Take cover! US Secret Service under fire

Get down, Mr President: Agent Channing Tatum in the movie White House Down. © Sony Pictures

Are American presidents as safe as we think? A jaw-dropping new book published yesterday exposes the hidden weaknesses at the heart of the most famous security agency in the world.

Despite the word “secret”, American agents are instantly recognisable.

Dressed in sharp suits, dark sunglasses and earpieces, their job is to scan crowds for potential attackers. If they are protecting a president they must even take a bullet for them if required.

When presidents travel in the famous bulletproof limousine known as “the Beast”, an entire motorcade of Secret Service agents follows behind. Action-packed Hollywood films tell stories of their heroism and bravery.

But a new book has shattered this image of steely professionalism.

Yesterday, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carol Leonnig published her damning verdict on the agency. In Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, she paints a picture of dysfunction stretching back decades.

Writing for The New York Times, Chris Whipple calls the book “a devastating catalogue of jaw-dropping incompetence, ham-fisted mismanagement and frat-boy bacchanalia.”

The book charts some of the most shocking failures in the history of the Secret Service. On November 22nd 1963, the agents protecting President John F Kennedy were apparently so hungover from a gin-fuelled binge the night before that some of them could barely stand up. Little wonder, Leonnig says, that their reflexes were not sharp enough to prevent their commander-in-chief from being assassinated.

There were mistakes on another traumatic day in US history. As hijacked planes were crashing into buildings on 9/11, the Secret Service attempted to get Vice President Dick Cheney to safety. As they arrived at the bunker, Cheney was forced to wait as an agent struggled to find the right keys.

Most shocking of all is what Leonnig writes about the present-day Secret Service. Normally, agents are under strict instructions not to speak to journalists. Some made an exception for Leonnig, she says, because they feared it was only “a matter of time before a president was shot on their watch.”

Leonnig reveals how, overworked and underfunded, agents are being stretched to breaking point. When Donald Trump was president, an intruder climbed over the fence and into the White House grounds. He strolled around for a full 17 minutes before anyone noticed him.

Extraordinarily, this was because the cameras and sensors were all broken. “This is supposed to be the most secure 18 acres in the world, and they just didn't have the money to fix those things,” writes Leonnig.

Are American presidents as safe as we think?

Commander-in-chief

Of course, they are. Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, but no President has been assassinated since 1963. By neatly compiling every single mistake from the last 60 years, Leonnig is unfairly harsh on the Secret Service. We don’t hear about the agency’s success in foiling attacks – often because agents are legally required to keep them secret.

No, they aren’t, say others. Leonnig makes that clear. Her book is an urgent warning that things need to change. And it is not just funding that threatens security. Joe Biden’s team made changes to his Secret Service protection after concerns that some agents were still loyal to Donald Trump. Like the United States itself, agents are politically divided. It is difficult to believe that a Trump-supporting agent would take a bullet for Biden.

You Decide

  1. What qualities are important in a Secret Service agent?
  2. The Secret Service is also responsible for the protection of the First Family, as well as visiting heads of states. Is this too much to expect from them?

Activities

  1. As a class, make a list of the last ten Presidents. Research the most serious threat on their lives they each faced while in office.
  2. In groups, come up with an idea for a film about the Secret Service that will give people a more realistic idea of what they do.

Some People Say...

“That peculiarly American religion, President-worship.”

Gore Vidal (1925 – 2014), American author and essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that US Presidents are highly visible targets and therefore need serious protection. Four American Presidents have been killed in office, and two have survived assassination attempts. In 2011, a 21-year-old man fired at the White House while the president’s daughter Sasha Obama and the First Lady’s mother were inside. Michelle Obama was reportedly furious that it took four days for the Secret Service to inform her of the incident.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around the Secret Service’s involvement in politics. While president, Donald Trump made the highly unusual move of appointing an agent as his Deputy White House Chief of Staff. In this role, the agent organised Trump’s re-election rallies. After Biden’s victory, that agent was moved back into the Secret Service. This has caused some to worry that the agency is more politically motivated than it should be.

Word Watch

Motorcade
A procession of motor vehicles. The US presidential motorcade usually comprises 50 vehicles carrying family members, press and White House officials as well as security.
Secret Service
Unbelievably, Abraham Lincoln established the organisation the same day that he was assassinated.
Pulitzer Prize
American prizes for journalism, literature and music. Every year, 21 winners receive $15,000 each.
Bacchanalia
Ancient Roman festivals inspired by Bacchus, the god of wine-making and festivity. Drinking and dancing were common.
Commander-in-chief
The person with supreme command over the military. In the US, the president is always commander-in-chief of the army and navy.
Assassinated
President Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. To this day, a majority of Americans believe other conspirators were involved.
9/11
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Some experts believe the Capitol Building in Washington DC was the intended fourth target.
Donald Trump
Experts estimate that around 130 Secret Service staff contracted Covid-19 due to the former president’s relaxed attitude to masks and handwashing.
Ronald Reagan
The 40th US President was shot and seriously wounded by John Hinckley Jr in Washington, DC. Hinckley believed the attack would impress the actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed.

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