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Secret Service Training Contrasts With Scandal

By    |   Monday, 23 April 2012 03:49 PM EDT

Ronald Kessler reporting from Washington, D.C. — The Secret Service scandal in Colombia raises the question of whether the agency is another Animal House.

The answer is no. As noted in my story Secret Service Failings Place President in Jeopardy, Secret Service management has been dangerously cutting corners. But Secret Service agents are dedicated men and women who will take a bullet for the president. Hiring prostitutes and throwing wild parties is an aberration.

Then President George W. Bush observes as  bomb-sniffing dogs are put through the paces at the James J. Rowley Training Center.
(Getty Images)
One example of those admirable agents is Paula Reid, the special agent in charge of the Miami field office who immediately took action to investigate agents involved in seeing prostitutes in Cartagena, resulting in their withdrawal from Colombia.

Reid is one of the agency’s highest-ranking African-Americans.

When Reid previously headed the Secret Service’s Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division, she told me for my book “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect,” “If a call comes here, if you get a piece of correspondence, any form of communication, even a veiled threat, we run everything to the ground until we are certain that we either have to discontinue the investigation or we have to keep monitoring a subject for a prolonged period of time.”

That sort of thoroughness is reflected in Secret Service training as well. It’s not about whether to take a bullet for the president. It’s about how to protect to make sure that never happens.

“What we are trained to do as shift agents [who are in close proximity to the president] is to cover and evacuate if there is an attack and get him out of the danger area to a safer location,” an agent told me for the book.

“If an agent is shot during the evacuation, then that is something that is expected,” the agent says. “We rely on our layers of security to handle the attacker, while the inside shift’s main function is to get the heck out of Dodge [with the president].”

The key to protecting the president is the James J. Rowley Training Center in Laurel, Md. The training facility is nestled between a wildlife refuge and a soil conservation area. The forest muffles the gunfire, the squealing wheels, and the explosions that are the sounds of training Secret Service agents and Uniformed Division officers, who guard the White House and its grounds.

Here, new agents receive a total of 16 weeks of training, combined with another 12½ weeks at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at Glynco, Ga. To apply to be a Secret Service agent, an individual must be a U.S. citizen. At the time of appointment, he or she must be at least 21 years of age but younger than 37.

Agents must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university or three years of work experience in the criminal investigative or law enforcement fields. Besides passing a background exam, potential agents must take drug tests and pass a polygraph before they are hired and given a top-secret security clearance.

Even though the training center is in Laurel, agents refer to it as “Beltsville,” which is actually the town next door. Most of the training center’s roads have names appropriate to the task at hand — Firearms Road, Range Road, Action Road, and Perimeter Road. Nothing called Ambush Road, but, as visitors discover, there is always an ambush in the works.

At what the Secret Service calls Hogan’s Alley — not to be confused with the FBI’s Hogan’s Alley at its Quantico, Va. training academy — a body was lying in the middle of the road when my wife Pam, a former Washington Post reporter, and I visited when writing the book.

Except for a real two-story house and soft drink machine, the block-long village is like a Hollywood set, with the façades of a hardware store, hotel, restaurant, bar, and bank, and real cars parked in front. Suddenly the body comes to life, gets up, and walks away, signaling the end of the scenario.

Instructors play the roles of hostage, baddies, and bodies. Members of the Uniformed Division sat in a small grandstand watching down the street as four UD officers in BDUs — battle-dress uniforms — cleared the buildings and sorted out how to take down the bad guys.

Many of the field practical exercises begin at the “airport,” where air traffic is always grounded. Permanently stuck on the tarmac is Air Force One-Half, a mockup of the front half of the presidential plane, including the presidential seal and gangway. Next to it in similar unflyable condition is Marine One-Half, the center’s version of the president’s Marine One helicopter.

At the protective operations driving course, the regular students get about 24 hours of training in driving techniques. If they are assigned to drive in a detail, they receive an additional 40 hours of training.

The giant parking lot is like the driver obstacle course from TV commercials or reality shows. Here they use Chargers — high-powered, high-energy vehicles — to speed out of the kill zone. As a countermeasure, they learn to do the J-turn, making a perfect 180 degree turn at high speed by going into reverse, jerking the wheel to right or left, and shifting into drive.

Trainees learn to negotiate serpentine driving courses, weaving around road objects and crashing through barriers, roadblocks, and other cars. When backing up their vehicle, agents are trained not to turn around to look out the rear window but to use their side view mirrors.

At several indoor and outdoor firing ranges, trainees and Secret Service agents doing periodic requalification shoot handguns, shotguns, and automatic weapons. Out of view, from behind bulletproof glass, a voice issues commands over a PA. “Hot reload all the remaining slug rounds from the stock and one from your pocket . . . Shooter will continue one line of rifle slug in four seconds . . .” A barrage of bullets flies from six stations.

As they are riddled with bullets, the targets spun in place.

“Everything we teach out here, we hope we never have to do,” Bobbie McDonald, assistant to the special agent in charge of training, explained to me. The “whole goal is for both of you to get out of there without a scratch.”

Yet Agent Timothy McCarthy took a bullet for the president when John Hinckley Jr. shot President Reagan on March 31, 1981. McCarthy hurled himself in front of Reagan at the Washington Hilton and took a bullet in the right chest. It passed through his right lung and lacerated his liver.

“People always say to me, 'hey, would you really take a bullet for the president?'” says Pete Dowling, who was the assistant special agent in charge of the President’s Protective Detail and later headed the Washington field office.

“I say, 'what do you think, I’m stupid?' But what we’ll do is we’ll do everything in our power to keep the bullet out of the event,” Dowling says. “And that’s what the Secret Service is all about. It’s about being prepared, it’s about meticulous advance preparation, and it’s about training properly so that when you do your job you don’t have to bumble around for the steps that you take.”

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of He is the New York Times bestselling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Read more reports from Ronald Kessler — Click Here Now.

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Monday, 23 April 2012 03:49 PM
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