Secret Service Is Putting the President at Risk

Monday, 10 Aug 2009 10:00 AM

By Ronald Kessler

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The nation has not endured a presidential assassination since John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas in 1963. That is largely because of the dedication of Secret Service agents. But since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) took over the Secret Service in 2003, the agency has been cutting corners to the point where the lives of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and other protectees are endangered.

That is the opinion of a number of current Secret Service agents who have told me for my book, “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents,” that it is a miracle an assassination has not taken place. But you do not have to be a Secret Service agent to recognize that the agency has been taking foolhardy risks.

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    After the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life on March 30, 1981, the U.S. Secret Service learned to use metal-detecting magnetometers to screen those who have access to the president. But in recent years, when pressured by staffs of presidential candidates like Barack Obama or by the White House, agents have shut down magnetometers at major events when stragglers are still arriving and a speech is about to begin.

    Only one such incident was publicized. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that an hour before a rally for then-presidential candidate Obama was to start at Reunion Arena in Dallas on Feb. 20, 2008, the Secret Service stopped magnetometer screening.

    As if shutting down magnetometers at an event is about to start is not shocking enough, 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 skipped any magnetometer screening of the more than 40,000 fans. Moreover, even though Biden’s scheduled attendance at the game was announced beforehand, the vice president was not wearing a bullet-proof vest under his navy sport shirt 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.

    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 own Baltimore field office.

    Ironically, when I interviewed Nicholas Trotta, who heads the Secret Service’s Office of Protective Operations, for my book — the first book about the Secret Service the agency has cooperated on — he cited the use of magnetometers as a key to protecting presidents.

    “Now,” he said, “Everyone goes through the magnetometer.” Indeed, the Secret Service official said, often just seeing a magnetometer in use may deter an assassin. But when I mentioned that the Secret Service shuts down magnetometers under pressure, Trotta contradicted himself and changed his tune.

    “When we have a crowd of 70,000 people, we may or may not need to put all those people through magnetometers,” Trotta said. “Because some of those people in certain areas might not have a line-of-sight threat that can harm the protectee.”

    What if an assassination occurred because someone was not screened? Trotta looked uncomfortable. Still, he plowed on ahead, saying it may be safe to forgo screening of crowds sitting further away from the president.

    Has Trotta never heard of a gunman leaving his seat to zip off a shot or throw a grenade at the president? In fact, it was a decision to stop magnetometer screening that almost led to the assassination of President 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 local security services shut down magnetometer screening, the man was able to take a grenade into the event where Bush was to speak.

    Failing to screen everyone who attends an event where the president or vice president is speaking makes as much sense as letting passengers board an airplane without passing them through metal detectors. When told of Trotta’s rationale for stopping magnetometer screening, Secret Service agents cannot believe he said what he did indeed say.

    “I was in absolute shock regarding his comment about the mags closing down and potential attackers being too far away to cause any problems,” says an agent on one of the two major protective details. Imagine, the agent says, if three or four suicide assassins came in, with guns blazing. “I cannot believe the head of our protective operations actually said that,” he says. “Yeah, let’s drop those magnetometers. Thank God you have it on record, because he would be one of the first people to be called to testify before a congressional committee if such an incident happened.”

    Since the book came out, law enforcement sources admitted to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the Secret Service did not screen crowds at the Orioles game and defended the decision by saying Biden’s presence had not been announced beforehand. But as I pointed out in a CNN interview with Blitzer, a simple Google search turns up dozens of stories that reported the day before the game that Biden would be throwing the first pitch. Nexis lists more than 50 such stories.

    Agents trace the corner-cutting to the Secret Service’s absorption into DHS. Being submerged in what many view as a dysfunctional agency and having to compete for funds with a range of 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.

    Michael Chertoff, when secretary of DHS, contributed to that laxness in a very personal way. Because of objections by his wife, the Secret Service stopped performing checks on workers cleaning the Chertoffs’ home, even though agents knew that many of the workers were illegal immigrants, according to agents. Ironically, 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.

    When 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.”

    Retired agents who served before the Secret Service began cutting corners 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.

    “The [political] staff sometimes would propose stopping the magnetometers when an event was about to start,” says former agent William Albracht, who retired in 2001 and was an instructor at the Secret Service’s training facility in Laurel, Md. “I don’t know of any agent that has ever done that. That’s just not what we do. It doesn’t matter to us how your person looks in the media or to the crowds. It’s not really our concern. Our concern is that person’s safety.”

    “You face pressure from political staffs all the time, but you don’t stop magnetometer screening,” says Norm Jarvis, who taught new agents, was on Bill Clinton’s protective detail, and left the Secret Service in 2005 as a special agent in charge. “Sometimes things happen and the flow rate is a little slow. But nobody in the Secret Service would allow the staff to impair security and jeopardize the life of the president by stopping magnetometer screening.”

    “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.”

    Shutting down magnetometers is just one example of how the Secret Service has been cutting corners. In some cases, its weapons are outmoded and leave agents open to being outgunned by well-armed assassins. Contrary to announced policy, agents on major protective details are not allotted time for physical training or firearms requalification. Instead, agents are asked to cover up the lack of training by filling out their own physical training test forms for themselves. Counterassault teams, which are trained as units of five to six members, have been slashed to two agents, rendering them virtually impotent in the face of an attack.

    While Secret Service agents are often heroic, the agency uses subterfuge to make them seem more so. When members of Congress and other VIPs visit the Secret Service training facility in Laurel, Md., the agency presents scenarios where agents respond to a threat. While the demonstration is billed as spontaneous, it is secretly rehearsed.

    Asked about this, Ed Donovan, a Secret Service spokesman, did not respond.

    When one considers how important preventing an assassination is to our democracy, the amount spent on the Secret Service — $1.4 billion a year, nearly two-thirds of it for protection — seems like a misprint. Indeed, while the agency’s budget increased substantially after 9/11, since then its budget has actually decreased when inflation is taken into account.

    That does not include supplemental appropriations to cover incremental costs for coverage of campaign events and so-called national security events such as presidential nominating conventions.

    This penny-pinching approach comes at a time when well-funded terrorists have replaced the lone deranged gunman as the greatest threat to American elected officials and when threats against the president are up 400 percent as compared with when Bush was president. Yet rather than ask for substantially more funds from Congress, the Secret Service assures members that the agency is fulfilling its job with the modest increases it requests, even as it takes on more duties, and sleep-deprived agents work almost around the clock.

    Neither the DHS inspector general nor Congress has penetrated the agency’s invincible veneer to uncover the shortcomings.

    Since an assassination jeopardizes democracy itself, few agencies are as important as the Secret Service. 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 a real possibility. If that happens, a new Warren Commission will be appointed to study the tragedy. It will find that the Secret Service was shockingly derelict in its duty to the American people and to its own elite corps of brave and dedicated agents.

    Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
    e-mail. Go here now.

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