Authors: Dan Bongino
When the sun rose and I began to realize the severity of my situation, I called Mike and told him what was happening. He immediately called our Miami field office, which had jurisdiction over the South American region, and asked them for help. Mike also sent Tom to pick me up and take me to a local medical facility that was woefully incompatible with American standards of medicine. Working with the Miami field office, Mike arranged for a flight and had Miami agents meet me in the airport to ensure I made it to my connecting flight home. My condition worsened on the plane and by the time I arrived home I had lost nearly fifteen pounds of fluids. Paula picked me up from the airport and cared for me. I did not return to work for three weeks, and it would be another month after that before I was back to my normal physical state.
Although the infectious disease specialist I was seeing to deal with the fallout from contracting dengue fever advised me to not return to work, after three weeks I began to grow restless. The specialist also warned me that dengue fever can be contracted again post-infection, and that the second time it could be lethal. She told me that dengue hemorrhagic fever, where severe internal bleeding results, is possible with a secondary infection and that I should avoid traveling back to South America.
Ignoring the specialist, I called PPD operations and Mike and told them to add me back into the operational shift. At this point, Jenna had
left Panama and was headed to Argentina, the detail in tow, and I felt that I would be letting the team down if I chose to stay stateside on sick leave. We were a small detail, and the loss of any one agent just meant that everyone else had to pick up the slack. On PPD, we never let illness decrease our security footprint. If someone was sick, then someone else on the detail had to fill in, doubling his work hours. I decided that regardless of my weak condition I had to get back to work. I returned to a vigorous workout schedule to physically prepare myself and committed to returning to full strength before leaving for Argentina.
Argentina presented the same set of circumstances as Panama regarding food, water, and living arrangements, and it was going to be another prolonged visit. One major difference between the two countries was that Argentina would present some major security challenges compared to the relatively uneventful visit to Panama. We had been in a relatively controlled environment in Panama due to the security already in place in the area where we stayed with Jenna. (The presence of a United Nations office within our Panamanian complex came with some welcome additional security.) We had no such luxury in Argentina. The apartment Jenna chose was located off a public street and in an area of Buenos Aires that had an ongoing crime problem, and we would have to adjust accordingly.
The crime problem became evident within a few days when a Miami agent on a temporary assignment to assist us reported over the radio that a man was beating his girlfriend in front of Jenna’s apartment and had pulled a knife. These occurrences were not uncommon on the block where the apartment was located, but they decreased dramatically in frequency as the locals figured out who we were and why we were there. The street-crime situation in other areas of Argentina, however, was about to become an embarrassment to the Secret Service when Jenna’s sister, Barbara, decided to visit and
became the story.
Despite the enhanced security due to both of the president’s daughters being in the country, while having coffee at an outdoor café on her first day in Buenos Aires, Barbara’s purse was stolen, ostensibly off the back of her chair. I was working with Jenna, not Barbara, on the day this occurred, but I was not far from the scene and neither I nor any of the other agents recalled seeing anything unusual. Our security operation is focused strictly on proctectees, not their property, and when Barbara
reported that she was missing her purse we speculated that she may have walked away from it and while our attention was on her rather than her bag, someone grabbed it.
Regardless of what really happened, the result was a media disaster that reflected poorly on the Secret Service. Management struggled with the media to explain the incident, which left me extremely frustrated. Our mission was clear, and it did not involve looking after property, only people. I had followed Jenna across the United States on the road trip, to Panama and back, and now to Argentina, and we ensured she was secure and the trips went without incident. This incident devalued that success and all of the sacrifice and hard work that went into it. I learned that when it involves public figures and politicians, quiet successes are irrelevant while perceived public failures, no matter how insignificant, are defining. The incident was further compounded when another Miami field office agent assisting us in country, despite multiple warnings not to venture out alone while off duty, did so and was assaulted, robbed, and left in the street. Combined with the stolen purse story, the media narrative was brutal. Morale within the detail was damaged, but we gave our hearts and souls to the mission and we were not going to allow it to be diminished by anyone.
The adventures with Jenna Bush continued as we traveled through South America and beyond. The first daughter was scheduled for a short trip to Kingston, Jamaica, where we were to meet with ABC’s Diane Sawyer to film a profile on Jenna and discuss her upcoming book. During filming, Diane and Jenna wanted to do a shot where they were walking in an alleyway in inner Kingston. We had to secure the area while they talked and the camera crew filmed. It was not long before the area became crowded with locals, both curious and dangerous.
At that time, Kingston was the homicide capital of the world, and we were not about to contribute to that notorious statistic. Still, the security situation deteriorated quickly. Some of the locals clearly had weapons, and we were quickly being surrounded at the end of the alley with only one exit. We made the quick decision to immediately end the interview and, with weapons drawn, hurried Jenna and Diane to an armored SUV we had waiting for us.
Amazingly, the ABC camera crew appeared entirely unmoved by
what had just occurred. One of the cameramen I spoke to about the incident later that night explained to me that he was in Somalia in the days immediately prior to the
incident and learned to just keep filming no matter what. I was impressed by his resolve. When the footage aired as part of an ABC
series months later, the tension among the agents and fear of failing in our mission to keep our protectee safe was obvious.
As my time on Jenna’s detail came to a close, I was asked to think about which assignment I wanted next. As part of the PPD career track, the next phase would be one of three separate “satellites,” as they were called within the detail. My choices were the first lady’s protection detail, the transportation section, or the countersurveillance team. While each assignment had its advantages and disadvantages, it was widely known that the transportation section had the broadest set of responsibilities and required logistics capabilities that would be valuable in any future Secret Service assignment. I was hesitant at first to request the assignment and initially considered the first lady’s detail, but after the purse snatching episode, dengue fever, and the near-death experience in Kingston, I felt it was time to move on to the next phase. I joined the transportation section, eager to start fresh.
HE TRANSPORTATION SECTION
was a significant change in operational tempo from Jenna’s detail. Our accumulating successes went largely unnoticed but our failures became perpetual fodder, largely for agents of the more glamorous first lady’s detail. For this reason the transportation section tended to attract the type A personalities who preferred a high-risk/no-reward work environment. It was common knowledge that despite the incredible amount of work designing safe and efficient motorcade routes, we were rarely thanked for getting the president from point A to point B. Additionally, driving the president’s
limousine is one of the most stressful assignments in the detail. The media commonly referred to the limo as “the Beast,” although the agents of the transportation section never use this ridiculous term and can distinguish media representatives “in the know” from those looking to appear as if they are, simply by whether or not they use that term.
While navigating an unwieldy armored limousine, the agent driving must be ready at any moment to take one of the alternate motorcade routes and know all the relocation points and safe zones, all while attempting to avoid rear-ending the car in front of him and subsequently having to answer questions from the detail supervisor and the president. Although frequently an error-free exercise, hiccups are not uncommon, and with the White House press corps always in tow, they are always on tape for the world to see. Some of the more famous footage, immortalized on YouTube, includes one of our presidential limos stalling on a street in Italy filled with enormous crowds, and one of the limos striking a security gate that failed to lower in Ireland and subsequently stranding the entire motorcade behind it.
Despite thousands of uneventful motorcades due to the preparation and dedication of the men and women of the transportation section, these very public failures have become cautionary tales for new agents. Secret Service headquarters fears public embarrassment even if the actual security ramifications are minimal, and with a minimal public relations machine (unlike the FBI, who have greater manpower and therefore greater ability to handle public relations), they frequently make an example of agents whom they deem responsible for high-profile failures. This would come to haunt any agent associated with the devastating Colombian prostitution scandal of 2012.
With the consequences of failure always weighing heavily on my mind, I dedicated myself entirely to learning the detailed nuances of conducting transportation advances for the president. As with everything else on the PPD, the transportation section brought their agents along slowly and gave the newer agents the easier assignments first. They also ensured that a more experienced agent from the section guided the newer agents through the elaborate planning process.
My first advance was what we called an “in-town.” This was the term used to describe a motorcade strictly within the borders of Washington, DC, and although the planning was intense, the trips were easier
logistically and were typically the first assignments for newer agents. In-towns were typically conducted with both Secret Service personnel and law-enforcement agencies who were intimately familiar with the operational requirements of the PPD and could handle the task without much coaching. Although my first trip was an in-town, it was a long trip to Walter Reed Hospital. The route to the hospital was just within the parameters for driving rather than taking the presidential helicopter, Marine One, and was going to require enormous numbers of police personnel to ensure a safe and secure route.
In preparation, I drove the planned motorcade route tirelessly, familiarizing myself with every nook and crevice on the road and in the surrounding areas. After spending days in the planning phase preparing for contingencies, I was anxious for “game day,” a term Secret Service agents use to describe the day of the presidential visit. I immediately sensed a problem when I walked out of the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room and didn’t recognize the police officer assigned to drive the lead police vehicle. My concerns were confirmed when only a few minutes into the twenty-minute trip, he picked up a paper copy of the route from the console, jammed it against the steering wheel, and begin to feverishly flip through the pages. I immediately recognized that he did not know the route and I told him to put the paperwork down and that I would guide him. The feeling of profound relief when we arrived at Walter Reed was unforgettable, and I was quietly thankful that I had driven the route often enough to navigate it practically blindfolded. During the advance I was assisted by Tim, my coworker and friend from the training center, who had arrived in the transportation section a few weeks before I did and was still calling me “Big City.” Tim was a fast learner and had cautioned me not to rely on anyone else to know the motorcade route, which obviously paid dividends on this particular trip.
After successfully planning and implementing the Walter Reed Hospital in-town visit, I was given my first out-of-town assignment to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The logistics of the trip would be made easier given the short distance from the Washington metropolitan area. Visits in proximity to the Washington, DC, area, such as this one, enabled us to drive to the locations using Secret Service vehicles and eliminated the hassle of flying and renting vehicles.
We left Washington and arrived in Lancaster just a few hours later, checked into the hotel, and prepared to work. The first step in any visit outside of Washington is the police meeting, a gathering of all the police agencies and emergency personnel in the area, where all the agents (including the transportation agent) provide detailed briefings on what exactly we do and what we need from them. This was the first police meeting where I was going to be presenting material and, while sitting in the room waiting for the meeting to begin, I recalled my first police meeting while assigned to the Melville office. Scott from the Hillary Clinton detail had presented a polished and professional brief that garnered him instant respect from the police officials, and the memory of it weighed heavily on me. I rehearsed my presentation quietly to ensure smooth recollection of the material, and when it was my turn I took the floor confidently.
After the meeting concluded, I met privately with select supervisory police personnel and the Secret Service lead advance and asked that they consider relaying to PPD operations that we use Marine One to fly rather than drive to the first Lancaster site on the schedule. I felt that a Marine One helicopter lift would ensure a minimal disruption of traffic patterns and allow President Bush to land right across the street from the plant we were visiting. My concerns were taken into account but I was told that due to logistics concerns we were going to have to use the armored vehicles to drive from the airport to the Lancaster site.