In the President’s Secret Service
Behind the scenes with
the men and women who are pledged to protect POTUS at all costs
Until now, no journalist has penetrated the wall of secrecy that surrounds the U.S. Secret Service, that elite corps of agents about which so little is known by the public. But here, for the first time, New York Times best-selling author Ronald Kessler goes behind the veil. Based on exclusive interviews with more than 100 current and former agents, Kessler reveals startling stories about many of our presidents, from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
While we had been gathering research on the Secret Service for years, Kessler says a tip from a current agent in response to a Newsmax article led him to write In the President’s Secret Service, his 18th book, which we excerpt exclusively in these pages.
Voters rarely know what presidents, vice presidents, presidential candidates, and Cabinet officers are really like, up-close. If they did, says a former Secret Service agent, “they would scream.”
In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect (Crown Publishing Group), by Ronald Kessler, is due out on Aug. 4.
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, voters rarely 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.
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.”
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 remind agents that they must not reveal to anyone — let alone the press — what they see behind the scenes.
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.
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 Newman.
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 Charles “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.
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 four P.M. appointment with Kennedy. Johnson — code-named Volunteer — was not ready to leave until three forty-five P.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 the home 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.
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.
Johnson was often inebriated. 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.
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.
Every day, the Secret Service receives an average of ten threats against any of its protectees, usually the president. 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 their attention 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.
“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.’”
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.”
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.
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.
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. 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!”
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.”
“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.”
BESIDES THE PRESIDENT, WHO GETS PROTECTION?
While 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.
“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 same time, 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 — 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.
When he was in the White House, Carter would regularly make a show of going to the Oval Office at five A.M. or six A.M. to call attention to how hard he was working for the American people.
“He would walk into the Oval Office at six A.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.
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.”
The Cowboy and the ‘Clumsy Sonofabitch’
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.
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.”
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 door of 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.”
(story continues below)
THE U.S. SECRET SERVICE 1865-2009
After John W. Hinckley, Jr., attempted to assassinate Reagan on March 30, 1981, the Secret Service began using magnetometers routinely to find hidden weapons. To allow crowds into an event without magnetometer screening became unthinkable. Yet in recent years, under pressure from politicians’ staffs to let crowds into events without screening, the agency has buckled.
Only one such incident has been publicized. The press reported complaints from current or retired law enforcement officials that an hour before a rally for presidential candidate Barack Obama was to start at Reunion Arena in Dallas on February 20, 2008, the Secret Service stopped magnetometer screening.
Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, denied that stopping screening posed a problem.
“There were no security lapses at that venue,” Zahren said. There was “no deviation” from the “comprehensive and layered” plan, implemented in “very close cooperation with our law enforcement partners,” he added.
But agents say such lapses occur periodically and defy common sense. An agent who was on Obama’s presidential candidate detail says it was “not uncommon” to waive magnetometers at events when the crowd was larger than expected. While the overflow might be seated far from the candidate and often behind a buffer zone, “Someone could still fire a gun, make their way to the front, or detonate explosives,” the agent says.
Other agents say magnetometers have also been waived for events attended by President George W. Bush, John Edwards, John Kerry, and others.
It was such a decision to stop magnetometer screening that almost led to the assassination of President George W. Bush on May 10, 2005, when a man threw a grenade at him as he spoke at a rally in a public square in Tbilisi, Georgia. Because magnetometer screening was stopped, the man was able to take a grenade into the event where Bush was to speak. The grenade did not go off.
Shutting down magnetometers as an event is about to start is shocking enough, but when Vice President Biden threw the opening pitch at the first Baltimore Orioles game of the season at Camden Yards on April 6, 2009, the Secret Service had not screened any of the more than forty thousand fans. Moreover, even though Biden’s appearance at the game was announced beforehand, the vice president was not wearing a bulletproof vest as he stood on the pitcher’s mound.
“A gunman or gunmen from anywhere in the stands could have gotten off multiple rounds before we could have gotten in the line of fire,” says a current agent who is outraged that the Secret Service would be so reckless. According to this agent, before the Baltimore event, senior management on Biden’s detail decided “We don’t need magnetometers,” overruling stunned agents on Biden’s detail and the agency’s Baltimore field office.
In addition to being vulnerable to assassination at the Orioles game, Biden sabotages his own security by insisting on having only two vehicles instead of eight in his Secret Service motorcade, especially when visiting Delaware. Nor does he want the usual police escort. “He doesn’t understand protection,” an agent says. “Our bosses have no backbone. Instead of folding, they should explain why protection is needed and insist that he have it.”
Biden’s lack of regard for security was evident when, chatting with journalists at the head table at the 2009 Gridiron Dinner, he revealed the location of a top-secret bunker beneath the vice president’s residence. Biden later tried to claim that he was talking about a study used by his predecessor Dick Cheney at the upper level of the residence. But the Secret Service emailed agents to warn them that Biden had compromised the location of the vice president’s secret underground bunker.
“It was a shock to all of us that the vice president did that,” says an agent. “If we had done that, we would have been prosecuted.”
Referring to the decision to dispense with magnetometer screening, an agent says, “The Secret Service has dismantled the first line of defense against an assassination. They can say it’s okay, but it will not be okay when the president or vice president is killed.”
“We don’t have enough people or the equipment to do protection the way they advertise we do,” a veteran agent says. “And how we have not had an incident up to this point is truly amazing, a miracle.”
Many agents trace cutting corners to the Secret Service’s absorption into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Being submerged in what many view as a dysfunctional agency, and having to compete for funds with other national security agencies, led to a lowering of standards. The fact that the Bush White House itself periodically asked the Secret Service to skip magnetometer screening undoubtedly contributed to an indulgent attitude. Indeed, Michael Chertoff himself, secretary of DHS, contributed to the lowering of standards in a very personal way.
In October 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) within DHS fined James D. Reid $22,880 for allegedly employing illegal immigrants when his Maryland cleaning company worked at Chertoff’s home and at other Washington homes. On the face of it, that did not make sense, since Secret Service agents protecting Chertoff would have been expected to check the background — including citizenship — of anyone allowed in the DHS secretary’s home. Indeed, in response to a December 11, 2008, Washington Post story reporting the violations, a Secret Service spokesman said that agents protecting Chertoff would have “run the appropriate checks, screened, and escorted people as appropriate in order to maintain the security of the residence and our protectee’s security.”
But an agent who was periodically on Chertoff ’s detail says that while the Secret Service initially performed routine screening of workers, the secretary’s wife, Meryl J. Chertoff, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown law school, in recent years “admonished agents for ‘hassling’ the workers.”
Agents in charge bowed to Mrs. Chertoff ’s wishes. As a result, “no name checks [were] done for some time,” the current agent says. When checks were done at times, “It was obvious the workers were providing bogus identifying information to agents, but [the agents], out of fear of Mrs. Chertoff, allowed them through,” the agent says. “The workers also were rarely escorted, as that pissed her off, too.”
“Mrs. Chertoff would belittle the agents for trying to do their jobs by doing the name checks before the workers entered the residence,” another agent confirms.
Asked for comment, William R. Knocke, a DHS spokesman, said, “These are baseless and sensational allegations that I’m not going to dignify with a response.”
Knocke referred to his previous statement to The Washington Post that every contractor has the responsibility of ensuring his workers are legal.
That the Secret Service allowed itself to become complicit in flouting immigration laws and even directed its agents to ignore violations is shocking. But skipping magnetometer screening when the lives of the president, vice president, and presidential candidates are at stake is far more shocking.
Retired agents who served in prior years before the Secret Service began cutting corners after its absorption into DHS say they have never heard of stopping magnetometer screening. When told of the practice, they assert that the Secret Service would never do such a thing.
“You face pressure from political staffs all the time, but you don’t stop magnetometer screening,” says Norm Jarvis, who also taught new agents, was on Bill Clinton’s protective detail, and left the Secret Service in 2005 as a special agent in charge.
“Requests were made by staff to expedite or stop magnetometer screening,” says Danny Spriggs, who headed protection and retired as deputy director of the Secret Service in 2004. “I would never have acquiesced to that.”
Agents say both Barack Obama — code-named Renegade — and Michelle Obama — code-named Renaissance — treat them with respect.
“Twice Obama invited agents to dinner, including a party for a relative, both at his home,” says an agent who was on his candidate detail. Michelle Obama insists that agents call her by her first name. “Michelle is friendly — she touches you,” an agent says.
On April 4, 2008, just before Obama’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., spoke at the National Press Club, Obama secretly met with Wright at Wright’s home. So that they would not be noticed, agents made a point of driving Obama in a minivan instead of the usual Suburban. They parked their other vehicles a block away. Obama spent an hour with Wright and then left.
No doubt Obama wanted Wright to fade into the woodwork, but in his press club speech, Wright only confirmed that he thought America created the AIDS virus to kill off blacks. After that, Obama severed ties with him.
Contrary to Obama’s repeated claims that he is quitting smoking, he has continued to smoke regularly, agents say.
Most Americans have no idea what is behind protecting a president, the first family, the vice president, and presidential candidates. They may see agents at an event or a shopping mall outside a store — dressed in suits, wearing the telltale clear spiral wire that wraps around their ear and disappears somewhere down their shirt collar. And then they think of the news story they read that morning, that the president or a presidential candidate is in town, and they realize who they are.
If the agents seem a little distracted from the hustle of the street, marching to a different drummer, it is because they are tuning into a sort of different dimension, one of heightened awareness. They are looking for anything out of the ordinary in the passersby — a man in a strange hat who nervously looks into the store. Anything odd, like beads of sweat on a forehead when the day is chilly.
It is a good day when the agents can epitomize the poet John Milton’s line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Most days aren’t like that. Most days entail risk and demands and meticulous planning — sabotaged by the Secret Service’s practice of dangerously cutting corners. Agents who are concerned that the Secret Service is on the brink of a disaster say that only a director appointed from the outside can make the wholesale changes that are needed in the agency’s management and culture.
Without those changes, an assassination of Barack Obama or a future president is likely. If that happens, a new Warren Commission will be appointed to study the tragedy. It will find that the Service was shockingly derelict in its duty to the American people and to its own elite corps of brave and dedicated agents.