had a loving relationship, like any married couple, they had occasional fights.
“They were very affectionate and would kiss,” Air Force One steward Palmer says of the Reagans. But they also got mad at each other over what to eat and other small issues. Moreover, Palmer says Nancy could only push the president so far.
“We were going into Alaska. She had put on everything she could put on,” Palmer says. “She turned around and said, ‘Where are your gloves?’ He said, ‘I’m not wearing my gloves.’ She said, ‘Oh, yes, you are.’ He said he was not.”
Palmer says Reagan finally took the gloves, but he said he could not shake hands while he was wearing them. He said he would not put them on, and he didn’t.
Nancy tried to restrict her husband’s diet to healthy foods, but he reverted to his favorites when Nancy was not around.
“She was protective about what he ate,” Palmer says. “When she was not there, he ate differently. One of his favorite foods was macaroni and cheese. That was a no-no for her. If it was on the menu, she said, ‘You’re not eating that.’”
For all the spin from the Carter White House about not drinking, it was the Reagans who drank the least.
“I may have served the Reagans four drinks, maybe, with the exception of a glass of wine,” Palmer says.
When they were at the ranch, the Reagans would ride horseback together every day after lunch. Despite his cinematic roles in Westerns, he rode English, in breeches and boots. He usually rode El Alamein, a gray Anglo-Arab given to Reagan by former president José López Portillo of Mexico. Reagan had a routine he would follow.
“He would go up to the barn just outside the house. He would saddle up the horses, get them all ready, then he had one of those triangle bells,” former agent Chomicki says. “He would always bang on that iron triangle, and that was Nancy Reagan’s sign that the horses are ready, come on out, let’s go.”
One afternoon, Reagan was banging away on the bell, but Nancy did not appear. Finally he went into the house to get her. He came out with her looking unhappy. At that point, a technician from the White House Communications Agency told Chomicki that he had detected a problem with the ranch’s phone system. A telephone set must have been off the hook, and the technician wanted to check. Chomicki allowed the technician to enter the home. The technician soon came out holding a phone that had been smashed to pieces.
“She was on the phone,” Chomicki says. “That’s why she didn’t come up to the barn. Nancy never really liked the ranch. She would go up there because the president liked it. Other than the ride, she used to stay in the house almost all the time, and a good portion of the time she’d be talking to her friends down in L.A. For the president, the highlight of his day was to go riding with Nancy. And when she didn’t come out because she was talking on the phone, he threw the phone on the floor.”
Besides riding at the ranch, Reagan rode at the Marine Corps Base Quantico southwest of Washington, at Camp David, and in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. Agents assigned to his detail were trained in horseback riding by the U.S. Park Police. One of the agents, Barbara Riggs, was a skilled equestrian and required no training. Sworn in in1975, Riggs was the tenth female to become a Secret Service agent. The first female agents—five in all—joined the agency in 1971.
Riggs was on a first-name basis with Reagan. When she fell off one of her own horses and suffered a concussion, he called her upstairs to the living room of the White House after she returned to work. Reagan handed her a book calledThe Principles of Horsemanship and Training Horses. With a wink, he suggested she reread it.
“Yes, I encountered sexual harassment, barriers, and attitudes that women should not be law enforcement agents,” Riggs says. “There were some who did not believe women were capable, either physically or mentally, of doing the job. But I also encountered many individuals who acted as my mentors and gave me great opportunities.”
In 2004, Riggs became the first female deputy director of the Secret Service. The Secret Service now has three hundred eighty female agents.
“You are always going to find a dinosaur in the bunch,” says Patricia Beckford, the eighth female agent hired. “You did have to prove yourself. But at a certain point, they realized that our .357 Magnum shot just as well as theirs.”14Hogan’s Alley
IT GOES WITH the territory that an agent may have to take a bullet for the president. But the actual instruction to trainees is a little more complicated.
“What we are trained to do as shift agents is to cover and evacuate if there is an attack,” an agent says. “We form a human shield around the protectee and get him out of the danger area to a safer location. If an agent is shot during the evacuation, then that is something that is expected. We rely on our layers of security to handle the attacker, while the inside shift’s main function is to get the heck out of Dodge.”
“People always say to me, ‘Hey would you really take a bullet for the president?’” says former agent Dowling. “I say, ‘What do you think, I’m stupid?’ But what we’ll do is we’ll do everything in our power to keep the bullet out of the event. And that’s what the Secret Service is all about. It’s about being prepared, it’s about meticulous advance preparation, and it’s about training properly so that when you do your job, you don’t have to bumble around for the steps that you take.”
The key to that is the James J. Rowley Training Center in Laurel,Maryland. The training facility is nestled between a wildlife refuge and a soil conservation area. The forest muffles the gunfire, the squealing wheels, and the explosions that are the sounds of training Secret Service agents and Uniformed Division officers. Like many of the buildings on this 440-acre spread, the center itself is named for a former director. Rowley headed the Secret Service when Kennedy was assassinated, and he spearheaded many changes after the tragedy.
The main classroom building, made of stone with a green roof, looks like it was lifted from a community college and dropped there. The building was named for Lewis C. Merletti, another former Secret Service director, who now heads security for the Cleveland Browns.
While most of the photos on the walls at headquarters downtown tell of sunny days, triumphant moments, and protectees well protected, the photos here in the Merletti building tell of the underside, the hard work of processing evidence; and the dark side, the failures and poignant reminders. There are photos from the JFK assassination and an overhead of President McKinley’s funeral procession in 1901. That’s the year Congress informally asked the Secret Service to protect presidents, a little late.
Along one wall, every graduating class has its class photo, going back to the start of formalized special agent training in the fifties. Back then, they wore fedoras. The photos proceed to the sixties, when agents had preppie hair, through the big-hair days of the seventies, to the “normal”-looking agents of today.
Here, new agents receive a total of sixteen weeks of training, combined with another twelve and a half weeks of training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) at Glynco, Georgia. To apply to be a Secret Service agent, an individual must be a U.S. citizen. At the time of appointment, he or she must be at least twenty-one years of age but younger than thirty-seven.
Agents need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college oruniversity or three years of work experience in the criminal investigative or law enforcement fields that require knowledge and application of laws relating to criminal violations. Agents’ uncorrected vision can be no worse than 20/60, correctable to 20/20 in each eye. Besides passing a background examination, potential agents must take drug tests and pass a polygraph before they are hired and given a top secret security clearance.
Each year, the training center graduates seven to eleven classes of twenty-four Secret Service and Uniformed Division recruits. Even though the training center is in Laurel, agents refer to it as Beltsville, which is actually the town next door. Most of the training center’s roads have names appropriate to the task at hand—Firearms Road, Range Road, Action Road, and Perimeter Road. Nothing called Ambush Road, but there is always an ambush in the works.
At what the Secret Service calls Hogan’s Alley—not to be confused with the FBI’s Hogan’s Alley at its Quantico, Virginia, training academy—a body is lying in the middle of the road. Members of the Uniformed Division (UD) sit in a small grandstand watching down the street as four UD officers in BDUs—battle-dress uniforms—clear the buildings and sort out how to take the bad guys down. Except for a real two-story house and soft drink machine, the block-long village is like a Hollywood set, with the façades of a hardware store, hotel, restaurant, bar, and bank, and real cars parked in front. Suddenly the body comes to life, gets up, and walks away, signaling the end of the scenario.
Instructors play the roles of hostage, baddies, and bodies. The retired head of the Prince George’s County SWAT team runs the training here along with other special ops experts. They talk about the big picture, what agents have encountered in assassination attempts, as well as the details, such as how to get small behind a trash can. Most important, when agents hear gunshots, they are trained to respondrather than flinch—to cover a protectee and relocate him. However, at the training center, a sign says this is a simulated attack area and warns, “No live weapons beyond this point.”
Narrating one of the scenarios, Bobbie McDonald, assistant to the special agent in charge of training, explains to me, “What we’re viewing is how they come upon the problem, how they alert about the problem, how they alert their partner, how they react to the situation. Did they take cover? Did they draw their weapon in an appropriate fashion and at an appropriate time? Did they shoot when they should have? Was it what we would call a good shoot, versus a bad shoot?”
In another section of the tactical village, a black van slowly drives past, packed with counterassault team (CAT) members doing in-service training. Wearing black “unis,” rifles at the ready, they watch out the van’s windows, scowling behind their sunglasses.
Down the road, a smoke bomb goes off near a motorcade. The CAT team jumps out to deal with whatever its members find—a motorcade ambush, a suicide bomber, a shooter. Perhaps the explosion is a distraction from the real threat. The team leader sees something in the woods, a sniper hiding behind a tree. Sniper subdued, the instructor says “the problem” has been dealt with. The team hustles back into the van. The motorcade reassembles and drives off to continue around campus, where more scenarios are waiting.
Near another part of the tactical village is a White House gate with a kiosk where the occasional trapped bird can be found fluttering in exhaustion at all the windows. Replicas of the Uniformed Division’s White House kiosks, those familiar white houses with pointed roofs, dot the Secret Service campus.
A scenario staged at one of these guardhouses could be dealing with a “gate caller” about to jump the fence. This part of the tactical town is two blocks long with the same lettered and numbered streets as downtown Washington near the White House. The buildings hereare not back-lot façades but heavier duty, including an eight-story repelling tower for countersnipers’ practice shots.
Here, trainees work rope line scenarios where they take turns playing the protectee. When trainees interview a “subject” in the lockup room, the person is usually a contracted role player—an actor or a retired police officer. Agents learn to use pressure points to unlock the grip of an assailant or an overeager fan. Outside there are “instant action drills” where motorcades are ambushed, people fire guns from windows, and things blow up.
Many of the practical exercises begin at the “airport,” where air traffic is always grounded. Permanently stuck on the tarmac is Air Force One-Half, a mock-up of the front half of the presidential plane, including the presidential seal and gangway. Next to it in similar unflyable condition is Marine One-Half, the center’s version of the president’s Marine One helicopter.
At the protective operations driving course, the regular students get about twenty-four hours of training in driving techniques. If they are assigned to drive in a detail, they receive an additional forty hours of training.
The giant parking lot is like a driver obstacle course from TV commercials or reality shows. Here they use Chargers—high-powered, high-energy vehicles—to speed out of the kill zone. As a countermeasure, they learn to do the J-turn, making a perfect one-hundred-eighty-degree turn at high speed by going into reverse, jerking the wheel to right or left, and shifting into drive.
Trainees learn to negotiate serpentine courses, weaving around road objects and crashing through barriers, roadblocks, and other cars. If a protectee’s car is disabled, they learn to push it through turns and obstacles with their own vehicle. When backing up their vehicle, to give them more control, agents are trained not to turn around to look out the rear window but to use their side-view mirrors.
Besides physical training, agents get eight to twelve hours of swimming instruction, including escaping from a submerged helicopter. For this, the training center uses the dunker, which is meant to simulate what would happen if a helicopter went down and an agent—strapped into his seat—was on it.
In fact, that happened back in May 1973, when Agent J. Clifford Dietrich died while on assignment with Nixon. Dietrich drowned when a U.S. Army helicopter crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about two hundred yards from Grand Cay Island in the Bahamas. The helicopter flipped upside down, and Dietrich was unable to extricate himself. The pilot and the other six agents with him survived.
At several indoor and outdoor firing ranges, trainees and Secret Service agents doing periodic requalification shoot handguns, shotguns, and automatic weapons. Out of view, from behind bulletproof glass, a voice issues commands over a PA. “Hot reload all the remaining slug rounds from the stock and one from your pocket…. Shooter will continue one line of rifle slug in four seconds….”
A barrage of bullets flies from six stations. As they are riddled with bullets, the targets spin in place.
“Everything we teach out here, we hope we never have to do,” Bobbie McDonald says.
If it comes down to taking a bullet, “You did something wrong,” says an agent. “And if that happens, I don’t think it’s something you’re going to think about before you do it. It’s just basically you’re going to try to get the man out of the way, and if you take some rounds, so be it. But the whole goal is for both of you to get out of there without a scratch.”15“I Forgot to Duck”
COMING BACK FROM the ranch one day, President Reagan chatted with his agents about how tough it was being president, always surrounded by security.
“I would love to be able to walk into a store like any person, just go down a magazine rack and browse through the magazines like I used to. Walk here, walk there,” Reagan said.
His agents suggested he go into a store spontaneously to lessen the risk. While he was in the store, they would block the entrance.
“Valentine’s Day was coming up, and he said he wanted to go to a card store in Washington and get a card for Nancy,” says former agent Dennis Chomicki. “So we pull up in a small motorcade, the president gets out of the car and goes into the store. He was just browsing around, having a great time.”
Meanwhile, a man was looking at cards.
“Reagan picks a card up, and he looks over to this guy and shows it to him and he says, ‘Hey do you think Nancy would like this?’” Chomicki says.
At first, the customer said, “Oh, yeah, your wife would like that.”
Then he looked up.
“Oh, my God, the president!” he said.
Not long after that, Reagan would be reminded of why presidents need protection. At two thirty-fiveP.M.on March 30, 1981, John W. Hinckley Jr., twenty-five, fired a .22 Röhm RG-14 revolver at Reagan as he left the Washington Hilton Hotel after giving a speech.
Members of the public had been allowed to greet Reagan as he left the hotel. Magnetometers were then used at stationary locations such as the White House but not when the president traveled outside the White House. As a result, no one had been screened. By inserting himself into that crowd, which included the press, Hinckley managed to get within twenty feet of the president.
Instinctively, Agent Timothy McCarthy hurled himself in front of Reagan and took a bullet in the right chest. It passed through his right lung and lacerated his liver. While Secret Service agents and Uniformed Division officers have been wounded or killed during protection duty, McCarthy is the only agent to have actually taken a bullet for the president by stepping into the line of fire. In a second and a half, Hinckley fired six rounds. Besides McCarthy, Metropolitan Police Officer Thomas Delahanty and Press Secretary Jim Brady were wounded. Brady suffered extensive brain damage.
Agent Dennis McCarthy—no relation to Timothy—would be the first to pounce on Hinckley. At first, McCarthy thought he was hearing firecrackers go off.
“After the second shot, I knew it was a gun,” McCarthy says. “At that point, I had a feeling of panic. I knew I had to stop it.”
By the third shot, McCarthy spotted a pair of hands gripping a pistol in between the television cameras just eight feet away. McCarthy lunged for the gun and hurled himself on Hinckley as he was still firing.
“As I was going through the air, I remember the desperate feeling: ‘I’ve got to get to him! I’ve got to get to him! I’ve got to stop him!’” McCarthy says.
Crouched in a combat position, Hinckley collapsed as McCarthy landed on his back. While the assailant offered no resistance, McCarthy remembers hearing the fast click, click, click as Hinckley continued squeezing the trigger, even after the .22 caliber revolver’s six shots had been expended. McCarthy had always wondered how he would react when gunfire actually started. Now he knew.
Like McCarthy, President Reagan at first thought he was hearing the sound of firecrackers.
“I was almost to the car when I heard what sounded like two or three firecrackers over to my left—just a small fluttering sound, pop, pop, pop,” Reagan said later. “I turned and said, ‘What the hell’s that?’ Just then, Jerry Parr, the head of our Secret Service unit, grabbed me by the waist and literally hurled me into the back of the limousine. I landed on my face atop the armrest across the backseat, and Jerry jumped on top of me.”
“I remember three quick shots and four more,” Parr tells me. “With Agent Ray Shaddick, I pushed the president down behind another agent who was holding the car door open. Agent McCarthy got hold of Hinckley by leaping through the air. I got the president in the car, and the other agent slammed the door, and we drove off.”
The limo began speeding toward the White House.
“I checked him over and found no blood,” Parr says. “After fifteen or twenty seconds, we were under Dupont Circle moving fast. President Reagan had a napkin from the speech and dabbed his mouth with it. He said, ‘I think I cut the inside of my mouth.’”
Parr noticed that the blood was bright red and frothy. Knowing that to be a danger sign, he ordered the driver to head toward George Washington University Hospital. It was the hospital that had been preselected in the event medical assistance was needed.
It turned out that the president may have been within minutes ofdeath when he arrived at the hospital. Going straight there probably saved his life.
Reagan remembered how, as they neared the hospital, he suddenly found he could barely breathe. “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get enough air,” he said. “I was frightened and started to panic a little. I just was not able to inhale enough air.”
In fact, Parr says, “I didn’t know he was shot until we got to the hospital. He collapsed as we walked in.”
As he was placed on a gurney Reagan felt excruciating pain near his ribs.
“What worried me most was that I still could not get enough air, even after the doctors placed a breathing tube in my throat,” Reagan said. “Every time I tried to inhale, I seemed to get less air. I remember looking up from the gurney, trying to focus my eyes on the square ceiling tiles, and praying. Then I guess I passed out for a few minutes.”
When Reagan regained consciousness, he became aware of someone holding his hand.
“It was a soft, feminine hand,” he said. “I felt it come up and touch mine and then hold on tight to it. It gave me a wonderful feeling. Even now I find it difficult to explain how reassuring, how wonderful, it felt. It must have been the hand of a nurse kneeling very close to the gurney, but I couldn’t see her. I started asking, ‘Who’s holding my hand? Who’s holding my hand?’”
At one point, Reagan opened his eyes to see his wife, Nancy.
“Honey, I forgot to duck,” he joked.
As luck would have it, that afternoon most of the doctors who practiced at the hospital were attending a meeting only an elevator ride away from the emergency room.
“Within a few minutes after I arrived, the room was full of specialists in virtually every medical field,” Reagan said. “When one of thedoctors said they were going to operate on me, I said, ‘I hope you’re a Republican.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Today Mr. President, we’re all Republicans.’ I also remember saying, after one of the nurses asked me how I felt, ‘All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.’” It was the epitaph of fellow actor W. C. Fields.
Surgeons found a bullet that had punctured and collapsed a lung. It was lodged an inch from Reagan’s heart. If he had been wearing a bulletproof vest, the bullet likely would not have penetrated Reagan’s body.
“On several previous occasions when I’d been out in public as president, the Secret Service had made me wear a bulletproof vest under my suit,” Reagan explained later. “That day, even though I was going to speak to some die-hard Democrats who didn’t think much of my economic recovery program, no one had thought my iron underwear would be necessary because my only exposure was to be a thirty-foot walk to the car.”
“Some of my colleagues have said, ‘Well, I would have taken him to the White House because it’s the safest place,’” Parr says. “You take a chance when you take the president to the hospital. If he’s not hurt, then you frighten the nation. But in this case, we were right. And there was a trauma team there that gets a lot of gunshot wounds.”
For Parr, it was a decision he had never wanted to make. He joined the Secret Service in 1962, a year before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“We never forgot it,” Parr says. “We never wanted it to happen on our watch. Unfortunately, it almost happened on mine.”
“The agents who got him [Reagan] out of there did everything right,” says former agent William Albracht, who, as a senior instructor at the training center, taught new agents about lessons learned from previous assassination attempts. “The other agents went to the assassin and helped subdue him.”
In retrospect, he says, “Maybe they should have jumped in the follow-up [car] and gone with the protectee instead of staying there and trying to subdue Hinckley Because you have police there to do that job. All agents are always thinking diversion: Is this the primary attack, or are the bad guys trying to get us to commit all our assets and then hit us on the withdrawal? So whether more agents should have gone with Reagan is twenty-twenty hindsight. We teach agents to go with the protectee to make sure there is a successful escape.”
At the hospital, the FBI confiscated Reagan’s authentication card for launching nuclear weapons, saying that all of Reagan’s effects were needed as evidence. Because no guidelines had been worked out for a situation where a president undergoes emergency surgery, it was not clear who could launch a nuclear strike.
The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution allows the vice president to act for the president only if the president has declared in writing to the Senate and the House that he is disabled and cannot discharge his duties. If the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet agree that the president is unable to discharge his duties, they may make the vice president the acting president. But that would require time.
Vice President George H. W. Bush could have taken it upon himself to launch a strike by communicating with the defense secretary over a secure line. But it was questionable whether he had the legal authority to do so. When Bush became president, his administration drafted a highly detailed, classified plan for immediate transfer of power in the case of serious presidential illness.
Before he shot Reagan, Hinckley had been obsessed with movie star Jodie Foster after seeing her inTaxi Driver. In the 1976 film, a disturbed man plots to assassinate a presidential candidate. The main character, played by Robert DeNiro, was based on Arthur Bremer, who shot Governor George Wallace. After viewing the movie many times,Hinckley began stalking Foster. Just before his attack on Reagan, he wrote to her, “You’ll be proud of me, Jodie. Millions of Americans will love me—us.”
On October 9, 1980, about six months before his assault on Reagan, Hinckley had been arrested as he attempted to board a plane at the Nashville, Tennessee, airport while carrying three pistols. President Carter was in Nashville at the time. Reagan, then running for the presidency, had just canceled a trip to Nashville.
As a result of the Reagan incident, the Secret Service began using magnetometers to screen crowds at events. “We started to look at acceptable standoff distances to keep crowds away,” says Danny Spriggs, who took Hinckley into custody at the shooting and became a deputy director of the Secret Service. “The distances would vary with the environment.”
The Secret Service also learned to segregate the press from onlookers and keep better tabs on them to make sure no one infiltrates the press contingent, pretending to be a reporter. An agent is assigned to watch the press, and members of the press themselves report those who try to infiltrate.
Similarly, the Secret Service learned lessons from the John F. Kennedy assassination. It doubled its complement of agents, computerized and increased its intelligence data, increased the number of agents assigned to advance and intelligence work, created counter-sniper teams, expanded its training functions, and improved liaison with other law enforcement and federal agencies.
“Before the Kennedy assassination, training often consisted of agents telling war stories,” says Taylor Rudd, an agent assigned to revamp training. “Many agents on duty had never had any training.”
Now the Secret Service shares intelligence and techniques with a range of foreign security services. After the assassination of Israeliprime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Secret Service and Israel’s Shin Bet spent a week together comparing notes.
“The Rabin assassination was much like the Hinckley attempt on Reagan,” says former agent Dowling, who was in charge of foreign liaison when the meetings with Shin Bet took place. “It happened at a motorcade departure site.”
Shin Bet officials laid bare their own shortcomings.
“It was a very emotional, sad thing for them to do,” Dowling says. “This particular guy loitered for some time around the motorcade, and he should have been noticed. And we kind of experienced something similar with Hinckley. We had somebody who was clearly stalking the president, somebody who had stalked presidents before. It’s not because this guy thinks Reagan’s a bad guy, or he thinks Jimmy Carter’s a bad guy. It’s the office that interests them. It’s the authority.”
About a year after the Reagan assassination attempt, the Secret Service’s Washington field office began receiving calls from a man threatening to kill Reagan. The man would say, “I’m going to shoot him.” Then he would hang up.
Agent Dennis Chomicki was assigned to protective intelligence and was aware that the calls were coming in because he’d been reading what the Secret Service calls “squeal sheets,” which recount incidents over the previous twenty-four hours. One morning, Chomicki was reading about the caller when someone called the main line of the field office, which at the time was at Nineteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Since Chomicki was one of the first agents in that morning, he picked up the call.
“Hi, it’s me again,” the caller said. “You know me.”
“No, I don’t know you,” Chomicki responded.
“Well, I’m the guy that’s going to kill the president,” the man said.
“Look, do me a favor,” Chomicki said. “I’m standing here on a wallphone because I just opened up the door. Why don’t you call back on my desk so I can sit and talk with you?”
The man agreed, and Chomicki gave him his direct dial number.
Back then, the Secret Service had an arrangement with what is now Verizon that the phone company would immediately trace calls even from unlisted numbers when an agent called a telephone company supervisor. Chomicki called a supervisor and gave him the number at his desk so that all incoming calls would be traced. He was sure the man would not be stupid enough to call the number.
“I walked over to my desk, and sure enough, he called back,” Chomicki says. “So we started talking, and I was able to record that conversation.”
The man said he had a rifle with a scope.
“I’m going to aim in, squeeze the trigger off, and blow his head apart like a pumpkin,” the man said.
“Hey, this is pretty serious stuff. Why don’t we meet?” Chomicki said.
“What do you think, I’m crazy?” the caller said, and hung up.
The phone company called and said the man had called from a pay phone on New York Avenue. With the location of the pay phone in his pocket, Chomicki dashed out the door. Just then, another agent was walking in.
“Bob, come on, we got to go,” Chomicki said. “I’ll tell you all about it on the way down.”
They ran to the Secret Service garage and jumped into their respective Secret Service cars. They drove to New York Avenue and Eleventh Street, where the Greyhound bus terminal was located at the time.
“We were looking around, and we didn’t see anybody,” Chomicki says. “There was a coffee-to-go truck sitting nearby. We went up and asked the guy, ‘Did you see anybody on the phone a short while ago?’”
“Yeah, about quarter to eight there was a guy,” the man said.
He gave the man’s estimated height and weight and described him as wearing blue pants and a blue shirt. The time cited by the coffee man coincided with the call Chomicki had received at the field office. Chomicki asked the coffee man why he had noticed the individual using the public pay phone.
“Usually I show up on the corner at eight,” the man explained. “I just happened to get here early today, and my customers don’t expect me here until eight, so business was slow. I was just sitting here staring at the phone booth and saw this guy on the phone, and I just happened to remember what he looked like.”
The agents jumped into their cars. Chomicki drove east on New York Avenue; the other agent drove west. Just then, Chomicki spotted a man who matched the description given to him by the coffee man. He was using a pay phone on the outer wall of the bus terminal building.
Chomicki made a U-turn and parked his car across the street. He walked up behind the man and heard him talking in a Midwestern accent. It was the voice of the man who had called him at the field office.
“I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, and I pushed him between the phone and the side panel, and I grabbed the phone,” Chomicki says.
“This is agent Chomicki of the Secret Service,” he said into the receiver. “To whom am I speaking?”
“Wow! How’d you get him?” a voice on the other end of the line said. It was another agent back at the field office. He said the man had just called, threatening to kill Reagan.
The suspect claimed he was just trying to call a taxi. As he tried to get away, Chomicki dragged him to his car, placed him against the trunk, and handcuffed him. After he was given a psychiatric examination, a judge committed him to a mental institution.
Secret Service agents often deal with what is called WhiteHouse–itis, a malady of arrogance that grips some White House aides. Near the end of Reagan’s term, that affliction almost got one of his aides shot. Agent Glenn Smith was guarding Reagan at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. Smith heard a man shout, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” Smith took out his .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum and placed his finger on the trigger. Just then, a man came bolting through a door with a New York City police officer in hot pursuit.
The man turned out to be a White House staffer who was so full of himself that when a Secret Service agent asked him to identify himself at an inner checkpoint, he refused. When the agent tried to block his way, he pushed the agent away. The police officer then chased after him.
“If I had gotten a clear shot at the man, I would have shot him,” Smith says.
As with all presidents, some people totally lost it when meeting Reagan. One woman in a crowd threw her baby into the air. Agent Glenn Smith had to catch the little girl. An eighty-year-old woman held on to Reagan’s hand so tightly that Smith had to pry it loose. Hoping to get an autograph, a sheriff approached Air Force One at high speed in his cruiser with lights flashing. The sheriff brought his car to a halt just in time.
“In a few more seconds, we would have opened fire on the car,” Smith says.
While in office, Reagan never showed the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, which ultimately led to his death. “We had a hundred twenty agents on his detail, and he seemed to remember everyone’s name,” Smith says.
But in March 1993, a year before he announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, former president Reagan honored Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney at his library and invited him to hisranch. As Mulroney was leaving, the prime minister asked Agent Chomicki, “Do you notice something with the president?”
Chomicki said he did but did not know what the problem was.
“He would just stop midsentence and forget what he was saying,” Chomicki recalls. “Then he would just start a whole new story.”
After Reagan had been out of office for three years, he was to speak at an event in Akron, Ohio. In contrast to the retinue he’d had as president, Reagan traveled with just one staffer and his Secret Service contingent. The agent in charge of the former president’s protective detail came into the command post and said to agent Dowling, “You know, the president’s been sitting in his room alone all morning. And he’d really like for some folks to talk to. Would you guys mind if he came over and sat in the command post and just chatted with you guys for a while?”
“That’d be terrific. Bring him over,” Dowling said.
For two hours, Reagan chatted with the agents, telling stories and jokes.
“He told us he and Mikhail Gorbachev had private conversations,” Dowling says. “They agreed that their talks were not about today and are not about us. They’re about our grandchildren and the life that they’re going to live.”16The Big Show
TO SIGN UP to take a bullet for the president requires extraordinary commitment. Besides the glamour and the travel, “I see being in the Secret Service as a calling for me to serve my country and do good at a higher level,” one agent says.
“Agents do not protect any individual but rather the integrity of the office, so the bullet we may take is for the office—not the person,” another agent says.
The job requires not only protecting the president but safeguarding the lives of other agents.
“When I walked into an event with the president as part of the protective detail, I knew and trusted that everybody would do their job,” former agent Norm Jarvis says. “The formation has shift agents, and each has responsibilities unique to each position. So if everybody takes care of their position, then you don’t have to worry about your back, or who’s looking out over your shoulder. Somebody is. You just have to focus on what your job is at the time. Agents build up an awful lot of trust and appreciation for each other.”
The reverse is true as well.
“If you detect that somebody’s lazy or not thorough or not doingthe job, it means more than just ‘Hey, this guy’s a bum and I’ve got to spend my time with him,’” Jarvis says. “You feel like your life could possibly be in danger. Certainly the president’s life would be in danger. So there’s a lot of us within the detail policing ourselves and using positive and negative sanctions to get people to do the right thing all the time.”
Agents recognize that the job entails long hours and extensive travel. In describing job opportunities, the Secret Service’s website makes a point of that.
“Agents have a certain drive,” a Secret Service agent says. “They’re all kind of wired the same; they all want to see the job get done, and they want to get it done the right way.”
But many say that the agency’s management needlessly makes the job tougher. In particular, the Secret Service’s senseless transfer policies drive agents to quit before retirement, adding to the government’s costs. This comes at a time when, because of threats from terrorists, the need for the Secret Service has never been greater.
Agents cite numerous situations where fellow agents are denied transfers to cities where their spouses work, while others are forced to transfer to those same cities. Often, the agents who want to transfer have offered to pay their own moving costs. Instead, the Secret Service pays fifty thousand to one hundred thousand dollars each to move agents who do not want to be transferred to those cities.
“We sign up to take a bullet, but that’s not the hardest part of the job,” Jessica Johnson, a former Secret Service agent, says. “It’s not anything that we normally face. The risk is there. But what makes the job very difficult is the mismanagement. If the Secret Service were better managed, you’d have a lot better workforce, a lot more people who don’t quit.”
Since 9/11, the private sector has been offering hefty salaries to anyone with a federal law enforcement background. Typically, formerSecret Service agents sign up as vice president for security of a major corporation or start their own security firms. For those who want to remain vested to earn full government pensions, opportunities have expanded as well at other federal law enforcement agencies.
Until 1984, under a previous retirement system, Secret Service agents could not keep their pensions if they transferred to another government agency. Now they can. Agents can retire at any age after twenty-five years with the agency. They can retire at age fifty if they have served twenty years. For both government agencies and private companies, a Secret Service or FBI agent is a prize catch.
The FBI has taken steps to retain agents, while the Secret Service has not. In contrast to the Secret Service, after three years with the bureau, unless he or she chooses to go into management, an FBI agent can stay in the same city for the rest of his or her career. An agent going into management can remain in the same city for five years.
The Secret Service, on the other hand, typically transfers agents three to four times during a twenty-five-year career. An agent who enters management may move five to six times. The rationale is that agents need to acquire experience in different offices. But experience in one office does not translate into another. Decades ago, the FBI had the same policy. The bureau scrapped it because the constant moves were not necessary and resulted in many agents leaving the bureau. In turn, that led to high costs both for moving families and for training new agents to replace those who left.
Not having to transfer as often, FBI agents can better work out living arrangements with spouses. The FBI at least tries to take into account situations where a spouse must work in a particular city, sometimes addressing these as hardship cases.
Essentially, according to agents, the Secret Service moves agents around like checkers on a board without regard to their wishes. Rather than explaining the reasoning behind transfers or other policies thatimpinge on the agents’ personal lives, the Secret Service will typically give the high-handed response that the change is necessary because of the “needs of the service.” The exception is when an agent has “juice,” meaning connections to higher-ups, a situation that contributes to poor morale.
After two years on the Clinton detail based at the Clintons’ home in Chappaqua, New York, Johnson wanted to transfer back to California, where she grew up.
“All of a sudden, they said they can’t transfer anyone out of New York,” she says. “They said they have no one to replace me. At the same time, they’re sending out an email that says anyone, regardless of where you are in your career track, if you would like to go to Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco, raise your hand and you’re there. So I write the little memo and I raise my hand. I jump up and down, and they tell me, ‘Oh, well, we can’t replace you. So you can’t go.’”
At the same time, Johnson says, friends in the Los Angeles office were sending her copies of emails they were receiving from management saying they had to leave Los Angeles to go to protective details.
“A year later when I went to my management, they said, ‘Oh, well, L.A.’s full. How about the New York field office?’” she says.
When the Secret Service finally agreed to transfer her to Los Angeles after three years in New York, “I find out that we were eleven bodies short in L.A. So how did we go from being full to being eleven bodies short in four months?”
In other cases, the Secret Service disregards situations where a spouse has a job in another city. Johnson and others describe one situation where an agent based in Los Angeles began dating a doctor in Hawaii. Eventually, they married, and the agent put in for a transfer to Hawaii, where his wife had an established medical practice.
“We have an office in Hawaii, so it’s easier for him to transfer than it is for her,” Johnson says. “But the management we had in L.A. at thetime had no juice. He was told he couldn’t be transferred to Hawaii. He quit because he said his marriage was more important.”
About a month later, after he moved to Hawaii, he applied to return to the Secret Service. The head of the Hawaii office, who had juice, rehired him.
“Here you’re being told you can’t transfer, and the bottom line was, it was all about who your boss is,” Johnson says.
In another case, agent Dan Klish was issued orders to transfer to Los Angeles. His wife’s career as a radiation oncologist made it difficult for her to find a position there. Finally, she obtained a job near Denver. Klish asked for a transfer to Denver or Cheyenne and offered to pay for the move himself. That would have saved the government about seventy-five thousand dollars in moving costs. The transfer was denied. For more than two years, they lived apart, and the agent flew to Denver once or twice a month to see his wife and young daughter.
During that time, the service asked for volunteers to transfer to Denver. Approximately ten other agents were transferred to Denver, some with less seniority, at a cost to the government of seventy-five to one hundred thousand dollars for each move.
“If the opening isn’t available at that moment, then the service can say, ‘Oh, sorry, that office is overstaffed. Here are your only options,’” Klish says. “Then, sure enough, while you’re still on orders to move somewhere else but haven’t moved yet, an opening in a city that would work for you comes out, and you can’t even put in for it because you’re already on orders to go elsewhere. Later, after you’ve moved, they transfer several others to that city. There is a strong bond among agents, but unless you have the right connections, the Secret Service doesn’t care about the agents.”
After eight years with the Secret Services, Klish finally quit to join another federal agency in Colorado.
Joel Mullen, an agent who was based in Washington, D.C., is married to a navy lawyer. When the navy gave her orders to transfer to San Diego, Mullen asked to transfer to the Secret Service field office there, saying the navy would pay the cost. After initially approving the transfer, headquarters blocked it, even though San Diego had openings. Mullen and his wife had started building a home near San Diego. The Secret Service told Mullen to transfer to the Los Angeles office instead.
“I commuted ninety-six miles one way from my door to the office,” Mullen says. “I did that for fourteen months. Then I left and went with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.”
Besides losing an agent with ten years’ experience, the Secret Service wound up paying out $240,000 for the transfer to cover Mullen’s costs, including the decline in the value of his house in the Washington area.
Nor does the agency have an open process for listing anticipated vacancies and agents’ preferences for transfers. All are kept secret. If an agent has “juice,” he or she is bumped ahead of others.
In contrast, the FBI, which has 12,500 agents, maintains online lists of requested transfers to each field office so that agents can see who is ahead of them. FBI agents say connections play no role in transfers. Because of the open lists, if the FBI did engage in such under-the-table preferential treatment, the agents would know it.
That the Secret Service’s computer program for listing transfer preferences and bidding on promotions is an antiquated DOS-based program symbolizes how much the Secret Service cares about agents’ wishes.
Resignations before retirement have increased substantially in recent years. In all, the Secret Service has 3,404 special agents. More than half their man-hours are devoted to protection of the president and other national leaders, as well as visiting foreign dignitaries.Attrition rates are increasing. As the trend accelerated, the Secret Service declined to provide full yearly figures, but the rate is roughly 5 percent a year. Turnover rates are as high as 12 percent a year in the Uniformed Division, which has 1,288 officers. More alarming, agents who have been in the service ten years say a third to half of the agents who were in their initial training class have left.
“These people who are leaving are very qualified agents who are doing a really good job and are held in high esteem,” an agent says. “That’s what really hurts us.”
The Secret Service asked an analyst then based in Washington to study the problem of retention and the costs associated with agent turnover. She found it was an increasingly serious problem. The incremental cost to the government of training a new agent is eighty thousand dollars for the agent’s salary and the cost of equipment and travel. That excludes the fixed costs of the training facilities and the salaries of instructors.
“The higher-ups basically dismissed her findings, saying, ‘Oh, we don’t have any kind of retention problem,’” says a current agent. “They didn’t want to hear it.”
Johnson, who is now a real estate investor, describes trying to raise the issue during her exit interview.
“The supervisor who was giving me the exit interview was literally saying, ‘Tell me if there are any problems we should know about’ as he was starting to escort me out the door,” Johnson says. “I said, ‘Well, yes, I’m sure you hear this a lot,’ and I began to lay out examples of unnecessary burdens imposed on agents.”
The supervisor became defensive.
“He started going on about how the military does more, and there are civilians who sacrifice more than we do in the service,” she says. “He couldn’t even listen to what I had to say.”
In a rare move, an agent raised the issue at a meeting of Secret Service officials at the agency’s Washington field office.
“You’ve got a bunch of Generation X agents,” he said. “We’re concerned about our families; we’re concerned about our wives and our kids. Something has to change.”
Shortly after that, the agent resigned.
In recent years, agents say a dismissive, insular culture and a disregard for the need to retain agents have remained constant.
“Our leadership is in absolute denial that there’s a problem,” an agent says. “They don’t want to do anything to fix it.”
Agents say the Secret Service promotes those who have a similar mind-set and that agency directors stay for two or three years, then leave without changing the culture. As one example of poor management practices, they cite a statement made by a special agent in charge of the vice president’s protective detail. The supervisor said that no agents on the detail would ever be promoted because of the number of agents who are seeking promotions.
“The best you can hope for is to get to an office you can make the most of, because the next move will probably be your last,” the official told his own agents.
“Needless to say, morale went from low to rock bottom with that,” says an agent who was at the meeting. “Several agents left saying they were done, time to move on.”
Johnson says she accepts that by its very nature, a Secret Service agent’s job is demanding. While she was assigned to protect former president Clinton, he was constantly traveling all over the world. She could hardly ever plan anything in her personal life, because her schedule was his schedule.
What Johnson and others resented was that the Secret Service ignored simple opportunities to lessen the necessary burdens of thejob. For example, the Secret Service lets agents know their schedules for the coming week late Friday afternoon, just before the weekend starts. As a result, agents are prevented from planning social and family events.
On trips, agents are expected to work virtually around the clock. In the past several years, the Secret Service imposed limits on overtime pay, offering compensatory time instead. But the agency often denies agents the opportunity to use compensatory or flextime they have earned in lieu of overtime pay. When flextime is taken, it usually must be taken within a week. If an agent has other duties already scheduled, the agent may be forced to forfeit the flextime. After seven years, an agent based in a major city might make upward of $110,000 a year without overtime.
“When you’re doing foreign advances, you’re working eighteen-and twenty-hour days, seven days a week, yet the schedule says you are working nine to five,” says an agent.
What this means is that the Secret Service pays overtime for weekends worked but not for additional hours during the week. In another twist, the agency, as a matter of practice delays paying out overtime earned for two or three years. In the fall of 2008, supervisors on the president’s protective detail even began refusing to record agents’ overtime pay. When agents began complaining to the financial management division, they were told by supervisors not to make further inquiries.
Paid or not, agents end up working eighteen-hour days.
“How tired do you get? Just imagine sleeping three or four hours a night for a week,” says an agent.
“Pilots have mandatory rest periods,” says a former agent. “But you’ve got a guy standing next to the president with a loaded gun who hasn’t had sleep in three days and has traveled through four different time zones.”
One night, the agent and his wife had an argument.
“You have no right to discipline your children, because you’re not their father,” his wife said to him. “You don’t act like their father; you’re never around.”
She was right, the former agent says.
“I was never around,” he says. “I was missing everything. I was missing Christmas, I was missing Thanksgiving.”
The agent quit.
The agency’s rigidity extends to administrative personnel. An investigative assistant who was a crackerjack at her job of providing agents with the data they needed asked for a schedule change. She wanted to come to work a half hour earlier than her current schedule called for and leave a half hour earlier so she could pick up her child at day care.
The Secret Service refused, so she left for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There, she got the schedule she wanted. She even got to work at home on Fridays.
After being a Secret Service agent for almost ten years, Johnson finally quit. She says the agency is mostly run by agents who are “old-school” and think everyone wants to join the Secret Service at any cost.
“In the old days, the Secret Service was a great gig,” Johnson says. “People lined up to join. They had applications on the shelves for years. People would drop everything at the drop of a hat to get a Secret Service job. It was great pay and offered stability. Well, times have changed, but their mentality hasn’t. People can go out and make a lot more money in the private sector, a lot more money on their own, for much less risk. Management’s attitude is almost as though we should literally be thanking them every day we wake up and have a job.”
The Secret Service has trouble finding qualified applicants to replace those who are driven away.
“Getting a number of applicants is not a problem. Getting qualified applicants is always a problem,” Johnson says. “Because of the [service’s] high standard, a large portion of the population wouldn’t qualify to be an agent. They’ve done various things trying to recruit good people, but the bottom line is that their policies are driving away the good people they already have.”
“They chew their people up,” says a former agent. “They treat agents like the Apache Indians treated their horses: They would take their best horse and ride it and ride it, and when it dies, they finally eat it.”17Timberwolf
THE VICE PRESIDENT’S residence is a handsome 9,150-square-foot three-story mansion overlooking Massachusetts Avenue NW Complete with pool, pool house, and indoor gym, the white brick house was built in 1893 as the home of the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Congress turned it into the official residence of the vice president in 1974 and gave it the address One Observatory Circle.
Vice President Mondale was the first to live at the residence. While Mondale’s predecessor Nelson Rockefeller could have moved there, he chose to remain in his Foxhall Road estate in Washington and use the vice president’s residence for entertaining.
During the day, at least five navy stewards attend to every personal need of the second family, including cooking, shopping for food, cleaning, and doing the laundry. At night, the stewards—known as navy enlisted aides—bake chocolate chip cookies and other goodies for the second family. They also stash leftovers from parties in the refrigerator.
The Secret Service has a separate building—code-namedTower—on the grounds. The vice president’s residence itself is referred to by agents simply as “the res.”
Back when George H. W. Bush was vice president, Agent William Albracht was on the midnight shift at the vice president’s residence. Agents refer to the president’s protective detail as “the big show” and to the vice president’s protective detail as “the little show with free parking,” because unlike the White House, the vice president’s residence provides parking for agents.
New to the post, Albracht was told by Secret Service Agent Pete Dowling, “Well, Bill, every day the stewards bake the cookies, and that is their job, and that is their responsibility. And then our responsibility on midnights is to find those cookies or those left from the previous day and eat as many of them as possible.”
At threeA.M., Albracht, assigned to the basement post, was getting hungry.
“We never had permission to take food from the kitchen, but sometimes you get very hungry on midnights,” Albracht says. “I walked into the kitchen that was located in the basement and opened up the refrigerator. I’m hoping that there are some leftover snacks from that day’s reception,” the former agent says. “It was slim pickin’s. All of a sudden, there’s a voice over my shoulder.”
“Hey, anything good in there to eat?” the man asked.
“No. Looks like they cleaned it out,” Albracht said.
“I turned around to see George Bush off my right shoulder,” Albracht says. “After I get over the shock of who it was, Bush says, ‘Hey I was really hoping there would be something to eat.’ And I said, ‘Well, sir, every day the stewards bake cookies, but every night they hide them from us.’ With a wink of his eye he says, ‘Let’s find ’em.’ So we tore the kitchen apart, and sure enough we did find them. He took a stack of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk and went back upto bed, and I took a stack and a glass of milk and went back to the basement post.”
When Albracht returned to the post, Dowling asked, “Who the hell were you in there talking to?”
“Oh, yeah, sure, right,” Dowling said when Albracht told him.
Bush’s regular vice presidential detail played a prank on an agent who was on temporary assignment, telling him that it was okay to wash his clothes in the vice president’s laundry room.
“He went down and used the vice president’s washing machine and dryer,” former agent Patrick Sullivan recalls. “Mrs. Bush came down and said to the other agents, ‘He’s doing his laundry!’”
A supervisor heard about the incident. Mortified, he told Barbara Bush that it had all been a practical joke.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she said.
In fact, at the Bush home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Barbara Bush once strode to the Secret Service post and asked if agents had any laundry they would like her to do, since she was about to do a load anyway. She was so close to the agents that when Pete Dowling’s wife, Lindy was expecting a baby, the first lady instructed him to call her when the baby arrived, day or night.
As vice president, Bush flew to a fund-raiser in Boise, Idaho, during the 1982 election campaign. He was to have dinner at the Chart House seafood restaurant on North Garden Street on the banks of the Colorado River.
“The way we protected him, we had some agents inside, but typically what we’d do was situate ourselves at dining tables near him,” says former agent Dowling.
Dowling had been seated a few minutes when he heard a radio transmission that two white males in camouflage outfits with long weapons were low-crawling around the back toward their location.They had their weapons in their hands and were crawling on their bellies, moving themselves along with their elbows.
Just then, Dowling looked up and saw the two bad guys. He recalled intelligence reports that Libya had sent a hit squad to the United States to kill American officials. The agent instinctively jumped out of his chair and tackled Bush to protect him. As food flew everywhere, Dowling threw the vice president onto the ground and flopped on top of him.
“What’s going on here?” Bush asked.
“I don’t know, but just keep your head down,” Dowling replied.
Dowling looked up. He saw about a hundred law enforcement officers with their guns drawn—Secret Service agents, sheriff’s department deputies, and state troopers. They were on the scene as part of routine protection for a visit by the vice president. The two bad guys were kneeling with their hands clasped behind their heads.
“We evacuated the VP out of the restaurant to get him away from whatever danger may have still been there,” Dowling says. “You would think I had just thwarted an assassination attempt.”
As it turned out, the restaurant was near an apartment complex where the girlfriend of one of the two men lived.