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 recognisable.

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

When presidents travel in the bulletproof limousine, an entire motorcade of Secret Service agents follows.

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.

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

There were mistakes too on 9/11. The Secret Service attempted to get Vice President Dick Cheney to safety, but as they arrived at the bunker, Cheney was forced to wait as an agent struggled to find the right keys.

Most shocking is what Leonnig writes about present-day Secret Service.

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

This was because the cameras and sensors were broken.

Are American presidents as safe as we think?

Commander-in-chief

Yes. Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, but no President has been assassinated since 1963. By compiling every mistake, Leonnig is harsh on the Secret Service.

No. Leonnig makes that clear. Her book is an urgent warning that things need to change. It is not just funding. Biden’s team made changes to his protection after concerns agents were loyal to Trump.

You Decide

  1. What qualities are important in a Secret Service agent?

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.

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.
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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