AThe US Secret Service once looked like a bunch of gun-wielding fraternity boys during a taxpayer-funded spring break. In the words of a drunken supervisor addressing his men ahead of a 2012 summit in Cartagena, Colombia: “You don’t know how lucky you are…
Disturbingly, the debacle in Colombia was not one-off, as Carol Leonnig points out. Rather, it was the most glaring episode of a build-up of horrors. Six agents were dismissed, six others sanctioned.
Leonnig knows what she is writing. She won a Pulitzer for her reporting on Secret Service security breaches, including the “Vegas bachelor party” in South America, and was part of the Washington Post team that scored a Pulitzer for. his work on Edward Snowden’s war against the National Security Agency. .
She also worked with Philip Rucker on A Very Stable Genius, one of the best and most informative books about Donald Trump’s time in the White House. Today, she delivers her first solo work, Zero Fail. It paints an alarming portrait of those dedicated to protecting the president and offers a comprehensive overview of an agency that has seen better days.
In 2009, Michaele and Tareq Salahi escaped White House security, attended a state dinner, and met Barack Obama. In 2015, a stunned pair of senior officers crashed an official car in the White House compound.
There are incidents of gunfire at the White House, an intruder entering the building and an agent on Mike Pence’s detail hooking up with a prostitute.
The motto of the secret services? “Worthy of trust and confidence. “
Leonnig says officers took selfies with Donald Trump’s sleeping grandson. Trump asked their supervisor, “These guys weren’t perverts, were they? “
The answer: “They were just idiots. “
Zero Fail convincingly argues that the men and women who guard the president, vice president and their families are overworked. Leonnig also argues that the Secret Service is a victim of mission drift, a buddy system grappling with outdated technology, a culture attached to doing things because that’s the way they’ve always been done.
When a young agent took a fresh look at the situation, he was abandoned. His review is now part of the legend of the house.
Once part of the US Treasury, the Secret Service is now housed within the Department of Homeland Security – a change that ultimately made little difference. Getting swallowed up by a bureaucratic Frankenstein didn’t help morale. The secret service has become another part of the body sewn to a tinkered ministry in the aftermath of September 11.
An increase in the budget was not sustained. Trump’s persistent trips to Mar-a-Lago have left the Secret Service to operate on a shoestring budget.
“Trump put this agency back 10 years,” Leonnig told a former agent who left under Trump. “The general culture and the way of doing things have taken a step back.”
Time has blunted the images of selflessness displayed in Dallas in November 1963 and outside the Capitol Hilton in 1981. Clint Hill threw himself into President Kennedy’s limo. Rufus Youngblood Jr used his body to protect Lyndon Johnson. Tim McCarthy took a bullet intended for Ronald Reagan. Jerry Parr took the president away.
Adverse events are not always played out. As former agent Jonathan Wackrow puts it: “The policies and procedures of the Secret Service are born of blood.
When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, officers fired Dick Cheney from his office, but were delayed in delivering the vice president to a safe location. Chains of command hampered his immediate entry into a designated shelter. That and the lack of a key.
By recounting the heroes, failures and weaknesses of the secret service, Leonnig also opens a window on the families served by the agents. Unsurprisingly, some do better than others. The Clintons and the Carers follow the Bushes and the Reagans.
The agents respected and admired George and Barbara Bush. The feeling was mutual. The Bushes “treated the Secret Service agents who protected them and their large offspring as part of the extended family – not as ‘the helper’.” At Christmas, the Bushes delayed their celebration so that officers could return home with their families. Bush’s former head of details told Leonnig: “This is why people would do anything for the President and Mrs. Bush.
The Clintons stood at the other end of the spectrum. Bill’s priapic adventures were a puzzle and Hillary came to be hated. As for Chelsea, Leonnig says she interrupted a phone conversation with a friend when officers arrived.
“I have to go,” remembers the younger Clinton. “The pigs are here.
Recalled that the agents ‘job was to’ stand between you, your family and a bullet ‘, Chelsea reportedly replied,’ Well that’s what my mom and dad call you. “
The story has spread. Suffice it to say that Hillary’s “rude mouth” did not help her stand by those who protected her. Nor for that matter the personnel and the culture of the secret services, which leaned towards the conservatives and the Republicans. Bill and Hillary were sixties kids. Military service and cookies weren’t for them.
It remains to be seen if and how the Secret Service bounces back. In the aftermath of the January 6 uprising, “a secret service officer described the armed demonstrators as ‘patriots’ seeking to defeat an illegitimate election,” according to Zero Fail. The agent also “falsely told his friends that disguised antifa members had started the violence”, an opinion still shared by the former president’s underlings. Members of the Trump retail have been reassigned.
To rejuvenate the secret service, you have to work. At a minimum, Leonnig’s book will get people talking and thinking.