Intelligence snipers on a rooftop watch President Obama speak on Getty Images at a rally in Concord, NH Brooks Kraft / Corbis
Brooks Kraft / Corbis via Getty Images
Brooks Kraft / Corbis via Getty Images
Every time the President of the United States travels, he is accompanied by a cadre of intelligence agents. Sometimes seen with crisp suits, sunglasses and ear pieces, the agents charged with protecting the president present a striking image.
But Pulitzer Prize winners Carol Leonnig, investigative reporter for the Washington Post, says the Secret Service itself is a mess.
In her new book Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, Leonnig describes the agency’s “chronic, ridiculously grand mission” which includes protecting US political leaders and their families, and visiting heads of state. The Secret Service is also tasked with investigating financial crimes such as counterfeit money.
According to Leonnig, the mission becomes all the more difficult as the Secret Service is understaffed, underfunded, and often operates with outdated technology and inadequate training.
“It’s been so bad in recent years that agents showed up to pick up a cabinet member in their own car because the Secret Service fleet was too expensive to maintain,” says Leonnig.
There were embarrassing mistakes too. An intruder in March 2017 climbed the fence circled the White House and wandered the grounds undetected for 17 minutes. According to Leonnig, the violation highlighted a system-wide bug.
“The sensors, the cameras, the alarms [and] The radios didn’t work, “she says.” These are supposed to be the safest 18 acres in the world and they just didn’t have the money to fix these things. “
Intelligence agents are banned from speaking to the press without permission, but Leonnig says some of their sources broke the rule because they were concerned about errors within the agency.
“They firmly believed that it was a matter of time before a president was shot on their watch,” she says. “They are concerned that the agency is increasingly betting on luck. And it really is a matter of time before someone finds the right rift and gets through.”
About the secret service, which is understaffed and burned out
At the White House complex, which is protected by Secret Service officials, I was told they hadn’t had a day off for months. On average, people had to work at least one of their two days off each week. You can imagine the burnout that this causes. You can also imagine it affecting your hair and triggering reflexes when there is actually an attack. It also affects your workout. You can’t step back from the job to do your marksmanship training and your attack on the main training that is supposed to give you those instant responses when you are basically called to work every day. So it’s a huge impact.
How President Trump’s golf trips cost the Secret Service
Every president who travels takes a small town with him wherever he goes. And, you know, I wrote about President Obama taking a trip to Africa that included a little vacation and a little work. And the estimates for the cost of this trip … were in the tens of millions. So every president will cost a lot of money everywhere. But what was so unusual about Donald Trump was that for the first part of his presidency he chose to travel basically every other weekend wherever he wanted to play golf. And the second part of it was that he traveled frequently to see his own golf clubs. In fact, I don’t know of any time he has traveled to someone else’s club. So this trip only bleeded the Secret Service to death again. … In the spring you made an emergency inquiry for [more money] in 2017, fearing they might not be able to cover the rest of their missions, including protecting the President and his family and protecting the White House. That was how much more money they needed for his golf trips.
To the scandal in 2012, when Obama’s advance team of intelligence agents had sex workers in their room in Cartagena, Colombia
Agents were flown back and unceremoniously packaged for being examined, for taking prostitutes back to their room and doing a presidential trip essentially to a stag weekend in Vegas. And of course it really worried President Obama, but it really worried him too angry congress. And there were these demands that heads should roll. Unfortunately, instead of looking at what this shocking event revealed and trying to fix it – they insisted it was an isolated incident. It was an aberration. Nothing like this has ever happened before. And senators didn’t buy that as a director Mark Sullivan testified that this was a shocking one-time event. They felt like he was burying his head in the sand. In fact, after this series of investigations, the agents told me that this had happened all along. International travel was a benefit for men who had to work non-stop up a stairwell or walk in convention halls for 48 hours. International travel was something people enjoyed, just to blow off some steam and get out of town. There was also a small cadre of intelligence agents who handled road travel with their wheels up, which spoiled mentality.
Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton reportedly wanted time alone at a YMCA without his security detail
The agents, who have been trained in security protocols for months to get this plum duty to protect a presidential candidate who will eventually become president, are kind of surprised and ask more questions. What’s up, boss? Why don’t we go in We’re supposed to protect the guy or the people who see him and the superiors explain, “Look, drop it. He’s here to meet a woman.” They were pretty upset about it, not because it was their job to decide for Bill Clinton, the governor and future president, who to see and how to spend his time. They were upset because what was happening on the other side of that door was their business. It was her job. They had been trained in all of these protocols on how to secure someone and someone told them to let it go. I know a lot of people are going to say this is really violent and why do you need to go into it? But I want you to feel what it is like to be that agent when you are expected to be responsible for someone’s life but not allowed to use the rules and tools to do it. …
A spokesman for former President Clinton has said that this is not true and it is an implausible scenario and we report this in the book.
One of the main criticisms of the Secret Service after the assassination of John F. Kennedy
There were three main criticisms: The first was – and it’s not their fault – that they were stretched way too thin. Which I didn’t realize until I really started looking in the archives, records, and memos [filed] The director felt that a year and a half before the Kennedy assassination attempt, the director of the secret service asked for extra agents and extra staff, more tools to get the job done, because, frankly, John F. Kennedy ran them in rags. He was an energetic, lively, and attractive politician who loved being with people. And he – a bit like Donald Trump in some ways – was traveling like crazy around the country, mostly to shake hands with voters. But the agents were exhausted and literally got up asleep most of the time. One of the arguments, one of the complaints, was that your agency was understaffed. There weren’t enough people to do whatever it took to really secure this route in Dallas, or any of them before.
The second very personal criticism was that a number of agents – no fewer than five who were working on the details in Dallas that morning – drank until 2:00, 3:00 and 5:00 the night before in a private club had to meet women sometimes. … As was said in the very, very painful Warren Commission hearings, if a man got up and drunk by 2:00 or 5:00 a.m., at 12:00 p.m., a man can really have hair trigger reflexes. And that was an amazing hair shirt that the service wore for a long time.
The third major criticism was some kind of basic problem of a misrepresentation in using the term 9/11. The service was warned in internal confidential memos that there were conspiracies, if you will, over the shooting of Kennedy from a tall building. And it wasn’t that hard for assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to find an empty building and shoot Kennedy very, very close to the route and hit him in the neck and ultimately in the head.
On how Kennedy’s assassination followed the secret service
Also, what I think Americans don’t really appreciate is that Kennedy’s assassination was so tragic for the country that it was a blow to the Secret Service like no other. That haunted her. It led to suicides. It led to alcoholism. It has been one of the worst ministry outcomes, for all the obvious reasons, far more difficult on the ministry than the country. And they were absolutely determined never to let it happen again. And the interesting thing for me is that they have been confirmed. I mean, the other shootings that have taken place primarily are in an attempt to strain Ronald Reagan’s life. Using their training and tools, they made split-second decisions that made the difference between the loss of that president and the future of the president’s life. It was life or death – and they won.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.