Authors: Dan Bongino
On the day of the visit, as we transported the president from the landing zone to the plant, I noticed traffic begin to back up quickly on the other side of the road. As the motorcade continued on, the traffic situation worsened significantly. We were all acutely aware that President Bush could see what we all could see, a traffic tie-up for miles, and the president always insisted on minimal disruptions to the citizens of the areas he chose to visit.
I was comfortable enough with the layered security plan to make some changes to allow some of the traffic to filter off the highway and, by the time we arrived at the plant, I was changing our route for the return trip to ensure we avoided the traffic problem on the way back. I had planned for a number of alternate routes and although moving the police personnel and security measures along the route was difficult, within a few minutes I
had the process on the path to completion. The Pennsylvania State Police were frustrated at the changes but security is a complicated game, and after profuse apologies we had an uneventful and traffic-free return trip, sparing the president any bad press and me the voluminous paperwork explaining away why we shut down nearly a quarter of the town’s roads during rush hour.
The transportation section had a wide range of responsibilities in addition to its primary role of providing for secure motorcade routes. Some of my fondest memories on the PPD occurred while assigned to the transportation section but while involved in some of our additional responsibilities.
Unlike some of the other satellite details within the PPD, the agents of the transportation section are consistently working within the bubble surrounding the president. We had regular assignments at the White House, and we traveled on foreign presidential trips to provide logistics support, giving us an inside view to the presidency the public never sees, and some of which it does.
A few months in, I was given an assignment at the White House and was privileged to witness an event few see from the inside but many see from the outside. An Oval Office speech is an event typically reserved for only the most solemn of presidential addresses. It is a tool used sparingly and when it is used the magnificence of the office is meant to magnify and echo the message. Nearly everyone of my generation remembers Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office address after the space shuttle
disaster. His moving speech served to comfort a grieving nation.
In September of 2007, I stood outside the thick white door to the Oval Office and watched as President George W. Bush spoke to the world from the iconic Oval Office desk, constructed of wood from the British exploration ship
, about the War on Terror in Iraq. After working in the White House and for the Secret Service for close to a decade at this point, there were few events that really got my attention emotionally. But standing there, a city kid who grew up above a bar eating Cheerios for dinner, now looking directly at the president of the United States as he addressed hundreds of millions of people about a seminal event in our time, was an especially poignant moment in my life.
The stress of working in the transportation section is magnified during the end of a president’s second term. Presidents often conduct international
“farewell tours” as their time in office comes to an end, and foreign trips are very labor-intensive from a security perspective. Collaboration and planning with foreign security, police, and military personnel is very different from planning a visit with state police or local emergency personnel in the United States. In some foreign countries, the standards and training levels for their personnel and readiness of their equipment are very different from the standards in the US. When conducting a security advance for the president in a foreign country, questions such as “Is this bridge structurally stable?” are not uncommon. It would be senseless to secure a motorcade route if the roads and infrastructure cannot handle the weight of the presidential limo and could potentially collapse when we drive over them. Driving in foreign countries can also be perilous due to the often chaotic, disorganized traffic patterns, something we are not accustomed to in the US.
Although we clear the roadways for the president, a number of events have happened behind the scenes that are less glamorous and create uniquely stressful situations. I vividly recall a January 2008 trip President George W. Bush took to the Middle East where I was relocated at the last minute to provide support in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. I had been in Kuwait transporting President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and General David Petraeus from Kuwait City to Camp Arifjan and immediately upon returning was told by our DC team to quickly fly to Abu Dhabi to provide assistance. They were short manpower and needed to immediately get the armored vehicles relocated to Dubai. Upon landing we sprinted to the vehicles and at maximum speed with a police escort, we drove the highways of the UAE, setting off nearly every speed camera from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. It looked like a red carpet with paparazzi camera flashes, but if those vehicles had failed to arrive in time the mission would have collapsed.
The many complications of foreign advance work were on my mind as I was sent overseas to conduct my first foreign transportation advance for First Lady Laura Bush in Petra, Jordan. My initial impression of the Jordanian security services was that they were experienced at threat assessment and were eager to help provide for a secure visit for the first lady. Their briefings were thorough and professional, and the trip was going to require the standard twelve- to sixteen-hour workdays, which were typical
for a foreign advance, but I was eager to start and just as eager to see an area of the world considered an international treasure, the Lost City of Petra.
The Lost City of Petra was carved into the stone on the sides of deep cliffs in the Jordanian desert, and the detail in the enormous structures is mesmerizing. This remarkable achievement in preindustrial engineering was also made famous as the fictional Canyon of the Crescent Moon in the movie
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Clearance to negotiate our armored vehicles through the Siq, a long pathway cut deep through the cavern, was a point of serious contention for the Jordanians, who preferred that no vehicles be allowed on this hallowed ground. But with the elevated threat level on the visit, I could not allow the first lady to walk such a distance without access to an armored means of evacuation. The threat of a coordinated assault on the motorcade on the razor-thin roads of Petra by regional extremists was very real on this trip.
The Jordanians agreed to provide heavy weapons, loaded on the backs of armored SUVs, as a readily visible deterrent, but these were deemed unacceptable by the White House staff back in the US. Photographs of belt-fed weapons on the first lady’s motorcade don’t make for positive political images in the American media. Given the extraordinary threat levels, I insisted on having enough firepower to counter any potential small arms attack, and after some labored negotiating with the staff, they complied.
It was an unforgettable sight on the day of the visit as Mrs. Bush arrived from Amman via helicopter and we drove her to Petra. Emerging from the long Siq and having the bright desert sun shining down on Al Khazneh (the Treasury) with the long motorcade of sophisticated, armored protection vehicles and hordes of Jordanian and American security representatives was an incredible visual contrast of the old and new world. The negotiating skills I employed on this trip would serve me well on my next foreign transportation advance in an area of the world presenting me with a completely different set of concerns: Paris, France.
President Bush’s trip to Paris in the closing months of his presidency was fraught with difficulty from the start. Most of the motorcade routes that my French security counterparts proposed involved either crossing over or driving down the Champs Élysées, one of the most famous streets in the world and a major, crowded tourist attraction in Paris. In my analysis of the security situation, I felt strongly that we could not provide
adequate security without closing the street to vehicle traffic. The French strongly objected to my approach and were adamant that it could not be done. Compounding the difficulty was the notification I had received that the president wanted to take a bike ride somewhere in Paris. Planning for these bike rides was challenging in the United States but was nearly impossible overseas. President Bush was a skilled cross-country bicyclist, and securing a large enough area for him to ride within the confines of the city of Paris was a challenge. While in Washington, DC, the president typically rode his bike at military facilities that obviously had a high degree of security, a luxury we would not have in Paris.
After a week of negotiations between me, the Secret Service lead advance agent, John, and the French, they acquiesced to our request to close the Champs Élysées, which solved one problem. But the security of the bike ride was still an unresolved issue.
I asked an agent on the advance team named Frank to pick a location for the bike ride and to develop a plan to secure it. He assured me that the route he ultimately selected was secure and we felt comfortable with our plan. During the outing, our confidence quickly turned to panic as the president rode off the specified bike route at his typical fast pace and we had a difficult time keeping visual contact with him from the road. My heart rate accelerated rapidly as I thought to myself,
Please do not lose the president
My fear grew with each second I was “in the blind.” Then I heard the voice of the Secret Service supervisor working the bike ride in my earpiece saying something every agent dreads: “Where is the president?”
Angry and frustrated that they had deviated from the route we had planned, I prepared for a response and was readying to take responsibility for the mishap when the president and the agents riding with him emerged from the wooded area to the left of our vehicles. I calmly responded, “At our twelve o’clock, sir.”
Relieved, but still infuriated that we deviated from our plan, I thanked my French security counterparts who managed to keep pace with the president and privately concluded that I would never place that degree of trust in another agent again. “Trust, but personal follow-up” became my credo, and it would serve me well throughout my career.
FTER YEARS WORKING DILIGENTLY
through the ranks of the Secret Service in order to be selected for the Presidential Protective Division, I found that there is no competitive respite when you arrive there. A very small group of agents is selected for the PPD, and even fewer are selected as lead advance agents for the president, the highest level of operational achievement. One misstep and your chances at being selected as a lead advance agent are finished. Unlike many top-heavy departments within our federal government, the Secret Service has a flat management structure, and it pushes an enormous amount of
responsibility down to its detail agents. Lead advance agents are given the sole responsibility for the overall security plan and are ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety of the president on any visit outside the White House grounds. Managing an entire advance team, monitoring the security budget, and serving as the face of the White House in conjunction with the White House staff is an honor and a privilege, and I was determined to exceed expectations.
I was selected for the lead advance training course after successfully completing a second assignment in the transportation section as the “Whip” (a quasi-supervisory position). The selection list is published on the agency’s e-mail system and is a public acknowledgment of a successful body of work. Attending the lead advance training course is no guarantee of being selected, however, and many agents “die on the vine,” meaning they are trained but never given the chance to actually conduct a lead advance. I was selected for a number of interim assignments after successfully completing the training course, and they all were challenging, but my first assignment enabled me to witness a transformative event in our collective US history firsthand: I was asked to handle the security for the PPD for newly elected president Barack Obama’s walk down the Inaugural parade route.
My involvement in this event transformed the way in which I viewed security for crowded outdoor events. It was a learning experience I was to speak of frequently in media appearances years later, after the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013. President Obama’s election as the forty-fourth president of the United States marked a historic moment and I was proud to be a part of it, despite our legions of political differences.
President-elect Obama’s inauguration was going to require an elaborate security plan and I was honored to play a pivotal role in its implementation. The Secret Service and the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) knew this event was historic and that the crowd size would be unprecedented. The law-enforcement and military assets dedicated to securing this event were incomparable. Law-enforcement officers were transported in from all over the United States, and military personnel from specialized teams were deployed to strategic locations in Washington, DC.
Although the security operation we planned was impressive, I could see the apprehension in the eyes of the PPD management team when I
briefed them in a secure room hidden in a dark corner of the eighteen acres of the White House complex. It was not a look I was used to. Everyone in the room knew that the president was going to exit the safe confines of our tank-like armored presidential limousine and walk the parade route, despite any misgivings we may have had about it, and the concerns were very real. Securing an entire street in Washington, DC, and guaranteeing the same level of security provided on the White House grounds is an enormous security undertaking, and if just one weapon managed to slip into our secure zone, a historic tragedy was virtually guaranteed.