The Secret Service conjures up images of Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire.” You think of clean cut, unsmiling men with conservative suits, earpieces and hidden weapons that flank the president wherever he goes. These are men and women who, as we’ve seen, will take a bullet for the people they protect. See Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt as an agent moves toward the gunman, making himself a figurative meat shield. That’s guts. That’s brave. That might even be crazy.
Created in 1865 by Abraham Lincoln to combat the deluge of counterfeit money, the Secret Service was given the mission of protecting presidents nearly 35 years later. (Interestingly, Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865, the same day he signed into law the piece of legislation that created the Secret Service.)
But even these government guardians sometimes fall short, and we are all reminded that behind the idolatry and PR, they are merely human. The Uniformed Division’s motto is “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.” Not always.
1. Pedestrians Beware
In November 2009, two Secret Service armored vehicles hit a pedestrian, Larry Donnall Moore, in Temple Hills, Md. The vehicles were used to protect Vice President Joe Biden, but he was not traveling in the convoy at the time of the accident. The victim sustained multiple critical injuries and died after being taken to the hospital.
2. Limo Limbo
In May 2011, while visiting Dublin, Ireland, President Obama’s limousine got stuck on a steep driveway while exiting the U.S. Embassy. Secret Service agents hid the car from public view while they freed the car’s tires. The car was not the infamous “Beast,” but a spare limo. Still, we think terrorists around the world just found the vehicle’s Achilles’ heel.
3. They Might Shoot the President
As detailed in his book “The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence,” Gerald Blaine, a former Secret Service agent, was assigned to watch President Johnson’s house in Washington, D.C.
But this was no ordinary night. It was November 22, 1963, the night of Kennedy’s assassination. Blaine heard someone walking toward the house and cocked his submachine gun to scare off the intruder.
“He'd expected the footsteps to retreat with the loud sound of the gun activating, but they kept coming closer. Blaine's heart pounded, his finger firmly on the trigger. Let me see your face, you bastard. The next instant, there was a face to go with the footsteps."
"The new President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had just rounded the corner, and Blaine had the gun pointed directly at the man's chest. In the blackness of the night, Johnson's face went completely white."
"Blaine regained his composure as the reality of what had just happened washed over him. Fourteen hours after losing a president, the nation had come chillingly close to losing another one.”
4. The Ultimate Party Crasher
It sounds more like a blockbuster comedy, but in November 2009, Tareq and Michaele Salahi crashed the White House state dinner, and even shook hands with President Obama in a reception line. The Secret Service didn’t even know they’d been had until Michaele posted photos of herself at the event on her Facebook page. An internal investigation revealed that Secret Service agents didn’t follow protocol at a security checkpoint. Duh. More embarrassingly, a third party crasher was later discovered: party promoter Carlos Allen.
In its defense, the Secret Service processed more than 1.2 million visitors to the White House complex in 2008. Said Mark Sullivan, Secret Service Director, “Even with [those] successes, we need to be right 100 percent of the time.”
Amazingly, in May 2010, the Salahis tried to crash another White House dinner, this time in honor of Mexico’s president. Thankfully, the Secret Service stopped Salahi’s limo a few blocks from the White House.
5. Men Are Men
Perhaps the true reason Secret Service agents wear sunglasses is to hide the ogling they do to protectees. David Chaney, a Secret Service supervisor, wrote in 2009 on his Facebook page about his time protecting Sarah Palin in 2008, “I was really checking her out, if you know what I mean.” Chaney was forced to resign amid the uproar. Said Palin about President Obama, “He better be wary. They may be checking out the First Lady instead of guarding her.”
As everyone knows by now, 11 Secret Service staff members were sent home from Cartagena, Colombia after one of the agents stiffed a local prostitute for her services the previous night. The scandal broke the day before President Obama was to arrive for the Summit of the Americas. Ronald Kessler, author of “In the President’s Service,” argues that the president is particularly unsafe now, because replacement agents who were hurried in to replace the Cartagena 11 haven’t had time to acclimate to their new environment. (Scott Spiegel)
7. They Might Undermine Security
In February 2002, a Secret Service agent accidentally left the security plans for Vice President Dick Cheney at a Salt Lake City skateboard store. Cheney was scheduled to visit during the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. Supposedly, the plans were not classified, but did contain information about 17 agents as part of Cheney’s detail, including the “sweep time” (when agents were to secure the stadium hours before his arrival.)
As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, when store owner Clayton Greenhalgh called to report the mistake, “a Secret Service representative promised that an agent would pick up the log. After 45 minutes, no one had arrived, so he offered to take it to the agency’s downtown office.”
In an ironic turn of events, the store owner said the Secret Service reprimanded him for telling the Salt Lake Tribune about the missing documents (ABC News).
8. They Might Sleep with Your Daughter
In 1997, Secret Service agent Timothy O’Brien was convicted of having sex with a 16-year-old girl, possession of meth, and resisting arrest. O’Brien had been assigned to former President Reagan’s home in Bel-Air. Testimony indicated O’Brien would sleep with the girl night after night and then give her meth to help keep her awake during school the next day. When the girl’s father confronted O’Brien, the agent drew his service weapon and threatened to shoot him. O’Brien was arrested, but only after a brawl with two officers. O’Brien was subsequently fired and sentenced to six years in prison (U.S. News and World Report).
O’Brien’s defense attorney Jim Blatt said the girl "wrote passionate love notes, desired sexual relations and enjoyed them. To prosecute this man when he finally gives in to this temptation, I think perhaps it may be considered unfair." (Los Angeles Times)
9. They Might Bite Your Ear Off
Wait, is this Mike Tyson or the Secret Service?
In February 2002, Secret Service agents were protecting Vice President Cheney during his visit to Miramar. After their shift, a few agents went to the Daley Double Lounge, a bar in Encinitas. A brawl broke out between the agents and local patrons and somewhere in the melee, one of Cheney’s agents bit off the tip of Zachary Elson’s ear. Interestingly, in a civil suit filed by Elson, a jury sided with the Secret Service agent, who claimed Elson was tugging at his gun during the struggle (KGTV).
10. They Might Lose Their Guns
In October 1999, Secret Service agent Mary Drury, part of then-First-Lady Hilary Clinton’s protective detail, had her purse stolen while she drank at the Fairmont Hotel bar in Chicago. Drury was off duty at the time, but violated a strict no-drinking policy while carrying a weapon. The purse held Drury’s .357 Sig Sauer and was the second time Drury had lost her gun. With the help of the Chicago police, the gun was recovered and the thief got a 40-month prison term (U.S. News and World Report)
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11. Assassinations Happen
Kennedy is obviously the most famously assassinated U.S. President. In an eerily familiar report, William Manchester, in his 1967 book, “Death of the President,” reports that nine agents of the White House Secret Service detail were out after midnight on November 22, starting with beer and cocktails. One agent was out until 5 a.m. Fellow drinkers whose alertness was vital to his safety were to ride in the President’s follow-up car (Reason.com).
What’s scarier is the list of presidents who came terribly close to being assassinated. These aren’t thwarted plots or attempts while the president was out of town;these are near misses, a hair’s breadth from changing history: Harry S. Truman, by two Puerto Rican activists trying to force their way in Blair House; Gerald Ford, once by Manson follower Lynette Fromme, who pulled a Colt pistol, and a second time only 17 days later by Sara Jane Moore, who fired a revolver at Ford from only 40 feet away; Ronald Reagan, shot by John Hinckley, Jr., in a vain attempt to impress Jodi Foster; and George W. Bush, during a speech in Tbilisi, Georgia by a live Soviet-made hand grenade that didn’t detonate only because a handkerchief was wrapped too tightly around it to allow the firing pin to deploy.
Close calls. Secret Service blunders.